Written by Michelle Croak
"But Springsteen's biggest concert risk was playing unrecorded material; most recording artists had long since ceased performing anything but recorded material..." -Dave Marsh, from Two Hearts, The Definitive Biography of Bruce Springsteen.
Bruce has so many quality songs that, throughout his career, he's left some of his best material off of his "official" albums, a fact I discovered when I stumbled upon a Bruce blog that brought up a song that I had never heard before. After more investigation, I found out it was a song that, even though it was written in the early 1970s, didn't appear on an album until the compilation of unreleased material Tracks. After listening to it on repeat for hours, "Thundercrack" established itself as one of my favorite Bruce songs. It's not alone. My personal list of Bruce's deepest songs includes three that didn't make the cut for his major albums: "American Skin (41 Shots)," "Land of Hope and Dreams," and "Thundercrack."
"American Skin" is one of Bruce's most politically charged songs. In concert or on my iTunes, it's always been one of my favorites. Based upon the tragic death of Amadou Diallo, who was killed in a New York City doorway when police shot him 41 times after mistaking his wallet for a gun, this song has a powerful message of just how dangerous everyday life can be: "Is it a gun, is it a knife, is it a wallet, this is your life. It ain't no secret (it ain't no secret). No secret my friend. You can get killed just for living in your American Skin."
When Bruce started performing the song in concert, some members of the New York Police Department protested by turning their backs on him. In response, Bruce commented that "Though the song was critical, it was not 'anti-police' as some thought," continuing that the song addressed issues he had sung about for a long time: "Here is what systemic racial injustice, fear and paranoia do to our children, our loved ones, ourselves. Here is the price in blood."
In light of the recent events involving Trayvon Martin, the song is unfortunately as real as it was when Bruce wrote it. It's about what happens when we give power to the wrong people, and how that can end in tragic mistakes. This is what happens when paranoia about people unlike us leads us to see the world as "us vs. them," and we lose track of our logical senses.
Although it was never released on a studio album until Wrecking Ball, "Land of Hope and Dreams" has long been one of my favorites. Much more of a hopeful, gospel flavored song, "Land" is the last song that the late Clarence Clemons ever recorded on. I am a huge sucker for songs with church chorus groups in the background, and this song is one I turn to in many different circumstances: after I got stuck in the rain, got a bad grade on a paper I stayed up until 3 am writing, or got in a fight with my best friend over something stupid: "Leave behind your sorrows. Let this day be the last. Tomorrow, there'll be sunshine and all this darkness past ... Meet me in the land of hope and dreams."
No blog post about Bruce would be complete without a party song and that brings us back to "Thundercrack." Every time I hear it, it makes me want to dance (which, to be fair, isn't very hard to do). The powerful sax in the back (Old Clarence at his best) and the call-and-response chorus just screams classic Bruce.
To me, that's what Bruce is all about. Every one of the Bruce concerts I've seen -- even the one where I had strep throat and could barely stand -- has been one of the best times of my life. Even though he sings about deep topics -- death, betrayal and race relations, you can't help but dance, sing and lose your voice. To me, that's the best way to deal with tough ideas and choices. Because if you can't dance while it's raining, when can you?
Michelle Croak is an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who has not yet decided on a major. A social media fanatic and sports enthusiast, she has been a "Bruce fan since birth."