Bruce Springsteen currently sits amid the figurative Mount Rushmore of American songwriters, but that hasn’t always been the case. When his debut record, Greetings from Asbury Park N.J., was released in 1973, it initially flopped. While other musicians may have faltered following this disappointment, Springsteen soared, and it was his love of music that kept him buoyant.
We all need our heroes, and Springsteen has been more transparent about his inspirations than most. He follows in a long-celebrated line of American blue-collar rockers and has always acknowledged the heroes that shepherded him into place. As he once said himself: “The best music is essentially there to provide you something to face the world with.”
Now, of course, he is a hero to others. As up-and-coming star Sam Fender decreed: “My favourite writers are always great storytellers, like Bruce Springsteen; I adore Bruce Springsteen. I feel like he doesn’t beat around the bush, and he doesn’t overcomplicate things. He puts things into layman’s terms and tells stories that anyone can understand.”
Below we’re looking at five of the stars that he has eulogised most over the years, as he speaks about how these heroes have influenced him.
Bruce Springsteen’s five musical heroes:
Chuck Berry is a musical hero to so many that a silhouette of his unique duck walk guitar playing is an icon etched directly into the centre of the tapestry of rock ‘n’ roll. Somewhere further along the line would sit Bruce Springsteen’s sleeveless image. The two stars are firmly part of the same American rock ‘n’ roll tradition; thus, it is no surprise that Springsteen idolises his forebearer.
Springsteen and his E Street Band even played with Berry back when ‘The Boss’ was just making his way in music, and he recalls it well: “About five minutes before the show was timed to start, the back door opens and he comes up and he’s got a guitar case and that was it,” Springsteen told Rolling Stone. “He just pulled up in his own car and didn’t have anybody with him, or a band. We said, ‘What songs are we going to do?’ He goes, ‘We’re going to do some Chuck Berry songs.’”
Years later, in 1995 they would rekindle their on-stage relationship for a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame tribute performance for the star, however, chaos ensued. “Somehow, a minute or two [in], he shifts the song in gears and a key without talking to us,” E Street Band guitarist Nils Lofgren told Ultimate Classic Rock. “We are making these horrible sounds, collectively, in front of a stadium, sold out…At the height of it, when no one has any idea how to fix this, Chuck looks at us all and starts duckwalking off the stage, away from us. He leaves the stage, leaves us all out there playing in six different keys with no band leader, gets in the car and drives away. I don’t think we have ever participated in something that godawful musically since we were probably 13 or 14.”
However, this comical moment didn’t stop Springsteen’s love of the star. When the beloved Berry passed away in 2017, he wrote: “Chuck Berry was rock’s greatest practitioner, guitarist, and the greatest pure rock ‘n’ roll writer who ever lived. This is a tremendous loss of a giant for the ages.”
There is always one band that comes along and catches you at just the right time with a wallop that changes the way you see things. For an entire generation in the sixties, that band was The Beatles, and they have continued their reign of benevolent wallops to this day.
Bruce Springsteen was yet another youngster caught up in their barnstorm of culture-changing brilliance, back in the early sixties, when their Promethean brand of pop music seemed to be grabbing the world by the lapels at every possible occasion.
One fellow that it shook it up was a 15-year-old Springsteen, who can even recall when he heard them for the very first time. “I saw Elvis on TV and when I first saw Elvis, I was 9 but I was a little young, tried to play the guitar but it didn’t work out, I put it away,” Springsteen recalled to Rolling Stone Magazine. “The keeper was in 1964, ‘I Wanna Hold Your Hand’ on South Street with my mother driving.
“I immediately demanded that she let me out, I ran to the bowling alley, ran down a long neon-lit aisle, down the alley into the bowling alley. Ran to the phone booth, got in the phone booth and immediately called my girl and asked ‘Have you heard this band called The Beatles?’ After that, it was nothing but rock ‘n’ roll and guitars.” Hearing them for the first time was a moment, he profoundly adds, that “just changed the course of my life.”
There is an undeniable kinship between America’s two favourite blue-collar troubadours, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen. When Dylan first heard his New Jersey counterpart he joked, “He better be careful, or he might go through every word in the English language.” In that respect, they both share a rather verbose likeness and since that early comparison, their paths have often crossed.
Speaking on the American talk show, The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, Springsteen talked about the impacts that the early comparison had on his career. He told the host, “I became self-conscious about the Dylan comparison, so I moved away from [that style of songwriting] quickly.”
This was a stylistic choice that ‘The Boss’ still laments to some degree, “Looking back I kind of had my own Dylan-Esque style. And I kind of wish I had never moved away from it so quickly.”
Elsewhere Springsteen has even championed ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ as one of his favourite songs of all time, with Springsteen describing it as a “history and culture changing piece of music”. Also adding that is simply a “fantastic Rock and Roll song.”
If Springsteen is synonymous with anything then it is his native New Jersey. His home state is a centrepiece to his art as he exhibits the old Alfred Hitchcock storytelling mantra of ‘if it happens anywhere, it matters not’. Part of the reason he is firmly geographically placed as a songwriter is due to inspirations like Walter Cichon.
Growing up, local heroes are essential because they prove that the dream can be attained. For Bruce, Cichon was the illuminating light, as he shared on the liner notes for High Hopes: “[Cichon was] one of the great early Jersey Shore rockers.”
Later adding that his band, The Motifs, were “a head above everybody else. Raw, sexy and rebellious, they were the heroes you aspired to be. But these were heroes you could touch, speak to, and go to with your musical inquiries. Cool, but always accessible, they were an inspiration to me, and many young working musicians in 1960s central New Jersey. . .[Cichon] was the first person I ever stood in the presence of who was filled with the mystique of the true rock star.”
Sadly, Cichon was called up for the Vietnam war and went missing in action in March 1968 before he got a chance to bring The Motifs to wider acclaim. However, that didn’t stop them stirring up an influential music scene in their wake and showing Springsteen and his E Street band the possibilities of music.
When Bruce Springsteen was gearing up for the recording of Born to Run, he began the curious habit of listening to Roy Orbison’s Greatest Hits every single night. He laid out the rationale behind his obsessive routine when he eventually inducted his hero into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; explaining: “Some rock ‘n’ roll reinforces friendship and community.”
Adding: “But for me, Roy’s ballads were always best when you were alone and in the dark. Roy scrapped the idea that you needed verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-verse-chorus to have a hit. His arrangements were complex and operatic, they had rhythm and movement and they addressed the underside of pop romance. They were scary. His voice was unearthly.”
Springsteen would even go on to play a cherished handful of shows with Orbison and has immortalised his name in a number of his own songs. As Springsteen once said: “What made Roy’s music great is that it was so mainstream, but it had a very strange underbelly to it.” That is a trait that the genre-straddling ‘Boss’ has tried to emulate in his own darkly imbued work.