Bruce Springsteen was born into the music industry with an unstoppable adoration and appreciation for those who came before him. The singer was never afraid to share his influences or pay homage to the great American songbook as he and the E-Street Band made their way up the charts and into the annals of music history. It makes sense then that throughout his esteemed career, Springsteen has chosen to talk about his favourite artists and perform their songs as well.
If there was one thing we can thank 2020 for, it is our renewed interest in the art of ‘the cover song’. Once again, it has become a fashionable thing to do as artists and bands, stuck inside with nowhere to create or perform, have turned their attention to the past to perform some of their most trusted tunes. Always ahead of the curve, Springsteen has never really shied away from doing a cover or two and has gone on to perfect the art of paying tribute to the original while adding his own spin.
There are lots of artists that we could have included in our list, but there was one name that came up time and time again during our research — that of Bob Dylan. Before Springsteen became The Boss, before he’d even won employee of the month, Springsteen was a huge Bob Dylan fan. Springsteen once recalled, when inducting Dylan into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1988, that the first time he heard a Bob Dylan album (Highway 61 Revisited, in 1965), Dylan’s performance “thrilled and scared me.”
The singer continued: “It made me feel kind of irresponsibly innocent. And it still does. But it reached down and touched what little worldliness I think a 15-year-old kid, in high school, in New Jersey had in him at the time.” Later in the speech, Springsteen even calls him “the brother I never had,” a fitting tribute to a man who had shaped his entire career. As such, we could pull together an entire list of Bob Dylan covers from The Boss but that wouldn’t be as fun.
Instead, we scoured to find more covers provided by the hardest working man in rock. That means we have not only a few tributes to Dylan but also other great artists such as The Clash, Johnny Cash, Bob Marley and many more. The real thing of beauty is how purposefully Springsteen approaches each song. He approaches authentic intent and adoration, meaning that the songs always have the original pulse to reawakening them and a kick start of Springsteen’s electricity to get them up off the gurney. The fact that in many of the performances listed below, he had the help of the original artists shows just how well-regarded The Boss truly is.
Below, we’ve got our ten favourite Bruce Springsteen covers of all time.
Bruce Springsteen’s 10 best covers:
‘Give My Love to Rose’ – Johnny Cash
Bruce Springsteen and Johnny Cash are intrinsically linked with the love of music, The Boss fitting into the mould that The Man In Black forged for the next generation of songwriters makes this connection one of the strongest we’ve seen.
Springsteen admired Cash because he made him believe that he could do it too and this iconic cover of ‘Give My Love To Rose’ is a remarkable moment for the singer, working alongside a hero.
Springsteen’s cover was part of an all-star evening in tribute to Cash in 1999 live from the Hammerstein Ballroom in New York that was broadcast on TNT. The evening also welcomed a surprise appearance from a severely weakened Cash who was incredibly unwell at the time. The move came as such as shock that the audience wasn’t expecting him to be involved with proceedings—but it provided a lovely moment and the final time Cash ever performed at a major venue.
‘It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue’ – Bob Dylan
A pre-E Street band Bruce Springsteen is a rare thing to hear in itself but this audio from 1972 is a trip back in time to see The Boss at the very start of his journey to the top.
It was captured at a bar in Richmond in ’72 and sees Springsteen’s first homage to the great man, Bob Dylan. It also sees Springsteen delivering the song with an almost casual nonchalance that belies his adoration for the material at hand.
With a seemingly empty bar to play to, Springsteen rallies himself for a haunting and splintered rendition of Dylan’s 1965 classic. The sparse 11-minute number shows how vitally important Springsteen believed Dylan to be. The crowd rouse themselves to join in with the appreciation and it makes for one of the more curious covers because of it.
‘Clampdown’ – The Clash
Springsteen, who has long ties with The Clash and the late frontman Joe Strummer, put his own spin on song ‘Clampdown’ back in 2014 as part of his High Hopes tour. The song is a Clash fan favourite and taken from the iconic record London Calling. It’s the mark of Springsteen’s admiration for the band.
The feeling of admiration between Springsteen and Strummer was mutual and, in an interview with Mojo prior to his death, The Clash frontman said: “Bruce is great. If you don’t agree, you’re a pretentious Martian from Venus. His music is great on a dark, rainy morning in England, just when you need some spirit and some proof that the big wide world exists.”
Likewise, Springsteen said: “The Clash were a major influence on my own music. They were the best rock ‘n’ roll band. Thanks, Joe.” He says thank you in the best way possible with this potent cover.
‘The Times They Are A-Changin” – Bob Dylan
When Bruce Springsteen was invited to perform at the John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts to pay tribute Dylan who was receiving Kennedy Centre Honours, there was only one song he had in mind—the archetypal protest song ‘The Times They Are A-Changin”.
While the song may act as a unifying moment whenever it’s heard, Springsteen’s solo performance of the track feels all the more poignant. His introduction to the track where Springsteen describes Dylan as standing in the fire of the civil rights explosion to capture the sound of the moment is all the proof you need of his adoration.
Springsteen would also be an outspoken political voice, something we imagine Dylan helped him to personally achieve.
‘Down by the River’ – Neil Young
Two of the rock world’s brightest stars rarely share the stage together for long, and the same can be said for Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen who have only connected in front of a crowd on a few occasions.
That said, every time they have joined forces, the duo deliver a plethora of reasons as to why we want to see more of them. Their joint rendition of Young’s classic track ‘Down By The River’ is one of the best.
The Boss is often covering songs by his heroes, but Springsteen has only ever performed this song alongside its creator, which suggests that he holds the highest respect for the track and Neil Young. The first time The Boss performed it with Young was exceptional, however.
‘Tumbling Dice’ – The Rolling Stones
Joining The Rolling Stones on stage is an accolade that few stars can claim. The Boss, however, felt perhaps more at home than any other artist when he joined Mick Jagger and co. for a performance of their fan-favourites ‘Tumbling Dice’.
Springsteen had performed alongside Jagger before, as part of the 1988 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony but this time was different. With a huge crowd in front of him, all there to see the Stones, Springsteen got to live out his fantasy. “I had a fantasy of Mick Jagger getting sick before his show at Asbury Park Convention Hall and the Stones needing me, of course, to get up there and take over, which of course I would do, pimply-faced kid,” Springsteen said to The Sun in 2016.
“And all of the crowd, of course, goes insane and they’re not so anxious to have Mick back. So I was dreaming about that when I was 15. All I wanted initially was just to play rhythm guitar in a nice little local band and have the thrill of being on stage in front of people and knowing a few chords and a few songs,” he added.
‘One Love’ – Bob Marley
It’s happened to us all. No matter how hard we try, the infectious of reggae music is a hard thing to avoid. Even the most ardent aggressor against the laid back jams has found their toes tapping every so often. Bruce Springsteen, it would seem, is also a big fan.
In 1987, while performing with reggae artist Jah Love, The Boss would delight his fans with a cover of two Bob Marley and The Wailers tracks ‘One Love’ and ‘People Get Ready’. While the latter is still a stone-cold classic, it was The Boss’ rendition of the classic ‘One Love’ that has really stood the test of time.
Considering it is over 30-years-old, the cover still feels as fresh as ever.
‘Better Man’ – Eddie Vedder
Two of the biggest names in American songwriting have joined forces on a few occasions but there’s no better showing of the admiration Bruce Springsteen and Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder have for one another than on their touching duet of ‘Better Man’.
The duo shared the stage as part of Springsteen’s 2004 Vote For Change tour in aid of Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry. The track is also of significant emotional importance to Vedder and it was written while he was a teenager in angst at his stepfather who his mother remarried following his father’s death. At some shows, Vedder has been known to dedicate it to “the bastard who married my mother”.
‘Better Man’, in a bizarre way, also represented the American political landscape of in 2004 and their relationship with George W. Bush when there was a “better man” for them to find. It’s one of the more crystalline moments from what was a crazy time in American politics. Thank God that’s over…
‘Dream Baby, Dream’ – Suicide
Perhaps one of the more surprising contributions on this list is Springsteen’s cover of the 1979 Suicide classic ‘Dream Baby, Dream’. The song is a subversive pop ditty that has littered the inner reaches of indie dancefloors for years but nobody could have expected Springsteen to have jumped on such a song.
The truth is, Springsteen has never sectioned himself off from the rest of the music industry. Though he had his roots in heartland rock, he still appreciated the efforts of the different genres and styles that surrounded him, meaning, when he was approached to record ‘Dream Baby, Dream’ as part of Alan Vega’s 70th birthday celebrations, he couldn’t get behind the mic quick enough.
It remains one of Springsteen’s finest covers to date as his soaring vocal adds a golden texture never before heard in Suicide songs.
‘Purple Rain’ – Prince
Arguably one of the greatest songs ever written, Bruce Springsteen paid tribute to Prince in 2016, just two days after his unexpected and tragic death, by performing the classic ‘Purple Rain’ to his adoring audience.
A lot of people have tried to cover Prince their time and most fail spectacularly. That’s because Prince is such a unique and talented voice that it is hard to replicate his style. Perhaps knowing this impossibility, Springsteen instead turns the song into his own version of the track, a real homage to the artist who created it.
Springsteen, speaking in 2016 to Rolling Stone said of the singer’s passing: “It was a terrible shame. It was a great loss and a tragedy. I felt a great kinship with Prince. And he was a guy, when I’d go to see him, I’d say, ‘Oh, man, OK, back to the drawing board.’ There was a film of him on the Arsenio Hall show, where he plays a series of songs in a row. It’s just some of the greatest showmanship I’ve ever seen. And he knew everything. He knew all about it, and then could put it to work.”