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How Sam Cooke inspired a misunderstood Bruce Springsteen song


Bruce Springsteen is one artist who has always been acutely aware of his place on the pop music pyramid. An icon in his own right, few people, discredit the star in favour of the past more keenly than The Boss himself. Despite his own meteoric rise, Springsteen has always paid attention to the stars who have come before him, often citing Bob Dylan, The Beatles and countless others as inspirational figures in his songwriting.

Many of his songs pay tribute to Dylan’s narrative storytelling; his choruses, bold and bruising as they could be, can also be linked back to the Fab Four’s massive impact on the young Springsteen. Later in his career, Springsteen would look back even more intently and find influence and intrigue in the music of times gone by. One artist that Springsteen took direct inspiration from was Sam Cooke.

Springsteen once listed the soul and R&B vocalist as one of the greatest singers of all time, only pipped to the punch by Ray Charles as the best. But it wasn’t just Cooke’s vocals that inspired Springsteen from time to time but his songwriting too. One song took a leaf straight from Cooke’s lyrics. ‘Mary’s Place’ was inspired by Cooke, and it has since become one of Springsteen’s misunderstood masterpieces.

Thanks to its place on Bruce Springsteen’s 2002 album The Rising, a notably fun and frivolous record, the song ‘Mary’s Place’ has often been thought of as a party anthem. After all, the song does lift lyrics “meet me at Mary’s place” directly from Cooke’s posthumously released single of the same name. But whereas Cooke’s tune is potent and groove-filled, ready to begin the slow march o house party madness, there’s a hidden truth to Springsteen’s number.

When you have a chorus like “We’re gonna have a party,” you’d be forgiven for perhaps misplacing the intent of the song. However, dig a little deeper, and its true meaning comes to the fore. Many aficionados have suggested that the Mary in Springsteen’s track is actually a reference to Jesus’ mother and that her “place” is the afterlife itself.

Plenty of Springsteen’s lyrics in the song point towards this theory being correct. His heart is “dark” but “rising” he also notes that he hears a voice “from that black hole on the horizon,” which calls him to a party full of “familiar faces”, all of which act as common tropes for death.

Of course, there are plenty of references to what would seem like usual house party fare, “your favourite record’s on the turntable”, etc., but, in our opinion, this just points to something more poignant. For Springsteen, heaven really is a house party with all your favourite people, good tunes on the table, and an endless night of fun to be had.