- 15 Mar 23
24 years ago today, Bruce Springsteen was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame by Bono. Six years later, the American music icon would return the favour, by inducting U2. To mark the occasion, we're revisiting Colm O'Hare's reflections on Springsteen and his connections to Irish music – originally published in Hot Press in 2003...
“Now I hear she’s got a house out in Fairview, and a style she’s trying to maintain.”
It’s probably fair to assume that Bruce Springsteen wasn’t referring to the north Dublin suburb of the same name when he sang the above line on ‘Darkness On The Edge of Town’. Nor was he likely to have been musing on the habituès of a certain public house off Grafton Street when he sang about “the last of the Duke Street Kings,” on ‘Backstreets’ from Born To Run (though, strange as it may seem, Stockton’s Wing took their name from a line in the same song!). But there have been enough important connections between The Boss and more than one Irish musician over the years to warrant some investigation.
There is little doubt for example that the young Springsteen was hugely inspired by Van Morrison, while Bruce was himself an influence on acts like Thin Lizzy, The Boomtown Rats and to a lesser extent U2 (though the non-musical links with U2 and Bono in particular, have grown steadily over the years). More recently, Bruce is said to have made the short trip to the legendary Stone Pony in Asbury Park to catch our very own Frames in action – unfortunately he got the date wrong and missed them!
But let’s go back to the beginning when a 16-year old Springsteen strapped on a guitar in his very first band, The Castilles. Initially employed as a guitar player, he was eventually permitted to take the mic for two songs. According to Dave Marsh in his Springsteen biography, Born To Run, the young Boss chose to sing Them’s ‘Mystic Eyes’ (penned, of course by Van Morrison) and The Who’s ‘My Generation’. There are also early bootlegs of him covering ‘Brown Eyed Girl’.
The Van Morrison influence would re-resurface in a different guise in the early ’70s. In fact, it’s clear that The E Street Band and its precursor, the short-lived Bruce Springsteen Band, were modelled on Morrison’s Band & Street Choir and Caledonian Soul Orchestra concepts. Delores “Dee” Homes, one time backing-singer with The Bruce Springsteen Band, recently told the Bruce fanzine Backstreets that when she first joined the band, “Bruce put on a Van Morrison record to give us an idea of what he was looking for.” The inclusion of piano, organ, brass and strings along with the usual rock rhythm section was highly unusual at the time and must have appealed to the wide-eyed Springsteen searching for that musical connection between the street and the studio.
Bruce still pays homage to Morrison – he performed Them’s ‘Gloria’ at a show in Stockholm, and at a fund-raiser for a local school in Rumson, New Jersey he led the band through a covers set that included a version of Van’s 1970 hit ‘Domino’. (Sadly, the Boss And The Man have never collaborated or duetted in any way. In fact, Morrison, true to form, once accused Springsteen of ripping him off!).
If Morrison’s influence on Springsteen is broad, the Boss’s specific influence on Thin Lizzy is clear-cut. In his book The Heart Of Rock And Soul, Dave Marsh (again!) describes ‘The Boys Are Back In Town’ as “the best non-Springsteen Springsteen song ever!” It’s indeed hard to believe that the sprawling, street narrative of Lynott’s most enduring number wasn’t inspired in part by Bruce’s classic, ‘Born To Run’ which came out a year earlier.
There are striking similarities between the two records; both have that same killer opening guitar riff, a soaring melody and an anthemic, fist-punching chorus. The lyrics of both songs are grounded in the poetry of the street, albeit with a different emphasis: ‘Born...’ is about desperation and last-chance escape while ‘The Boys...’ celebrates triumphant return and conquer.
But there’s another more intriguing Springsteenesque twist to the song’s background. According to Mark Putterford’s book, Philip Lynott: The Rocker, ‘The Boys Are Back In Town ‘was actually based on a riff from another earlier Springsteen song, ‘Kitty’s Back’ (from The Wild, The Innocent and the E-Street Shuffle). Sure enough, if you listen to the song closely you can hear an obvious lyrical and melodic similarity with ‘The Boys...’ especially on the part where Springsteen repeats the line: “Kitty’s back in town/Kitty’s back in town.”
One more question: Could Lynott have returned the favour twice over? His song, ‘Dancing In The Moonlight’ may or may not have prompted Bruce’s later smash hit ‘Dancing In The Dark’ – they tell almost exactly the same story! And could Lynott’s homage to Dublin, ‘Old Town’ possibly have inspired The Boss’s similar ‘My Hometown’?
The Boomtown Rats were another Irish outfit with a clear Springsteen influence; ‘Joey’s On The Street Again’ from their debut album is pure ‘Jungleland’-era street opera, while the Springsteen influence on their biggest hit, ‘Rat Trap’ is undeniable – from the opening sax solo to the lyrical imagery: “meat factory gangs” and “Five Lamp boys”. (Geldof and Springsteen eventually came together during the recording of the US Band Aid effort, ‘We Are The World’ and they finally got the chance to duet on stage in Paris in 1986, on a version of ‘Barefootin’, an R&B standard that used to be a live Rats favourite.)
The U2 connection with Bruce and the E Streeters is even stronger and goes back at least 20 years when they were both signed to the same booking agency in the US. But rather than a musical link, it’s more one of mutual admiration and respect, born out of shared political ideals.
Both U2 and Bruce have been high-profile supporters of Amnesty International; Little Steven (Springsteen’s long time guitarist) invited Bono to sing on his anti-apartheid song, ‘Sun City’ in 1985; and Springsteen and U2 have performed on various tribute albums, including the Woody Guthrie tribute A Vision Shared and the September 11th benefit America: A Tribute To Heroes. And the relationship between Dublin’s finest and the E Street Band has often manifested itself in unexpected ways. When Larry Mullen Jnr. developed problems with his fingers in late 1986 he sought advice from E Street drummer Max Weinberg who had suffered similar problems.
Springsteen and U2 have also performed together on rare occasions – on the Joshua Tree tour in September 1987 in Philadelphia Bruce joined Bono and the band for a version of Ben E King’s ‘Stand By Me’. Two years earlier at their Croke Park headliner in the summer of 1985 U2 performed a version of Springsteen’s ‘My Hometown’, which Bono dedicated to Dublin City.
On March 15, 1999 Bruce Springsteen was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; at a lavish dinner in New York’s’ Waldorf Astoria it was Bono who was invited to make the induction speech. He recalled hearing Bruce for the first time in Dublin in the late ‘70s.
“I knew what he was talking about,” he said. “Here was a dude who carried himself like Brando and sang like Dylan and Elvis. If John Steinbeck could sing, if Van Morrison could ride a Harley-Davidson... He was the first whiff of Scorcese, the first hint of Patti Smith, Elvis Costello and the Clash. He was the end of long hair, brown rice and bell- bottoms. It was the end of the 20-minute drum solo. It was good-night Haight Ashbury, Hello Asbury Park!”
“We call him the boss, well that’s a bunch of crap,” Bono continued. “He’s not the boss. He works for us! More than a boss, he’s the owner! Because more than anyone else, Bruce Springsteen owns America’s heart.”