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The Boss, the Dame and the Pets: Bruce Springsteen at 70

“The times are tough now, just getting tougher
This old world is rough, it’s just getting rougher
Cover me, come on baby, cover me”

A quick pop pickin’ question for ya. Who is the only living artist to have been covered on record by both David Bowie and Pet Shop Boys?

It’s the man they colloquially call The Boss. The denim-clad rocker born in the USA (Asbury Park, New Jersey to be precise). The bloke who has become a most unlikely septuagenarian, Bruce Frederick Joseph Springsteen.

The revered American artist is known for socially conscious lyrics that portray the experiences and struggles of a colourful array of blue collar characters, from army veterans to working-class Americans and ex-stuntmen.

He is one of the best-selling artists in the world, despite never achieving a number one single in the US or the UK. As with Elvis Presley, I’d call myself more of a casual admirer of Springsteen’s work than an ardent follower, but the Bowie/PSB factoid is certainly an intriguing one. Bruce has even been known to (slightly) return the favour occasionally.

Originally featuring on Bruce’s 2007 album Magic, Last to Die appeared on the seminal synth duo’s twelfth studio set, Electric in 2013. It’s easily the most conventionally structured song on the entire record.

Several sources have postulated that the track, with its chorus of “Who’ll be the last to die for a mistake/Whose blood will spill, whose heart will break”, was inspired by decorated Vietnam Veterans Against the War representative (and future senator and presidential candidate) John Kerry‘s 1971 testimony to the U.S. Senate, in which he asked “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die in Vietnam? How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?”.

The fact that The Boss chose this reference for a song more than 35 years later is widely regarded as making a similar suggestion about the needless and illegal Iraq War being waged by the United States and its allies in the first decade of the new millennium.

Team PSB were at pains to point out there’s not even a hint of irony in their souped-up remake, as keyboardist Chris Lowe told Idolator’s Robbie Daw.

“My sister liked the song. It’s quite obscure and, actually, I don’t think my sister is a big Bruce Springsteen fan. But, anyway, she recommended it to us, and the thing is, when you listen to it, you can really imagine how we could do that song. It’s got a fantastic guitar riff that would immediately translate into a synthesizer riff — even though it ended up as a vocal riff on our version. But it works for four on the floor. The lyrics are very uplifting, really. I think it’s fantastic. 

“Also, we sort of imagined that it would be a bit like a Killers record, working with Stuart —a mixture of rock and electronic dance music, with a bit of filter thrown in for good measure. It sounds like a Pet Shop Boys record. Actually, it would it would be great to have got Brandon Flowers guesting on it. I hope [Bruce] likes it, because I think our version is really very good. We’ve not done it with any sense of irony. It’s a very genuine cover version.”

It’s worth noting that while Springsteen’s original lyrics ask, “Who’ll be the last to die for a mistake?” (singular), Neil Tennant sings it this way only the first time through the chorus. After that he usually sings, “… for our mistakes?” (plural). This subtle adjustment takes the song to an even more personal level, specifically including both the singer/narrator and his listeners among those who had been ‘mistaken.’

Tennant subsequently told interviewer Jude Rogers of the New Statesman, “I changed ‘a mistake’ to ‘our mistakes’…. So then the song casts more blame on us, as individuals in a democratic society, and the responsibility that we have for what happens in our name.”

The boys may have selected it for its implicit anti-war message, its underlying human drama, and/or just because it’s a good song. But Neil and Chris may indeed have had other, more personal reasons for singing about ‘our mistakes.’ After all, the United Kingdom was America’s staunchest ally and greatest co-combatant in the Iraq War, and what was that good for, eh?

The day of the invasion of Iraq also happened to be the first date of Bruce and the E Street Band’s Australian leg of The Rising Tour. So, it was from the Telstra Dome in Melbourne, Australia on that March 2003 day that Springsteen made his political stance clear.

Indeed, Bruce opened with a sombre, acoustic rendition of Born in the USA, clearly aiming a barrage of unfriendly fire at George W. Bush.

Springers then launched straight into a full-band attack for a revived Edwin Starr’s War, with its impassioned line: “What is it good for? Absolutely nothin’.” Springsteen would continue to open his shows this way for the subsequent Australian dates.

Bruce’s politics were significantly less front and centre when David Bowie, an early admirer, covered him three times back in the 1970s.

A highlight of his Greetings From Asbury Park, It’s Hard To Be A Saint In The City is one of Springsteen’s earliest tracks but one of his most colourful. An unsettling Dylanesque tale of an adolescent boy in New York struggling to resist the darker temptations the big city offers, it’s decorated in striking imagery, from the kid’s aspiration to look like Marlon Brando to the Devil appearing “like Jesus through the steam in the street”. 

The subject of a murky, mysterious provenance (to my ears, there’s certainly sonic echoes of at least two Bowie albums in there), the Thin White Duke’s cocaine-addled mid Seventies take was finally deemed releasable on his 1989 Sound + Vision box set, which kicked off Rykodisc’s respected Bowie reissue series three long decades ago. It’s a hoot, toot.

Interestingly, Tony Visconti recalls a version of Saint being tackled in Philly…

”Saint In The City was definitely recorded during the Young Americans sessions. I called a DJ on WMMR Radio and he said he would take Springsteen to our studio for meeting. We played it to him and he kind of liked it. He was hardly known back then.”

However by a 2016 interview with Uncut, the TV story had changed slightly…

“We played Saint to him and he kept a poker face the whole time. He said nothing when it was finished. David took him into another room for a private chat. By the time Bruce left, he was more pleasant and said his goodbyes to the rest of us. David and I never worked on Saint after that, although it was finished or re-recorded eventually with someone else.”

Here’s the rub. Visconti likes to perpetuate the likely myth that Saint was finished off with Harry Maslin during the Station To Station recordings, no doubt influenced by the somewhat baffling liner notes in Rykodisc‘s 1989 Sound + Vision box set that the take was indeed recorded with Maslin, Aynsley Dunbar (um?*) and the Rolling Stones’ Ronnie Wood during the Cherokee session sessions of 1975. (*Dunbar quit drumming for Bowie after Diamond Dogs as ”I had trouble with Bowie‘s management,” he told Modern Drummer magazine, though it certainly sounds like Dunbar on Saint, particularly the busy bass drum and the noisy, clattering style of the rolls.)

Yet, in private correspondence with this author Maslin says he has no recollection of Bowie bringing any version of Saint to him, and is at pains to point out that ”I don’t recall Ron playing on ANY track on the album. He did visit us and jam with some others, that‘s all. I think that was the source of the confusion.”

Maslin also clarified the situation with Sinatra (i.e. did he and the Dame really record together?), but that’s an article for another time. What is definite is that Ron Wood did provide the tasty fretwork on Bowie’s first Springsteen cover, a so-so go at Growin‘ Up, done in late 1973 in London, and it‘s very likely Saint originated at the same session.

For the record, although Bowie often veers into an unsettling falsetto that he did employ on Young Americans (and the odd wayward vocal on the 1974 and 1976 tours), there’s no David Sanborn on sax, and no Luther Vandross and pals on bv’s, but thee is a very Visconti-style string arrangement and Garson-esque piano (with delicious irony, Mike Garson was replaced by the E Street Band‘s Roy Bittan for Station To Station) so it looks increasingly likely the backing track for Saint almost definitely dates from the Diamond Dogs period, especially as the electric guitar part doesn’t sound like something an accomplished guitarist like Woody would play – though it certainly sounds like Bowie‘s own scratchy rudimentary style.

Anyway, back to Bruce and as he enters his eighth decade, Springsteen is still a name to be reckoned with, living it every day, and in remarkably rude health. As one of his contemporaries would put it, long may he run. 

Happy birthday, Bruce.

Steve Pafford

*Yes, I know The Dame and the duo have both covered Neil Young (and earlier, the definitely deceased Brecht/Weill). A version of 1968’s Ive Been Waiting For You appeared on Bowie’s Heathen album in 2002, and that same summer Tennant and Lowe performed a live take of Young’s Philadelphia on BBC television and at some of their Release Tour concerts. However, so far they haven’t released it officially, although Neil has intimated that they will eventually.

The television recording, however, has been made available for listening on their official website, The original was, of course, written for the 1993 AIDS movie of the same name, of which the main theme song Streets of Philadelphia won the Academy Award for Best Original Song for one Bruce Springsteen. Its my fave Boss rave.


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