Counting Down Bruce Springsteen Excerpt: #41 “Blinded By The Light”

(Here is another exclusive excerpt from my new book, Counting Down Bruce Springsteen: His 100 Finest Songs, available now. More to come on Monday.)

41. “Blinded By The Light” (from Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J., 1973)

Bruce Springsteen quickly realized that the wildly wordy, free-associating
madness of “Blinded by the Light” was both a commercial dead end
(the single, his first ever, didn’t chart despite much hype from Columbia
records) and an artistic point of diminishing returns.

For this one song though, he proved he could do verbose as well as
anyone and create the kind of thrillingly reckless wordplay that somehow
connects at song’s end in a fashion that probably not even the songwriter
saw coming. And for all of Springsteen’s modesty about the song coming
out of a rhyming dictionary, the truth is that it is the rare talent that could
string together those rhymes into something both wildly off-the-cuff and
surprisingly coherent.

Of course, the obvious influence here is Bob Dylan, and it’s not for
nothing that Springsteen often quotes Highway 61 Revisited as the album
that turned him on to Bob. If it weren’t so subtly hopeful, you might
easily imagine “Blinded by the Light” alongside songs like “Highway 61
Revisited” and “Tombstone Blues” from that Dylan album. The barrelhouse
thrust of the music is similar, as is the way the lyrics take seemingly
unconnected characters and events and place them under the same
surreal umbrella.

If anything, Springsteen crams even more into his charmingly chaotic
song. Dylan at least took a few lines each to tell us about manic characters
like Gypsy Davey and Mack the Finger in those classic songs. On
“Blinded by the Light,” Springsteen generally gives each of his cats and
kittens just a line or two to make an impression, but he stuffs those lines
so far past the breaking point that it’s like he’s devoted a novella to each.

The music of “Blinded by the Light” tumbles along with the same sort
of forward momentum as those Dylan classics. There is, as is the case on
several of the songs on Springsteen’s 1973 debut album, Greetings from
Asbury Park, N.J., the issue of sound quality. In the sections where the
entire band is rumbling all together, the instruments blend into a kind of
muddle. Still, Clarence Clemons’s saxophone pokes out of the mix to
provide some necessary personality, and the words were always going to
be the star here anyway, so it’s forgivable.

Springsteen’s cavalcade of misfits and malcontents all futilely try to
make their mark on the overarching scene, only to be lumped in with the
rest of their motley crew in the songwriter’s estimation, each one just
“another runner in the night.” Yet there is never any animosity directed
toward these folks by Springsteen. He may be able from his vantage point
to see the error of their ways, but he doesn’t begrudge them the right to
make those errors.

Which is why “Blinded by the Light” might be one of the best snapshots
of the glorious folly of youth ever laid down on disc. And Springsteen, himself around twenty-three when he wrote the song in late 1972,
nails it from the perspective of one who’s in the midst of it and can see
the allure of the daring nature of these folks even as they crash and burn.

Again, this is one of those songs where Springsteen tells a lot of
stories about a lot of people but also includes some moments where a
first-person “I” interacts with them. The narrator is the one with the
“boulder on my shoulder.” He’s the one who encounters the “silicone
sister” and her lustful promises. And he’s the one who checks the “kidnapped
handicap” out and gives him a clean bill of health only after
discovering the kid’s lack of brains.

So it makes sense then that Springsteen eventually declares that these
crazily romantic characters will “make it all right.” Since he’s in the
trenches with them, it would be kind of a downer to declare that the
whole scene is on a fast train to oblivion. When Dylan stood looking over
an entire avenue of outcasts and ne’er-do-wells, he called it “Desolation
Row.” In “Blinded by the Light,” Springsteen’s societal oddballs may be
individually messed up, but at least they can hold on to each other while
they flail.

“Blinded by the Light” gained enduring popularity through the No. 1
cover version of it by Manfred Mann’s Earth Band, who made a cottage
industry out of bizarre, prog-rock renditions of Springsteen songs. Maybe
the song needed music as insane as many of its characters to truly reach a
mass audience. Whatever the case, it stands as Springsteen’s one true
entry into the New Dylan arena, which only served to prove how different
from Bob he really was, not in terms of talent, but in terms of temperament.

(E-mail me at or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. Counting Down Bruce Springsteen: His 100 Finest Songs is now available at all major online booksellers as well as for Kindle and other e-readers.)


One Comment on “Counting Down Bruce Springsteen Excerpt: #41 “Blinded By The Light””

  1. […] Counting Down Bruce Springsteen Excerpt: #41 "Blinded By The Light" […]

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