Rock Candy

On March 31, 1992, Bruce Springsteen released two albums: Human Touch and Lucky Town. The albums were controversial among fans who were upset that he had let go of the E Street Band. Meanwhile, Bruce (or at least his management team and record label) were trying to figure out where his place was in a new pop culture landscape that was increasingly dominated by hard rock, hip-hop and alternative.

Springsteen’s first eight albums — 1973’s Greetings From Asbury Park, New Jersey and The Wild, The Innocent and the E Street Shuffle, 1975’s Born To Run, 1978’s Darkness On The Edge Of Town, 1980’s The River, 1982’s Nebraska, 1984’s Born In The U.S.A. and 1987’s Tunnel Of Love — were all classics. But after the “Tunnel of Love Express” tour, things really started to change: Bruce divorced his wife Julianne Phillips, and he started his relationship with Patti Scialfa. He also parted ways with the E Street Band, and moved from New Jersey to L.A. Clearly, this was a new era.

Human Touch was made up of sessions that he started in ’89 with a very L.A. band: there was E Street keyboardist Roy Bittan, who had also moved to the west coast, in order to get more production gigs. On bass was a pre-American Idol Randy Jackson, an in-demand session player who had recorded and toured with Journey. On drums: Jeff Porcaro of Toto, another session guy whose discography included Michael Jackson’s Thriller and Madonna’s Like A Prayer. It was a tight and professional-sounding album, but it lacked the ambition of his prior LPs and seemed fixated at getting him on VH1 — back then, the channel could be relied on to give middle-aged legends lots of airtime, as long as their music was accessible.

But then Springsteen started working on other sessions with former Steve Miller Band drummer Gary Mallaber; Bruce played most of the other instruments himself. Those sessions took just a few weeks and made up the Lucky Town album. He put together a touring band anchored by Bittan, which lasted from 1992-1993.

Most fans don’t look back at the Human Touch/Lucky Town era fondly, but few would deny there were a bunch great songs from that time. Here, we reimagine the two albums as one streamlined LP: 12 tracks, clocking in at just under 48 minutes. This isn’t a song ranking: we’re imagining what the record might have sounded like with a shorter tracklist and different running order.

  • 'Human Touch'

    The title track from Human Touch. A certain segment of the fanbase wasn’t going to like Bruce’s new music, no matter what. But this song, about reaching a sense of equilibrium — and maybe even happiness! — in middle age is a great song. And of course, Bruce compares himself to a vintage car: “So you’ve been broken and you’ve been hurt/Show me somebody who ain’t/Yeah, I know I ain’t nobody’s bargain/But, hell, a little touch up/And a little paint.” It’s very “adult,” but thanks to Bruce’s wailing guitar solo, it’s not adult contemporary.

  • 'Better Days'

    From Lucky Town. When Bruce was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1999, he noted in his speech that he tried writing happy songs in the ’90s. “It’s didn’t work,” he laughed. “The public didn’t like it!” He could have been referring to this song. Where most of Tunnel of Love documented a failing relationship, “Better Days” celebrated his new and happy life with Patti Scialfa (they were already parents by this time).

  • 'Local Hero'

    From Lucky Town. Here, Bruce pokes fun at himself, and his iconic status… which he recognizes may be fading. “I seen a face staring out of a black velvet painting/From the window of the five-and-dime/I couldn’t quite recall the name/But the pose looked familiar to me/So I asked the salesgirl, ‘Who was that man/Between the doberman and Bruce Lee?’/She said ‘Just a local hero… Local hero,’ she said with a smile/’Yeah, a local hero/He used to live here for a while.'”

  • 'Lucky Town'

    From Lucky Town. In the ’90s, Bruce was name-dropping west coast punk rock band Social Distortion in interviews, and you could imagine that he wrote this song after listening to that band. A couple of years later, Social D frontman Mike Ness invited Bruce to sing on “Misery Loves Company,” from his solo debut, 1999’s Cheating at Solitaire. Fun fact: when Social D plays Asbury Park, New Jersey, Bruce often hops on stage with them!

  • 'Part Man, Part Monkey'

    B-side of “57 Channels (And Nothin’ On).” A darkly funny and politically tinged song that Bruce started playing on the “Tunnel of Love Express” tour in ’88. It was inspired by the Scopes Trial, a highly publicized 1925 Tennessee case about the right to teach evolution. The verses make the point that humans are obviously related to monkeys: “They coulda settled that case without a fuss or fight/If they’d seen me chasin’ you, sugar, through the jungle last night/They’d have called in that jury and a one two three said: ‘part man, part monkey, definitely!'” The reggae-tinged tune featured former E Street keyboardists Roy Bittan and David Sancious, along with Randy Jackson and jazz drummer Omar Hakim.

  • '57 Channels (And Nothin' On)'

    From Human Touch. In 1991, Bruce acolytes U2 addressed the budding information age on their media-heavy Achtung Baby album and the subsequent “ZooTV” tour. Springsteen didn’t go quite that far, but “57 Channels (And Nothin’ On)” — a guitar-less tune, driven by Bruce’s funky bass playing — saw the narrator overwhelmed by media choices, and underwhelmed by the content. The song sounded scary then, and it’s even scarier now. Bruce’s pal and former bandmate Little Steven did a wild remix with lots of media samples from the era (including the “No Justice! No Peace!” chant and clips of Vice President Dan Quayle’s complaints about Murphy Brown).

  • 'Souls Of The Departed'

    From Lucky Town. Bruce looks at a soilder in the gulf war (“On the road to Basra, stood young Lieutenant Jimmy Bly/Detailed to go through the clothes of the soldiers who died/At night in dreams, he sees their souls rise”). Then, he thinks of a boy who died thanks to senseless violence in L.A. (“Now Raphael Rodriguez was just seven years old/Shot down in a schoolyard by some East Compton Cholos/His mama cried, ‘My beautiful boy is dead’). Springsteen laments that he is helpless to change things, while noting his privilege. (“In the hills, the self-made men just sighed and shook their heads.”) Later in the song, he gets even more personal, referencing the fact that he’s now a parent, too: “Tonight as I tuck my own son in bed/All I can think of is what if it would’ve been him instead/I want to build me a wall so high nothing can burn it down/Right here on my own piece of dirty ground.”

  • 'The Long Goodbye'

    From Human Touch. It’s about saying goodbye to something that you’ve stuck to for too long: in Bruce’s case, most fans figured it was about New Jersey and the E Street Band. In retrospect, this rocking jam wasn’t a “goodbye” as much as it was a “see ya when I see ya.” Bruce returned to both his native state and his celebrated backing band within a few years.

  • 'All Or Nothin' At All'

    From Human Touch. It’s not his deepest song. It’s a bit like the rocking jams on The River, which balance out the more thematically heavy songs. You can hear that he misses having his consigliere Little Steven here, since he sounds like he’s duetting with himself.

  • 'I Wish I Were Blind'

    From Human Touch. In the ’90s, if an adult musician on the charts was about adult life, it tended to be a country singer. This song might have been a huge hit for Garth Brooks or one of his peers had Bruce given it to one of them.

  • 'If I Should Fall Behind'

    From Lucky Town. The version above is from Live in New York City, recorded on the E Street Band’s reunion tour from 1999-2000. “If I Should Fall Behind” is the song from the Human Touch/Lucky Town era that has made more Bruce setlists than any other. The song is about relationships, and about the value of putting in the work, even through tough times. “I’ll wait for you, and if I should fall behind, wait for me,” is one of his best lines. But when he played the song with the E Street Band, he sang the first verse, and then ceded the mic to his bandmates: Steven Van Zandt, Nils Lofgren, Patti Scialfa and Clarence Clemons. The song became about the band, and it movingly closed most of their shows on that first reunion tour.

  • 'My Beautiful Reward'

    From Lucky Town. “My Beautiful Reward” closed the album and also many of the shows on that tour; it’s one of his most underrated songs. If fans criticized Human Touch and Lucky Town for being too “happy,” they weren’t really listening, and they certainly weren’t listening to this song. In it, Bruce acknowledges that he’s kind of got it all: he has “gold and diamond rings”; he lives in “a house on a hill.” He even got the girl: “Well your hair shone in the sun/I was so high, I was the lucky one.” But then, the kicker comes: “Then I came crashing down like a drunk on a barroom floor/Searching for my beautiful reward.” Just like most of us, happiness is something you need to work at, even if you’re one of the biggest stars in the world.