During Bruce Springsteen‘s current The River tour with the E Street Band, Springsteen celebrates the 1980 album each night by playing all of the songs from the album in order. While one may debate which song on The River is the best, it is hard to dismiss the popularity of Springsteen’s first top-ten hit, “Hungry Heart,” which went to number five on the Billboard charts at the time of its release.
The current tour also promotes the new release of The River along with outtakes and the album Springsteen almost released instead of The River in 1979. The box set The Ties That Bind: The River Collection (2015) is a fun exploration of a road not taken even as it affirms The Boss for the most part made the correct choices.
“Hungry Heart” always has been one of my favorite Springsteen songs, even though its production — including speeded up lead vocals — sounds different from many of the other E Street Band songs I love. The original also features amazing backing vocals from Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan (aka Flo & Eddie) of The Turtles.
Perhaps another reason “Hungry Heart” sounds a little different from other Springsteen songs is that Springsteen initially wrote the song for The Ramones. But after writing the song, Springsteen decided to keep it. Joey Ramone explains the genesis of the song in this video, and Springsteen more recently told the story to Jimmy Fallon too.
Another way the song is somewhat unusual is the uplifting music combined with what otherwise would be a depressing tale of heartbreak. The song begins with the singer telling us he left his wife and kids in Baltimore. Similarly, in Arizona, I once met a man who had run away from his wife and kids back East somewhere to start a new life. I always recall him being from Baltimore, but I suspect I conflated his story with the song. Anyway, he did not seem to regret his choice at the time we spoke, but I later heard that he eventually went back East.
The singer in “Hungry Heart,” however, makes no return. He keeps looking for home and a place to rest, similar to the hero in the poem that inspired the title of the song: Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s “Ulysses” (“For always roaming with a hungry heart / Much have I seen and known”).
Yet, despite the sad story of the lyrics, “Hungry Heart” is still a joyous song. Like Bob Dylan’s great “Like a Rolling Stone,” Springsteen’s “Hungry Heart” gains a new meaning from the band. The uplifting music and the singer’s joy in singing about his quest defines the song. Although the singer never finds a new family or enduring love, his recognition that we are all looking for the same thing provides some comfort.
The singer never declares he is alone with his hungry heart, and the chorus does not exclaim “I’ve got a hungry heart.” Through his travels he joyously realizes that while in many ways each person must walk one’s life alone, we are bound to all other humans who also must do the same. Everybody’s got a hungry heart.
I like the following recent E Street Band performance of “Hungry Heart” that took place in Toronto on February 2, 2016. It is a nice quality fan video, and I love how Jake Clemons (Clarence’s nephew) is able to keep playing his saxophone as he helps the crowd-surfing Springsteen back to his feet. Check it out.
Bruce Springsteen has yet to have a number one song on the Billboard charts, but he did surpass the number five position achieved by “Hungry Heart” four years later. In 1984, another song about loneliness, “Dancing in the Dark” went to number two on the charts.
Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will,
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
— Alfred, Lord Tennyson, “Ulysses”
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