Hungry Heart (1980)

Bruce Springsteen

Written by Bruce Springsteen
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A Top-10 song is a wonderful thing, especially when it is of such solid durability. “Hungry Heart” is as moving, upsetting and poignant today as it was when it was released in late 1980. Although Springsteen’s work had been lauded by critics and fans of his album, this is the song that set off the big Bruce bomb – his first smash single.

Baltimore row housesForeshadowing the breakdown of a city, the tale is one of dislocation within a working class family, and projects the freedom that the alienated singer – a father and husband –feels by skipping out on his wife and children.

The coldness of the lines immediately tells us how broken the singer is:

Got a wife and kids in Baltimore, Jack
I went out for a ride and I never went back
Like a river that don’t know where it’s flowin’

I took a wrong turn and I just kept goin’

“Hungry Heart”

He meets another woman in a “Kingstown bar” and an affair ensues.

There is a Kingstown opposite Baltimore on the Chester River. In the 1970s it was largely agricultural and had some small manufacturers, plus a good smattering of vacation homes on the nearby waters. Since those days, it has become a more suburban place. The river, while clearly symbolic, might well be the Chester.

OdysseusThe title and some of the themes of the song are inspired by Alfred Tennyson’s “Ulysses,” about the twilight-years musings and longings of the heavily-traveled Greek hero of The Odyssey, who spent 20 years away from hearth and home. He is the original wanderer of literature:

I am become a name;
For always roaming with a hungry heart
Much have I seen and known…

“Hungry Heart” unwinds into the pathos of regret. Some of it concerns the singer’s remorse over having strayed with a new woman, but the sorrow comes across as more deeply textured in the final verse.

Everybody needs a place to rest
Everybody wants to have a home
Don’t make no difference what nobody says
Ain’t nobody like to be alone

In the end when he sings the chorus, Springsteen is telling us that we are all very much alone in the spiritual sense and that the soul’s hunger is part of our condition as humans. The “home” he talks about is more than the place we hang our hats.

We are once again in a twisted landscape, the one that confuses and challenges anyone with a thinking brain. The story, in different costumes shows up often in Springsteen’s work.

Also from The River  comes “The Ties That Bind.” Previously, from Darkness On The Edge Of Town, we find “Badlands,” “Promised Land” and the often-bypassed “Streets Of Fire”:

Now I’m wandering, a loser down the tracks
An’ I’m lyin’, but babe I can’t go back

The Boss has long written on the theme of existential angst, usually filtered through the blue collar man’s lens. It’s apparent as early as his first album, Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J.:

Well, I’m just a lonely acrobat
The live wire is my trade


The family Bruce

What sets “Hungry Heart” apart is its infectious, nearly celebratory music. The singer/writer seems at last to embrace the dislocation not as alien but as his natural environment.

The musical artfulness is a fabulous updating of the Phil Spector sound, a throughly modernized resonant tone of time and place that draws on the mad genius’s recordings of The Crystals, whose work mostly dealt with love impeded by class struggle, and The Ronettes’ piercing romanticism.

And, although we have The Boss, Steve Van Zandt and John Landau to thank primarily for the music, a big tip of the hat has to be given to the two lead members of The Turtles and to Frank Zappa (literally accidentally).

Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman (aka “Flo & Eddie”), had been hit-makers as The Turtles, reeling off memorable feel-good 1960s numbers like “Happy Together,” “She’d Rather Be With Me,” and “Elenore.”

The Turtles sing “She’d Rather Be With Me”

Zappa Flo Eddie

Frank Zappa center, flanked by Flo & Eddie

Kaylan and Volman joined the second incarnation of Frank Zappa’s Mothers Of Inventions in 1970 after The Turtles had crawled to an end.

The mad spree with The Mothers ended in December of 1971 when an enraged fan pushed Zappa off a stage in London, critically injuring him. (The nutcase thought Zappa was making eyes at his girlfriend. One quick glance at Zappa’s eyes would tell you he was more likely staring at an imaginary planet. He was wheelchair-bound for almost a year. More evidence that no good deed goes unpunished.)

Flo & Eddie provide the angelic backgrounds “ahhhs” and harmonies on the lyrics. Their work lifts a hard man’s songs into the clouds. There is no resolution, but the singer takes wing on the stupendous strength and luminousness of Flo & Eddie pipes, while adding another echo to the good gone days the lyrics remind us of.

Lay down your money
And you play your part

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  • Joey Ramone ran into Bruce in – where else? – Asbury Park, NJ, and asked Springsteen to write a song for The Ramones. Bruce sat down that night and worked. “Hungry Heart” was the result. Jon Landau, co-producing Bruce’s music at the time, insisted that the Boss keep the song for himself.
  • When “Hungry Heart” was used in the movie Risky Business, it was the first time a Bruce song hit the big screen.
  • In an interview in The New Yorker in 2012, Springsteen made these probing observations: “’My parents’ struggles, it’s the subject of my life. It’s the thing that eats at me and always will. My life took a very different course, but my life is an anomaly. Those wounds stay with you, and you turn them into a language and a purpose.’” [Gesturing toward the band onstage, he said], “’We’re repairmen – repairmen with a toolbox. If I repair a little of myself, I’ll repair a little of you. That’s the job.’”

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