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Bruce Springsteen's characters have hungry hearts. This isn’t unique to Springsteen. Rock ‘n’ roll songwriters have spent decades populating tunes with people obsessed with romance, lust and rocky relationships. But few of them take the time to even name their characters, or flesh out their leading ladies beyond asking them to squeeze the juice from their lemon.

The Boss stands out for the devotion and details he gives his protagonists and their muses. Often, he’ll conjure a heartbreaker with only a nice turn of phrase: Think of the barefoot girl on the hood of a Dodge drinking warm beer in the soft summer rain in “Jungleland.” But Springsteen is at his best when he devotes a single song to a single relationship, letting the story unfold over a few verses.

A complete investigation into every female character Springsteen has written about would take a book, so this catalog of songs has a few ground rules. First, no tunes Springsteen gave to other artists, which means as great as Gary “U.S.” Bonds’ version of "Angelyne" is, it’s out. Second, no unreleased songs, so you won’t find “Eloise” or “Marie” here. Third, only songs where he names the female character in the title have been considered: Sorry to everyone named Mary and Wendy who lists Born to Run as their favorite album.

Despite all these conditions, it wasn’t hard to find two dozen Springsteen compositions set over half a century that fit the bill. Here’s a rundown of the levels of intensity and intimacy filling up songs from “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)” to “Sherry Darling” to “Bobby Jean.”

22. “Cynthia”
From: Tracks (1998)

Here we have a guy tickled that Cynthia just exists: “When you come walking by you're an inspiring sight.” And a guy who can take or leave Cynthia: “Well now, you ain't the finest thing I'll never have / And when you go the hurt you leave but baby it ain't so bad.” So, which is it buddy? Is she your true love or notch on your bedpost? Springsteen often puts some dissonance in his protagonists’ hearts (see “Thunder Road” and its declaration of “You ain't a beauty, but hey, you're alright”) and that can make for a dynamic story. But not here. The guy in "Cynthia" needs to do some soul searching. No wonder this tune became an outtake. No wonder it kicks off this list.

 

21. “Cindy”
From: The Ties That Bind (2015)

Songs often get cut from albums for the right reason. Originally scheduled for the aborted The Ties That Band LP meant to follow Darkness on the Edge of Town (and later released with an anniversary package for The River), “Cindy” shows Springsteen at his least sophisticated. Sure, the guy in this song digs Cindy, but he seems like a drip at best and a creep at worst. You want to win over the object of your affection? Try writing a better hook, putting some emotion into the chorus and stop rhyming “work” and “jerk” and “kiss me” and “miss me.” Apologies to all the Cindys out there looking for a Springsteen ace that honors your name.

 

20. “Gloria’s Eyes”
From: Human Touch (1992)

No question: This fellow has a burning passion for Gloria. But he’s also a liar and Gloria knows it. He’s gone from Prince Charming to a guy who prays silently that his love will rise. Seeing as how this song lays buried on one of Springsteen's least popular LPs, it’s doubtful “Gloria’s Eyes” will ever rise again.

 

19. “Sherry Darling”
From: The River (1980)

Moms and dads just don't get Springsteen’s leading men. Here, the guy digs the gal, but hates her mom. And yet, obviously, he is more boy than man. He needs to realize that if he’s driving Sherry’s mom to the unemployment office every Monday, there are bigger problems in the world than being stuck in traffic and missing time to chat up girls on the beach. Come to think of it, why does he want to chat up girls if he’s dating Sherry? How about Sherry helps her mom get a job and hands this blockhead his walking papers?

 

18. “Frankie Fell in Love”
From: High Hopes (2014)

The singer isn’t in love with Frankie, but he’s thrilled she’s fallen in love with somebody. Lyrical snatches point to Frankie being the narrator's daughter, but this is one of Springsteen’s Dylan-esque throwbacks. There’s a church mouse, take out dinners and an argument between Shakespeare and Einstein, so who really knows what’s going on?

 

17. “Linda Let Me Be the One”
From: Tracks (1998)

For Eddie, holding a boombox aloft outside Linda’s bedroom window isn’t enough. No, this guy “trashes her old man's car, slashes Linda's name in the street.” He’s devoted, for sure. (And so are stalkers.) The leader of a gang, Eddie might want to dial back the fanaticism and add in some introspection. This Born to Run outtake does get loads of bonus points, however, for including a Clarence Clemons sax solo, the E Street Band’s ultimate weapon to woo women.

 

16. “Candy’s Boy”
From: The Promise (2010)

And suddenly things are heating up. Parts of “Candy’s Room” and “Drive All Night” have their roots in “Candy’s Boy.” It seems Candy is another woman somebody wants to save – a common theme for Springsteen protagonists stuck between adolescence and adulthood, strength and cowardice. Despite the cry of, “My sweet love, I will forever be Candy's boy,” you get the sense that these two live for the rush of young love and reality will crush this couple within a year. If Springsteen prizes anyone here, it’s Danny Federici, who gets nearly two minutes for an epic organ solo.

 

15. “4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)”
From: The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle (1973)

Springsteen typically constructs his characters out of composites of close friends and near strangers, so thinking any one of them is an exact depiction of a real person is probably a mistake. Sandy might be an exception. The Boss’ actual early-’70s girlfriend is often cited as the inspiration behind Sandy (and Crazy Janey in “Spirit in the Night,” the woman in “Thundercrack,” and Rosalita). But whatever fervor he felt for his real girlfriend, his feelings for Sandy seem like pure adolescent obsession. Oh, there is no doubt this guy thinks he loves Sandy. Springsteen sings, “And Sandy, the aurora is rising behind us / This pier lights our carnival life forever,” with a juvenile earnestness on top of Federici accordion. But this lonely kid will sign his soul over to anybody who might take it including that waitress he’s been seeing on the side.

 

14. “Mary Mary”
From: American Beauty (2014)

Mary left. We don’t really know why but we know he ex is crushed: He’s been abandoned with a wedding or engagement ring and fresh tattoo, maybe with Mary’s name in bloody ink, maybe with her name crossed out. Bruce doesn’t give listeners much to go on and yet the song’s a little gem from a forgotten EP. With only a few fragments, he sketches out heartache and frames it with sparse instrumentation including Patti Scialfa’s backing vocals, Charles Giordano’s Farfisa organ and Songa Lee’s violin.

 

13. “Mary’s Place”
From: The Rising (2002)

The first complication in this song is the narrator wants to reunite with an unnamed person. The second is Mary may very well be the Virgin Mary and her place could be heaven – or maybe it's just a cool bar? After all, it has a record player. These complications and the complexities they bring up actually elevate “Mary’s Place” from average to magical. The lyrics mix shade and light, the buoyant rock ‘n’ roll of the arrangement and production provides a waypoint near the end of an album directly inspired by the tragedy of Sept. 11. But it’s ambiguous nature also puts it in the middle of this list.

 

12. “Mary Lou”
From: Tracks (1998)

A studio outtake from 1979, “Mary Lou” finds Springsteen in territory as familiar as Asbury Park. Once again, he’s insisting, pleading and begging, that “he’s not like all those other guys.” Do his protagonists really have to point that out over and over? At least Mary Lou is “not like all those other girls.” Both members of this couple seem like dumb kids. Of course, Springsteen and a million other songwriters have built the best love songs out of foolish teenage infatuation.

 

11. “Ricky Wants a Man of Her Own”
From: The Ties That Bind (2015)

Ricky’s big brother pushes for their parents to give lil’ sis some freedom in this minor masterpiece. It’s a sweet, simple song with a sweet, simple story. It also offers a welcome twist as Springsteen advocates for ending double standards when it comes how parents treat their sons and daughters. Pure pop rock, pure sibling tenderness.

 

10. “Mary Queen of Arkansas”
From: Greetings from Asbury Park (1973)

Whatever the Springsteen thinks of Mary, the real object of his affection in this early, acoustic song is actually Bob Dylan. Before he came into this own as a writer, the Boss leaned hard on Dylan  — and to a lesser extent Van Morrison. (The drag queen theme from “Mary Queen of Arkansas” echoes Morrison's “Madame George.”) Thankfully, Springsteen’s homage to both Dylan and Mary add up to his most mystical lyrics: “Well, I'm just a lonely acrobat, the livewire is my trade / I've been a shine boy for your acid brat and a wharf rat of your state / Mary, my queen, your blows for freedom are missing / Oh, you're not man enough for me to hate or woman enough for kissing.”

 

9. “Janey Needs a Shooter”
From: Letter to You (2020)

Doctors, priests and cops – that is to say clinically cold, emotionally distant and dangerous men – all try for Janey, as one of Springsteen’s strangest, darkest songs finally earns official release some 50 years after he wrote it. Like Candy, many speculate that Janey might be a prostitute and the narrator a lost or delusional John. Maybe. What’s certain is the man’s dramatic allegiance to Janey. Once more, Springsteen transcends his own lyrics (some of his best) with a fanatically committed vocal.

 

8. “Janey Don’t You Lose Your Heart”
From: Tracks (1998)

We don’t get a good look at what’s causing Janey so much pain. She’s drawn with indistinct lines, recalling the vague outline of Cindy. But it’s clear the singer has such compassion for her. The lyrics of this B-side to “I’m Goin’ Down” offer up such warmth: “When you come home late and get undressed / You lie in bed and feel this emptiness / Well, listen to me.” But it’s the vocals over uncluttered instrumentation that hit the listener. He’s had greater loves, but not many.

 

7. “Frankie”
From: Tracks (1998)

The theme of a couple plotting their escape from a numbing, pinned-down life often recurs for Springsteen. It can be a grand escape like packing up and leaving town, or just getting dressed up for a night out. In “Frankie,” the narrator only wants to give Frankie some joy, a dollop of tenderness and rare comfort. Unlike so many of the broken people that populate Springsteen’s catalog, these two seem alright. With both calm and hope, the singer’s voice reassures, “Talk softly tonight, little angel / You make all my dream worlds come true.” Underneath him, the E Streeters crescendo from whisper to rock ‘n’ roll eruption over a three-minute outro complete with a patented Clemons sax explosion.

 

6. “Zero and Blind Terry”
From: Tracks (1998)

A little bit Romeo and Juliet, a little bit West Side Story, a little bit Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the tale of Terry and Zero features two kids defying parents and society. Terry’s pop goes so far as to get the cops to try to hunt down and kill Zero, but the heroes triumph … maybe. Like Butch and Sundance, the pair face insurmountable odds and a real battle. Bruce leaves their fate hanging in the air.

 

5. “Candy’s Room”
From: Darkness on the Edge of Town (1978)

When you fall for Candy, you fall hard. The lyrics nod to that: “We kiss, my heart rushes to my brain / And the blood rushes in my veins, the fire rushes towards the sky.” But it’s Springsteen vocals and the E Street Band’s performance that elevate this from puppy love to Shakespearean fury. Rarely has Springsteen sung with such ravenous desire in harmony with his band cramming raw rock into a symphonic arrangement. Smashing all this into two-and-a-half minutes shouldn't be possible.

 

4. “Maria’s Bed”
From: Devils & Dust (2005)

Holy man said ‘Hold on, brother, there's a light up ahead’ / Ain't nothing like a light that shines on me in Maria's bed,” Springsteen coos in this meditation on the redemptive, unending powers of love. Understated at every turn, “Maria’s Bed” is an underrated jewel that has been mostly ignored since the Devils & Dust shows. The tune deserves better, as it underscores a talent for writing that links centuries of songcraft from Stephen Foster to Woody Guthrie to Steve Earle.

 

3. “Kitty’s Back”
From: The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle (1973)

Kitty’s back in town! And nobody is more excited about that than our narrator. His thrill at Kitty’s return gets a few extra jolts from these Beat poet lyrics (“Cat somehow lost his Kitty down in the city pound”), the whisper-to-scream-and-over-again arrangement, two towering Springsteen guitar solos and an E-Street-at-full-power performance: David Sancious’ Hammond organ work here evokes a church service and fusion jazz jam. With Springsteen triangulating Jack Kerouac, Bob Dylan and Tom Waits, the words don’t serve up proof of much. But everything else spells out an epic obsession with the transcendent, tremendous Kitty.

 

2. “Bobby Jean”
From: Born in the USA (1984)

A classic cut from a classic album, the song is considered by many to be a farewell to long-time band member and best buddy, Steven Van Zandt. The two began playing together in the ’60s and they liked the same music, liked the same bands, liked the same clothes. The lyric, “Me and you, we've known each other / Yeah, ever since we were 16,” makes a strong case for the song being about Van Zandt. But Springsteen doesn’t reveal Bobby Jean’s gender. If it’s about a woman, it’s about a woman he loves deeply and intensely. If it’s about a friend, it’s a friend he loves deeply and intensely. While ambiguity surrounds the subject, there’s nothing ambiguous about his allegiance to Bobby when he sings, “Now there ain't nobody, nowhere, nohow / Gonna ever understand me the way you did.”

 

1. “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)”
From: The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle (1973)

Take a deep breath and dive into the wild incongruity of Springsteen’s approach. The narrator says he wants to “liberate” and “confiscate” Rosie. For a guy who can be lyrically dense and painfully earnest, however, he doesn’t take anything seriously in this song besides Rosie. Look beyond the words, beyond the effort to shoehorn in rhymes, and to the singer’s pounding heart. This guy might be a goofy mess but he pines for Rosalita like he pines for rock ‘n’ roll – which is to say, he’s positively bursting with something he can’t define or contain.