Who Did It Better? “I’m On Fire”

Covering Bruce Springsteen is almost as popular as covering Bob Dylan, and why not, he’s a great songwriter. You can take his down home lyrics and transform them into pop country or heavy metal, they are a sure fire way to connect with the audience on their level. “I’m on Fire” has been covered by so many artists, it was hard to pick which cover to go with and as you will see, our panelists had a tough time, too. So whether you prefer the Boss’s version to Johnny Cash or Mumford and Sons, AWOL Nation or Tori Amos, hell, even Barry Gibbs did a version, we can all agree “I’m on Fire” was an instant classic much like blue jeans, white t-shirts and a red bandana.

“I’m on Fire” was recorded in 1982 during the Born in the U.S.A. sessions, the album version was at The Power Station. In impromptu fashion when Springsteen started making up a slow tune on guitar for some lyrics he had, and drummer Max Weinberg and keyboardist Roy Bittan, hearing it for the first time, created an accompaniment on the spot. The result was a moody number that merges a soft rockabilly beat, lyrics built around sexual tension, and synthesizers into an effective whole; it was one of the first uses of that instrument in Springsteen’s music.

Bat For Lashes aka Natasha Khan’s version of “I’m On Fire” is the most unique and beautiful cover of the song out there, and she manages to achieve this while staying true to the song’s natural premise. There are few instances in which someone can take a song as well-known as “I’m On Fire” and hold it so convincingly in their own world, but Khan’s more eccentric instrumentation and powerful voice succeed in doing so.

Angelina Valente, Singer/Songwriter

And I’m actually going to take this in another direction. I mean. Everybody loves Bruce, right? This song is so iconic and everyone knows it. So we have to give credit where credit is due. Which is that this is an incredible song. But there are actually two covers of this that really jump out at me. The first cover I had ever heard of this was by Town Mountain. They turned it into this GREAT driving, bluegrass-style song. The hits of the mandolin make you have to tap your toe and nod your head, then the fiddle comes in with this beautiful melodic line and it starts to hit you right in your heart, like a good love song. And the harmonies on top of that give you all kinds of chills. Which brings me to my second favorite version which is by The Staves. The harmonies on this track will hit you right in that sweet spot. When they come in on the first “I’m on fire,” if that doesn’t give you chills, I don’t know what will. Then, the added b part with the “oo’s” really drive home the dream-like state of this song, which they build on later with the growth in the guitar as well to close it out. It just really gives you the feeling that these people are standing right in front of each other, versus the Town Mountain / Bruce versions feeling more reflective.

Michael Hallisey, Editor, The Spot 518

I grew up on a steady diet of Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band ever since I can remember. Darkness on the Edge of Town was played more often than Sesame Street in our house, so when I was presented with this question, I had to do my due diligence only to be fair.

What instantly puts me off on Bat for Lashes’ cover of his song is the use of the Marxophone. It robs my attention away from Natasha Khan’s seductive efforts, which I find to be a shame. She extends the song a full minute longer than Bruce did. Something I took note of because I always felt short-changed listening to Springsteen’s sub-3-minute effort that he shoehorned into the last slot of Side A on my “Born in the U.S.A” cassette.

Heather Nova, on the other hand, gives me shivers. She features a live version of this cover on “Wonderlust,” and damn if it doesn’t feel like she’s whispering those words up against my neck. 

Jocelyn Arndt, Singer/Songwriter, Jocelyn & Chris

You’ve gotta hand it to Bat for Lashes – she really made this one her own. Her version has a raw intimacy that’s beautiful, compelling, and maybe even a little sinister. But there’s a reason Bruce is The Boss. Springsteen’s version makes me want to lean up against streetlights in a leather jacket to contemplate life and love, and then get an extra-large strawberry milkshake at a 24-hour diner, and then walk past my ex’s house and gaze up at the light behind the curtains, and then cry a little bit, and then maybe even jack up my car and fix the radiator or muffler or whatever. Which is saying something, because I don’t even know how to hold a wrench. On this track, he’s swapped out some of his usual brawling urgency for an atmospheric gentleness that makes “I’m on Fire” one of my absolute favorite Springsteen songs. The plaintive, cut-to-the-bone vocal… a story that never resolves itself… that subtle, driving drumbeat carrying you into the night – this is the kind of song that makes you want to grab the keys and just drive, drive, drive.

The Verdict

We’re probably leaning toward The Boss’s version, but not because Bat for Lashes lacked emotion or substance… mostly because it is freakin’ Bruce. He wrote it, he owns it, and unlike Dylan – he can still perform his songs to the level we expect from our idols.

Tell us your favorite cover… and as always, thank you for our experts.

1 Comment
  1. Bill says

    Hindley Street Country Club does an awesome cover of this!

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