Bruce Springsteen

Johnny 99

Composed by Bruce Springsteen

Song Review by

"Johnny 99" exemplified Bruce Springsteen's songwriting interests in the early '80s, as expressed on his bare-bones album Nebraska (1982). Issued as a collection of demos recorded at home, the album was full of songs about desperate people in desperate circumstances, many of them on the wrong side of the law. Like the title song, "Johnny 99" was about a murderer; like "Atlantic City," it was about a man who had "debts no honest man could pay," a line employed in both sets of lyrics. The song, which Springsteen played on acoustic guitar, had the style of an early country ballad, but from the first line it was located in Mahwah, NJ, where a laid-off auto worker gets drunk and shoots a night clerk. In the second verse, he is apprehended, and the rest of the song takes place in the courtroom where Johnny is sentenced to an "even" 99 years in jail. He cites ameliorating circumstances in his statement to the judge, but in the end pleads for execution instead of a life in prison. Springsteen gave the song a raucous performance that began with lonely falsetto wails and ended with exuberant falsetto shouts. The outlaw theme of the song immediately appealed to Johnny Cash, who covered "Johnny 99" and even used it as the title song of his next album, Johnny 99, released in 1983. Springsteen performed the song during his Born in the U.S.A. tour in 1984-1985, and included a concert version on his Live 1975-1985 box set in 1986. The Cash version was featured on Rhino Records' 1986 compilation of Springsteen-written songs, Cover Me. In 1997, John Hiatt performed it on another Springsteen covers album, One Step Up/Two Steps Back, reissued in 2000 as The Songs of Bruce Springsteen. And also in 2000, Los Lobos cut "Johnny 99" for Badlands: A Tribute to Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska.

Appears On

Year Artist/Album Label Time AllMusic Rating
Nebraska 1982 Legacy / Sony Music 3:42
Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J./The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle/Darkness 2002 Legacy / Columbia 3:43
Nebraska/Tunnel of Love/The Ghost of Tom Joad 2002 Sony Music Distribution
The Essential Bruce Springsteen 2003 Legacy / Sony Music 3:40
The Collection [#2] 2004 Sony Music Distribution 3:38
Nebraska/Ghost of Tom Joad 2006 Sony BMG 3:43
Play Some Pool, Skip Some School, Act Real Cool: A Global Pop Tribute to Bruce Springsteen 2009
Various Artists
Where It's At Is Where You Are / Where It's at Is 2:37
The  Promise: The Making of Darkness on the Edge of Town [Video] 2010 Columbia
No Image 2014 Sony Legacy 3:42
blue highlight denotes editor's pick