Stuck inside of Jersey

26 January 2014

I watched a music journalist on a BBC documentary explain that Bruce Springsteen’s music was about escape and freedom. Fortunately I can’t remember her name, because she was deeply and fundamentally wrong, so much so that I can’t believe that she actually listened to the lyrics.

Springsteen’s songs are actually about the steel trap that slammed shut on blue-collar America in the mid-70s, the same story that carves through the lives of the characters in Saturday Night Fever. Although they sound as if they might be about escape, a second listen makes it absolutely clear that his characters dream of escape, but they are but moments, and almost always moments that are doomed.

The journalist was talking about Born to Run, Springsteen’s breakthrough record in 1975, and it’s worth going back to some of the lyrics to check.

On the title song, for example, which seems to set out as a song about getting away (“Baby we were born to run”: note the tense), about getting out, it becomes clear in the last verse that this is an illusion:

The highway’s jammed with broken heroes on a last chance power drive
Everybody’s out on the run tonight but there’s no place left to hide
Together Wendy, we’ll live with the sadness
I’ll love you with all the madness in my soul.

If there’s a theme in the record it’s about the “one last chance”, one last drive, the loss of optimism. In “Night”, the narrator is “sad and free.” Even in “Thunder Road” (“The screen door slams”), the narrator also says he has “one last chance to make it real”, and although it’s probably the most optimistic song on the record, the story that “It’s town full of losers/ And I’m pulling out of here to win” is undercut by the language all the way through. As for “Meeting Across The River”, if ever there was a song about a small-town guy in too deep, and babbling delusionally to keep his fears about the meeting at bay – surely he’s going to get smoked – it’s this:

Well Cherry says she’s gonna walk
‘Cause she found out I took her radio and hocked it
But Eddie, man, she don’t understand
That two grand’s practically sitting here in my pocket.

Yeah, right. As the lyric says a couple of verses earlier, “the word’s been passed this is our last chance.”

In “Jungleland”, the big set-piece at the end of the record, which starts with a familiar trope of 50s and 60s America (“The Rangers had a homecoming/In Harlem late last night”, people are “drinking warm beer on the hood of a Dodge”) it turns sour at the end:

And the poets down here
Don’t write nothing at all
They just stand back and let it all be
And in the quick of the night
They reach for their moment
And try to make an honest stand
But they wind up wounded
Not even dead.

Of course, the journalist wasn’t alone in making this mistake about Bruce. Ronald Reagan extolled the virtues of “Born in the USA” without listening to it properly. Springsteen soon put him right. Perhaps the power chords on Born To Run and Born In The USA confused people, or perhaps it was just the titles. But after that – in records like The River and Nebraska and The Ghost of Tom Joad – he made sure there was no room left for misinterpretation.

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