Author’s Note: In his endorsement of President Obama for a second term in office, Bruce Springsteen noted “there is a fight going on to help make this a fairer and more equitable nation.” He spoke of Obama’s vision for “our devastated poor, our pressured middle class and yes, the wealthy too, whether they are male or female, black, white, brown, or yellow, straight or gay, civilian or military.” Whether one agrees with Springsteen’s politics or not, it’s long been evident that he cares deeply for his fellow Americans, sensing how so many of us feel, especially the guy working at the car wash.
Perspectives change over time. The regard one has for the working life a parent endured, the way one was raised and the old hometown can increase when life falls short of youthful aspirations. In less than ten years, the songs of Bruce Springsteen reflected what young people spurned, dreamed of, and then settled for, often gladly.
In Frank Capra’s film, It’s A Wonderful Life, George Bailey feels trapped in Bedford Falls, the town his father’s building and loan company has kept from falling into the hands of Mr. Potter, a carnivorous banker who wishes to own everything while keeping the town’s “lazy rabble” and “garlic-eaters” subservient. George tells Mary, a lovely young woman who desires nothing more than to marry George and raise a family in Bedford Falls, that he’s ready to hit the road. She’s apparently not in his plans as he tells her he knows what he’s going to do “tomorrow and the next day and the next year and the year after that.” Mighty sure of himself, he says, “I’m shaking the dust of this crummy little town off my feet and I’m gonna see the world.” George Bailey’s plans didn’t materialize. Bad breaks and circumstances got in his way. Still, he made the the best of it, marching down the aisle with Mary, siring a houseful of kids and learning, after a fitful time, that he had the devotion of everyone in town, save that greedy banker.
George Bailey yearned to leave his provincial surroundings, as would the protagonist in the title song of Bruce Springsteen’s third album, Born To Run (1975). He’s in an old town where all hope and vitality are in its past. Making a happy life there seems impossible. It’s a no-brainer; he and his girl, Wendy, need to make their move quickly, or they could be stuck. Forever. His case is stated urgently.
This town rips the bones from your back
It’s a death trap it’s a suicide rap
We gotta get out while we’re young
Who could blame them for wanting to leave? The town was a “runaway American dream.” It made little sense to stick around. The decline was already fast in motion. Blue collar towns throughout the US got grimier, poorer and emptier as manufacturing jobs moved to the Sun Belt or overseas. The steady paycheck and benefits, which made it easier to grin and bear the cold of the northern and mid-western states, weren’t guaranteed for life after all. So, like the couple in “Born To Run,” young people from the region known as the Rust Belt rode their motorbikes and imported sub-compacts to sunnier climes offering more promise. To their way of thinking, it was goodbye to hard winters where people froze in their shabby American cars.
At New York’s Palladium in April ’76, Springsteen and the E Street Band performed a rousing rendition of “We Gotta Get Out of this Place,” one nearly equating the boldness and intensity of The Animals’ hit version from ’65. The situation in the song is most similar to that found in “Born To Run,” The protagonist, from a working class family in an industrial neighborhood, sees no hope, telling his girl it’s time to leave the “dirty old part of the city where the sun refused to shine.”
They were grinding their lives away, with little to show for it. The guy tells his girl, “so young and pretty,” that it’s no life for them. He refers to his father’s hard life, soon coming to an end. There’s pity for his father and damned if he’ll let them do the same thing to him.
See my daddy in bed a-dyin’
Watch his hair been turning grey
He’s been working and slaving his life away
He’s been working…..
The working class didn’t seek nobility, just fair treatment. Daddy’s on his deathbed, having provided energy and strength to his employers. He has nothing to show for a life of hard labor but pain and bitterness while his employers dined on Beef Wellington at the Mayfair.
We trust they got out of that place, but maybe not. George Bailey didn’t. And who knows about Springsteen’s young couple, the tramps running to where they could “walk in the sun?” Home, with all the downsides, tugs at the heart. Some leave and some return, perhaps to stay, with new takes on what can be expected from life.
I Believe In A Promised Land . . . In his review of Born To Run, Greil Marcus relates to the power, drama, and romance of the album’s songs. Marcus noted the best of the songs were “adventures in the dark, incidents of wasted fury,” bringing to mind the “Chickie Run” in Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without A Cause. Wasted fury leads to snuffed-out lives, and stories of such are not only played out in films and songs, but also in a community near you. Often one reads of teen parties where kids are carried out feet-first when clowns show up with guns. Foolish posturing and violence come together, proving there’s something to the adage that youth is wasted on all the wrong people. Springsteen, just as Ray did, acutely presented the results when young people confuse machismo with courage. As would the teenagers in Ray’s film, headed back home after witnessing death, characters in Springsteen’s Born To Run songs would mature and come to accept adult responsibilities, leaving the wilder days behind. They’d make their way through what passes for the land of promise. And what could they count on along the way? The answer was pretty much declared on “Promised Land,” a vital song from Springsteen’s Darkness on the Edge album (1978). They would rely on their dedication “to live the right way, get up every morning and go to work each day.” It may not sound like much to wide-eyed, impatient youngsters, but as their parents advised them, it’s a start on the road to respect and independence. For doing the right thing, security, and a sense of dignity are expected. The people observed in songs by Springsteen believe a social contract between them and their community’s business leaders guarantees that much. And as time passes, such intangibles as security and respect, small potatoes to young people starting out, will be imperative. Expectations say the social contract must be honored. Sadly, it’s not always a given.
Springsteen acknowledges most of his material is emotionally autobiographical, and that’s likely plausible on “Factory,” the sweet and poignant song from Darkness on the Edge of Town. His father, Douglas Springsteen (died 1998), had a number of jobs, including cab driver, prison guard and as a worker in a rug mill. “Factory” sheds light on the resolve of people like his father, who worked hard, meeting the physical demands and risking his health to provide for his family.
Through the mansions of fear, through the mansions of pain,
I see my daddy walking through the factory gates in the rain,
Factory takes his hearing, factory gives him life,
The working, the working, just the working life.
The father is locked in a struggle to keep a roof above his family and food on the table. Dignity, as well as fair compensation, may not be accorded by his employers, no matter how honorable he was in his labors. He has to settle for knowing he’s done the right thing and that as the years go by, his family will love and honor him for it.
Keep Pushin’ Till It’s Understood . . . Stylistically, much changed in the songs of Bruce Springsteen over the five and a half years his first four albums were released. There were obvious changes, both lyrically and musically, with Springsteen often making forays in bold and uncharted directions. Yet, as the years passed, changes led to simpler presentations, with grim outlooks, as the title cut from Darkness on the Edge of Town attested.
Some folks are born into a good life
Other folks get it anyway anyhow
I lost my money and I lost my wife
Them things don’t seem to matter much to me now
Truths are recognized with little desire to go beyond the black and white of a hard reality. It’s quite a distance from the wordplay of “Blinded by the Light,” the song that opened Springsteen’s ’73 debut album, Greetings From Asbury Park.
Madman drummers bummers and Indians in the summer with a teenage diplomat
In the dumps with the mumps as the adolescent pumps his way into his hat
People listening to Springsteen in those early days could hardly find such lyrical stylings straightforward, but the verbal gymnastics succeeded as he veered from pretense, all the while wrapping his words with lively and impassioned music. In ’73 Springsteen had not captured the attention of the record business at large, but those relative few who listened to his debut album or saw him live were captivated.
As the years moved along, many of those taken with Springsteen in the earlier days were fascinated by the wide swath he had cut in five years. From the boardwalk to the badlands, the stories in his songs often mirrored what was happening in their own lives. Generational stand-offs. Failed relationships. Joyful, confident times of just a few years back regarded as ancient history. Life had gotten way too serious way too quickly.
On much of his 1980 album, The River, Springsteen and the E Street Band rocked with spirit and intensity. Some of the album’s songs came across as uninhibited celebrations, but the clamor would give way to matters weighing heavy on the heart, especially on the album’s title song. While the story in “The River” is not as woeful as others on the album, Springsteen’s solemn narrative and the song’s alluring melody demand close attention. It’s the story of a teenage couple, newlyweds emerging from a shotgun wedding; their carefree days long gone. The guy has a hard time finding work. He and his wife have difficulty sustaining the love that before came so easily. The young newlyweds quickly become a very old couple.
Two years after The River, Springsteen released Nebraska, a collection of mostly bleak and disquieting songs, all devoid of the exuberant sheen that infused much of his previous material. No E Street Band, just Springsteen and the few instruments he chose to play while recording the songs on a 4-track cassette recorder. When taking in Nebraska, one may have longed for the zest of a “Hungry Heart” or “Out in the Streets,” but this time Springsteen’s stories were dark and he was going deeper. He said the stories in some of the album’s songs were partly inspired by the writings of left-wing historian Howard Zinn. Springsteen was doing his homework and providing some lessons in history himself. The songs may not have been uplifting but they did intrigue. In the early part of a decade marked with conspicuous consumption and greed, the stories on Nebraska revealed the doleful side of life far beyond the mall.
You Gotta Stay Hungry . . . In June ’84, Springsteen, working again with the E Street Band, released the biggest album of his career, Born in the U.S.A.. One month after its release, the album was certified platinum by the RIAA; over the next 11 years, 14 million more copies would be sold. This was staggering to those, a small group in ’73, who would drive across county lines to one of the few stores within 50 miles to buy Greetings From Asbury Park. And it wasn’t just the sales success of Born in the U.S.A.that piqued longtime Springsteen followers; it was the album itself, especially its sound. The glossy production, heavy with synthesizers, encased his weakest collection of melodies ever. Much of the music could have been written for Bud Light commercials. This was disturbing indeed, particularly given that several of the album’s tracks were not only lyrically strong, but packed the punch of a Raymond Carver story. Springsteen,who expressed some reservations about Born in the U.S.A., acknowledged the album’s strongest attribute, saying “If you look at the material, particularly on the first side, it’s actually written very much like Nebraska — the characters and the stories, the style of writing — except it’s just in the rock-band setting.”
The slick finish, contrived melodies and histrionics on much of Born in the U.S.A. proved baffling to many longtime followers of Springsteen’s career. The grit, spark, and honesty that long pervaded Springsteen’s material was evident, yet sometimes difficult to grasp through the bombast; so ’80s, so tawdry, and so unlike Springsteen. The story of the luckless, unemployed Vietnam War veteran in the album’s anthemic title cut is painstakingly moving, yet the narrative is often overpowered by the overly dramatic production, leaving the listener lost in the catchy refrain, and often clueless to the song’s potent message.
All It Ever Does Is Rain . . . In The Sermon on the Mount, Jesus states* that God “makes his sun rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the just and unjust.” In Richard Wright’s short story, Bright and Morning Star, rain symbolizes gloom and sorrow. At the story’s beginning, the protagonist wonders,”Will it ever stop raining?” In “Who’ll Stop The Rain,” John Fogerty’s song about the war in Vietnam, there’s sadness and confusion when it seems the unjust perpetuate the storm. “Still the rain kept pourin’,” Fogerty sang, convinced blue skies were a world away.
Storm clouds surround the life of Bruce Springsteen’s character in “Downbound Train.” Experiencing setbacks and sorrows similar to those covered in “My Hometown” and “Born in the U.S.A,” the guy in “Downbound Train” has seen much of what he counted on in life vanish. He once had a job, a girl and the feeling that his best days were ahead, but quickly, his outlook was changing. Dark clouds gather around him, his luck goes bad and soon he feels “like a rider on a downbound train,” struggling to make sense of it all while trying to earn a paycheck. His drifting leads him to a job at the car wash,”where all it ever does is rain,” no doubt feeling he’s one of the “just” upon whom rain is unleashed.
Springsteen imparts such stories with an empathy that would do Atticus Finch proud. He actually senses what it’s like to walk around in another man’s shoes. His story in “Downbound Train,” is joined with a lovely melody, borrowed from Neil Young’s “My My, Hey, Hey (Out of the Blue).” The overall presentation in the song calls to mind Linda Loman’s edict that attention must be paid. The song itself certainly commands attention. However, Dave Marsh, one of the world’s most reliable Springsteen boosters, called the recording “incredibly sloppy,” despite it being relatively free of the shrill keyboards and contemporary rhythms so apparent on most of Born in the U.S.A.. 27 years after that album’s release, most of its recordings are still unworthy of the body of work he had already assembled. There was no sense in making an album that too often recalled the works of lesser artists that made the mid-’80s such a silly time. Yet “Downbound Train” still resonates; it’s a well-told story, beautifully sung with compassion and insight.
Factory Whistle Blows . . . The lives and situations presented in many of Bruce Springsteen’s songs, especially those concerning change and critical junctures remain vivid and relevant. His characters have their desires, most of which are simple; they also possess the ability to compromise and go the second mile, even while settling for a simple life which makes the dreams of long ago nothing but illusions and false beliefs. Perceptions change over time.
The couple in “Born To Run,” young and living in an America still hopeful, despite Vietnam and Watergate, could afford to shake off the tedium of their hometown and head elsewhere. They sought latitudes and opportunities their parents never envisoned. Perhaps their determination would get them to the place where they really wanted to go.
The father in “Factory” lived to work as the work took years off his life. He was long past learning anything new; it was enough to keep up with the responsibilities that had long been his.
A young couple who decided not to leave the community in which they had grown up, received a secondary education, married and started a family, see life crumbling in their town. Stores close; so does the mill. The jobs have gone and so has much of the population. That young couple in “My Hometown” have to pack up and head elsewhere, hundreds or thousands of miles away. The young family never felt they were born to run, but life and economic circumstances have them on the run.
Other couples in the songs of Bruce Springsteen feel upheaval too. Their jobs are in jeopardy and so are their relationships. In “The River,” the newlywed couple finds the bloom has fallen off the rose and they live each day as though it were a grinding routine, forgetting the wondrous days in the not-so distant past.
In “Downbound Train,” the guy loses his girl, his job and the life he knew. He hits bottom so quickly that he can’t be particular in finding work. The guy couldn’t imagine the sense of freedom felt by that young couple in “Born To Run.” He’d settle for the limited choices their parents had any day.
*Matthew 5:45, New Standard Version