Sunday, August 07, 2005

No. 3 Thunder Road - Bruce Springsteen

This is where the rule about having only one song per artist really starts to be count. I could make an entire top 10 list purely of Bruce Springsteen songs. The howling, exaggerated anguish of "Backstreets", the folkish tragedy of "The River", the exhilaration of "Rosalita" and the careering escapism of "Born to Run" would be in there, just for a start.

Never considered particularly fashionable or cutting edge, Bruce Springsteen transcends fashion and has made more memorable music than just about anyone else. The Beatles, the Rolling Stones--sure they might have been more "important" and influential, but how many of their songs do you really feel *fond* of, want to come back and explore and revisit? In how many do you feel like you can actually imagine the characters, and wonder about their lives?

In a genre (rock music) which overrates discontinuities, Bruce Springsteen’s songs acknowledge and celebrate a historical tradition of American pop music and popular culture. Woody Guthrie, Elvis, the Motown back catalogue, Phil Spector’s girl bands, West Side Story, westerns and James Dean movies—they’re all rolled into his music.

Inaccurately pigeonholed early on as a new version of the more intellectual, acerbic Bob Dylan, and later dismissed as just writing about “cars and girls”, Springsteen sits solidly in the tradition of American narrative, spinning tales of people growing up, having parties, getting laid, hitting the road, messing up, losing their jobs and trying to get by. He's John Steinbeck with sex; Jack Kerouac with a sense of humour. His songs--especially the early ones—are as full of wacky characters as a novel by Thomas Pynchon or Philip Roth. I guarantee there’s a few American Studies theses out there he’s inspired.

For all that Bruce Springsteen has carried on making great music for over 30 years, in my view it's in the 70s that his genius was displayed to best effect. This was when he and his E-Street band created a warm, exuberant wall of sound, where the piano and organ wrestled for space with the saxophone, drums and guitars, and the musicians sounded like they were having the time of their lives.

It’s also the era when his lyrical creations where at their dense, colourful, verbose best. One accusation that’s been levelled at Springsteen is that he’s excessively bombastic and overblown. Which is probably true, but his charm, wit, skill and sincerity make up for it. Who could possibly expect to get away with a line like this?

In the day we sweat it out on the streets of a runaway American dream

Bruce Springsteen could—partly because he invented the clich├ęs, and partly because a few lines later he comes up with:

Wendy let me in, I wanna be your friend, I wanna guard your dreams and visions

That’s something Kerouac just wished he thought of. And how’s this, from 1973’s “For You”?

I was wounded deep in battle / while you stood stuffed like some soldier undaunted
For her Cheshire smile, I’d stand on file / she’s all I ever wanted

His internal rhymes, use of language, and snappy ability to create a vivid scene in a few words would put to shame all but the most talented of hip-hop artist--and he’s got empathy, irony and optimism that Eminem and Public Enemy don’t--not to mention the melodies.

“Thunder Road”' is from 1975, its piano-and-harmonica intro easing us in to the classic Born to Run album. As many agree, this goes very close to being the greatest rock n’ roll song ever. Now rock n’ roll, at its core, is a young person’s game. A few manage to soldier on and create relevant music into their middle age. But it requires a fair swag of youthful naivety to think you can reject, and possibly create anew, everything about both yourself and the world around you—a belief which lies behind much of the best and most vital rock music. “Thunder Road” is convinced of this truth.

The song opens with a brilliant cinematic scene, where:

The screen door slams / Mary’s dress waves
Like a vision she dances across the porch as the radio plays


The radio is playing Roy Orbison (intertextuality in pop music! The American Studies students are having orgasms!) as the protagonist tries to convince Mary to escape with him. He's grown up enough to know it isn't a fairy tale; he tells Mary that you aint no beauty but hey you're alright, and says of himself:

Now I'm no hero, now that's understood / all the redemption I can offer, girl, is beneath this dirty hood ("He-ro and Automobile: Sexual and Religious Symbolism in Springsteen", maybe?)

But he's still idealistic enough to promise that the night's busting open, these two lanes could take us anywhere... The tempo rises, the band comes in, and then they're cruising out on the open road, letting the wind blow back Mary's hair. At least in his imagination; at the end of the song he's still on the porch trying to persuade her to jump in the car.

It's a classic song about escape and redemption, making you want to jump in a car and roll down the window whenever you hear it. It's about getting out while you're young, and could really only have been written by someone still seriously young. But while you might get old and tired, the way "Thunder Road" makes you feel doesn't. Very close to my favourite ever.

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