Bruce Springsteen knows rock’n'roll tells us lies – he loves the falsehoods, but he wants us to know the truth, too
When I was 19, I thought Paddy McAloon had been so clever. He had watched Bruce Springsteen’s kingdom become an empire through the mid-80s and responded with with an acerbic little song critiquing Springsteen’s lyrical preoccupations. “Look at us now, quit driving,” he sang on what became a hit single for Prefab Sprout, “some things hurt more, much more than cars and girls.” Yeah! You showed him! That big, bloated American with his will to rock power and his trite tunes about good ol’ boys in Cadillacs.
As you may have guessed, I didn’t actually know very much about Springsteen. If I did, I’d have realised that he, more than anyone, knows some things hurt more, much more than cars and girls. Those cars-and-girls songs we were pointing and laughing at? Most of them weren’t really about cars and girls. Even Racing in the Street, a song that talks explicitly and in great detail about cars, and about meeting a girl in a car, isn’t about cars and girls. Even Racing in the Street? Especially Racing in the Street.
One of rock’s commonest tricks is to pair triumphalist music with despairing lyrics. As it opens, Racing in the Street reverses that: it is sombrely paced, Roy Bittan’s piano picking out a phrase adapted from the Crystals’ Then He Kissed Me. That melody is dropped and Springsteen enters, telling us about his “69 Chevy with a 396/ Fuelie heads and a Hurst on the floor”. Read the lyrics to the first verse on the page, and you’d swear they’re from one of the Beach Boys’ hot rod albums – there’s no ambivalence or ambiguity here, and certainly not in the chorus: “Tonight, tonight the strip’s just right/ I wanna blow ‘em off in my first heat/ Summer’s here and the time is right/ For goin’ racin’ in the street.”
But it’s not a celebration. We know this from the music. And we wonder: why has he lifted a melody from the Crystals? Why does the title crib from Martha Reeves and the Vandellas? Why has Springsteen taken these anthems of youthful joy and turned them into laments?
Racing in the Street, I think, is about a self being torn apart. Our narrator’s at the age where he has seen his friends put their cars in the garage, forget their past, and – in his eyes – forget who they are. These are the guys who “just give up living/ And start dying little by little, piece by piece.” So why is he conflicted? Because he’s also at the age where he’s coming to realise that maybe there’s more to life than cars. That’s why we’ve got those musical steals: they are the songs of his youth, the songs before there was doubt. The songs from when racing in the street seemed like a worthy life ambition.
And so, in the third verse – think of it more like a film: this is the third act – he meets a girl (and isn’t it telling he encounters her “in a Camaro with this dude from LA”? The car, not the boyfriend, is what he notices first). He races the Camaro, he wins, and then he “drove that little girl away”.
And here the perspective shifts: our narrator stops telling us about his car, and we learn about the consequences of investing your hope in your youthful dreams. Because the girl has been driven away in both senses – his fecklessness, his insistence on defining himself through his own desires leaves no room for the compromise that is necessary in an adult life. Just three years after the couple met, “she stares off alone into the night/ With the eyes of one who hates for just being born.”
What Springsteen understands more than any other artist I can think of is that the transcendence of great rock’n'roll comes from it being built on lies. Rock’n'roll almost never tells you the truth: from Elvis to Oasis it has insisted you can live the moment; it writes the listener cheques that real life can’t cash. We’re gonna live forever, we’re gonna party til we puke, we’ll revel in girls, girls, girls. That is not real life, and Springsteen doesn’t want to pretend it is, even if he thrills to the idea of it.
And so we get this – forgive the pretension – dialectic. Springsteen wants us to celebrate, he wants us to have that moment of transcendence. On stage he works tirelessly, hamming it up shamelessly, cajoling the audience to that point where we embrace the deception – where for that moment all our worries and fears are forgotten – and we can be heroes, just for three hours. But all the time he is reminding us of what lies outside, and so – as another song puts it – “we’ll keep pushin’ till it’s understood/ and these badlands start treating us good.” (I think the most telling exploration of this chasm at the heart of Springsteen’s music is heard on bootlegs of his 1978 tour, where he would often open with an old rock’n'roll cover – Oh Boy!, Rave On, Summertime Blues, Good Rockin’ Tonight – and then pile straight into Badlands. He told the lie, then he lifted back the veil and exposed the lie.)
Springsteen’s music resonates so powerfully for me because it enables me to be in two places at once: to be both the kid dancing and shouting and drinking and singing, and to be the adult worried how his kids will fare, whether there’ll still be a job this time next year, whether I’m being fair to my wife about this and that. I don’t think there’s anyone else who tells us that both these experiences are not just valid, but vital. Embrace contradiction, Springsteen tells us, it’s what makes us who we are.
And back to the song, where the contradiction is indeed embraced. It ends with man and woman together, somehow. “Tonight my baby and me, we’re gonna ride to the sea/ And wash these sins off our hands.” One more chorus, and we enter a coda that washes up again and again, like that sea, unending, fading slowly, letting us know there was no cataclysm, that there is hope, somewhere, no matter how hard it might seem to believe that.