Now, the greasers, they tramp the streets or get busted for sleepin’ on the beach all night
Them boys in their high heels, ah, Sandy
Their skins are so white
And me, I just got tired of hangin’ in them dusty arcades
Bangin’ them pleasure machines
Chasin’ the factory girls underneath the boardwalk where they all promise to
Unsnap their jeans
Once upon a time, record companies had clubs that you could join. And then as part of that deal, they’d send you a record in advance to get your reaction to it. In late 1973 I belonged to Columbia Records’ club. One fine day they sent me this cheap little bendable record (flexi disc) that you’d usually see on the back of cereal boxes.
The song? “Blinded by the Light” by one Bruce Springsteen. Did I like it? Yes. Did it blow me away? Not initially. There was so much good stuff at the time I couldn’t process it all. (I didn’t really become a fan till I heard “Rosalita” the following year). Where is that record now? I wish to God I knew. But that cheap little piece of plastic turns out in retrospect to be the start of a long love affair with Bruce’s songs.
This song is a perfect example of Bruce’s verbosity in service of telling a story. As time went on, his lyrics became more streamlined, his music less jazzy, more straightforward.
Madman drummers bummers,
Indians in the summer with a teenage diplomat
In the dumps with the mumps as the adolescent pumps his way into his hat
It’s interesting, I think, to note that Bruce Springsteen has fully nine different songs that refer to reaching the Promised Land (including a song that goes by that name). Over and above the biblical reference, one dictionary refers to it as, “A longed-for place or situation where satisfaction and happiness will be achieved.”
And that years-long quest by his characters, it seems to me, is the essence of Springsteen and perhaps what separates him from just about every other songwriter. There’s a whole cinematic multi-year story going on.
As great as the Beatles were, there was no unifying theme among their songs over the years. But Springsteen has been singing more or less about some variation of the same oddball characters (Big Bones Billy, Spanish Johnny, Crazy Janey, Magic Rat, Bobby Jean, etc.) for a long time. They all come from shitty backgrounds and they all long to reach the promised land, very much like…
….Bruce himself. He grew up nowhere, had nothin’, hung out at the beach, was invisible in school, didn’t get along with his father (“Adam Raised a Cain”), didn’t have enough friends to get high with even assuming he wanted to. (Springsteen has been up front about all these things, often talking about them in interviews, books, and his concert raps).
One critic – who I think actually likes Springsteen’s stuff – said he is prone to “histrionics” and “pseudotragic beautiful loser fatalism.” (The funniest and most accurate quote I’ve ever heard).
As to that relationship with his father, if the title “Adam Raised a Cain” isn’t sufficient, consider these lyrics:
“You’re born into this life paying for the sins of somebody else’s past,
Daddy worked his whole life for nothing but the pain,
Now he walks these empty rooms looking for something to blame.”
So, for me, the best way to approach Bruce’s songs is from the perspective of that loner, maybe that self-described loser who is nobody and wants to be somebody, who wants to “quit this boardwalk life.” Sound too serious? Well, it is. Bruce is a serious guy and if there is any quibble I have with him is that he sometimes takes himself too seriously. As one critic said, “Doesn’t this guy ever get in the car just to go get a pack of cigarettes? It’s a major production every time he turns the ignition key.”
Well, yes everything is a big production for Bruce. And so yeah, life sucks if you’re stuck on the (virtual) boardwalk and there’s no place left to hide. But then you listen to Bruce’s songs and you go to one (or 100) of his concerts and there’s… joy and … release. And redemption. And since Bruce is a preacher, salvation. And you reach the promised land, if only for one night. But as he himself said, it’s all about release.
Whoa! Now, I’m getting too serious. Because Bruce is also about straight-up rock and roll, partying and having a good time. And that’s Bruce all over, back and forth from the Woody Guthrie poet, to the guy trying to get a better life to the “Ginny, ginny, ginny woncha come along with me” party guy. And if you think about it, it ultimately all makes sense. Asbury Park isn’t really a place – it’s a state of mind.
Anyway, this is Post 1 of my series on The Boss. I won’t necessarily pick songs that lay out the Bruce mythology. I’ll just pick songs I like. If the former happens too, bonus.
In the meantime enjoy this bluesy tune that was recorded around the time of “Wild, Innocent and E Street Shuffle” and inexplicably left off. (This album is on my Top Ten List). It would have made that majestic album even more so. (Speaking of cinematic, am I the only one to notice that there is a fifties B movie called “The Wild and The Innocent?”)
Oh and for the record, as so often happens, once Bruce became successful and started having kids, he and his father, Doug, reconciled. But before that, they were a generation gap writ large. And Bruce?
Did you hear, the cops finally busted Madame Marie
For tellin’ fortunes better than they do
For me, this boardwalk life’s through
You ought to quit this scene, too)
Next post – More Bruce