Cat Kron: What Does The Boss Want? (And What Do We Want From Him?) Notes on Bruce Springsteen's "Racing In The Street"
What Does The Boss Want? (And What Do We Want From Him?)
Notes on Bruce Springsteen’s “Racing in the Street”
I met her on the strip three years ago in a Camaro with this dude from L.A. I blew that Camaro off my back and blew that little girl away.
I nearly missed Lucas’s serenade. Having drunk a lot at the rehearsal dinner I was now too hungover to swim with the babies, dads, and motley friends of the couple who’d shown up for day two of a four-day wedding, and when I awoke from under a tree the swimmers had scattered. Through a high set window you could just make out the wedding party assembled around the groom on piano. I caught the tail end of Lucas’s performance, in which my date’s L.A. friend did a tender rendition of “Racing in the Street” for his wife to be and her relatives. Los Angeles seems to breed this ease of performing. No one I’ve met on the East Coast would seriously attempt Springsteen, nor do I know anyone who could pull it off if they tried. And then the lyrics of this song: She sits on the porch of her Daddy's house, but all her pretty dreams are torn. She stares off alone into the night with the eyes of one who hates for just being born. What would compel you to perform this at your wedding?
The dirge-like introduction to “Racing in the Street” is slow, but utterly unlike the slow builds towards the sweeping anthems typical of more recent stadium rock; rather like the pace of rusted-out gears grinding into motion. This F major progression triggers a sense of regret over things that haven’t happened to you or anyone you know. But following the song to its inevitable end at the water’s edge and morbidly looping it back, you get the distinct sense that your pain is singled out and commemorated. The song is neither pop nor rock, and I’d argue that it transcends them. A frequent Springsteen refrain in interviews is the primacy of the connection between performer and audience, predicated upon and welded during live performances. The universal register at which The Boss’s best songs operate is his great gift as a performer, and as a songwriter his great flaw.
In his essay “Michael,” a eulogy of sorts to Michael Jackson, the cultural critic Hilton Als described the King of Pop attempting “to wrest from the world what most performers seek – a nonfractured mirroring.” Pop performers are certainly equipped to hold this mirror. They take on the terroir of the zeitgeist and their lives inevitably reflect allegorical aspects of the cultural climate from whence they sprang. But this remove, even stiltedness, gives rock performers the space to generate songs that are as uniquely stirring as they are cheesy. Where pop tropes are topical, rock tropes are timeless. What pop reflects in a moment of consensus, rock condenses into generality, applying “sort of” to most people and specifically to no one and everyone at once. It’s the crux of Springsteen’s problem as he confronts his crowd. How to make himself a mirror for all of them and retain his authentic self.
February 19, 2014, Sydney: The Boss’s fans fill Allphones Arena, Australia’s largest stadium. They devour a three hour set from the perennially muscular performer. At the two hour mark the keyboardist lays down the chords that initiate “Racing” and they cheer, then hush. Summer’s here and the time is right. Springsteen holds his arm aloft, and it’s just him, the piano, and a dark sea of arms extending toward his.
Some guys they just give up living and start dying little by little, piece by piece. Some guys come home from work and wash up, and go racing in the street.
“Racing in the Street” is, at least ostensibly, about the culture of muscle cars and drag racing. I got a ‘69 Chevy with a 396, Fuelie heads and a Hurst on the floor. She’s waiting tonight down in the parking lot outside the 7-11 store. At the time of the song’s inception Hurst Performance had a built up a reputation in the Northeast, originally as a manufacturer of bumpers for Volkswagen and later as a purveyor of enhancement shifters for drag racers and other custom cars. A 28-year-old Springsteen wears a Hurst T shirt in a series of now iconic 1977 promotional portraits. And Springsteen’s own 1957 Chevy with a Hurst shifter and four-barrel carbs, purchased with royalties from Born to Run, was often referenced in interviews from these heady years, though he’d sold the car shortly after the record’s release on account of the attention it drew. Muscle car enthusiasts have questioned whether one could build out a Chevrolet to the lyrics’ specifications, with the Hurst enhancer and the Fuelie heads. Why bother with the model of the performance transmission if it’s not accurate? Springsteen delivers these specs, characteristically, with complete conviction despite his lyrics’ friction against the somber backing. At any rate it feels churlish to quibble, and they’re already off with Me and my partner Sonny built her straight out of scratch and he rides with me from town to town. We only run for the money, got no strings attached, we shut em up and then we shut em down. Tonight, tonight, the strip’s just right, I want to blow em off in my first heat. By now the drummer is tapping on the rim and things are moving elsewhere.
For all the shut down strangers and hot rod angels rumbling through this promised land
When you watch footage of Springsteen performing “Racing” on the 1978 tour, his sincerity is evident. In the years immediately succeeding Born to Run’s release, contract disputes had mired his E Street Band, leaving them legally unable to record new material and in danger of being left behind. Springsteen settled charges with his former manager in ‘77 and the band recorded Darkness on the Edge of Town in intense, prolonged sessions throughout the following year. To an extent, the band was now riding a comeback borne of little more than dogged faith, having survived two years of touring the old songs to keep from going under. The Darkness tour marks the new album’s debut. Everyone on stage is plainly thrilled, but Springsteen vibrates with the bray of a spellbound horse being exorcised from his chest.
“Springsteen’s wholeness…springs from his noble savage persona. Such shocking innocence can’t be faked, but it also suggests that Springsteen scarcely exists outside the rock and roll world that created him,” critic Stephen Holden wrote in a 1982 review. “Fifteen years ago, rock and roll music stormed the frontier of contemporary culture, and the major albums of the day  addressed the moment… [Springsteen] addresses rock and roll.” But what did “rock and roll” mean in 1982?
In a turn whose irony was duly noted by music critics, the genre set in motion by black rhythm and blues had been largely appropriated by young white men. (“Racing in the Street” made direct reference to the 1964 Motown hit “Dancing in the Street” by Martha and the Vandellas.) But even as the narrative of Springsteen’s own observation, the Irish/Italian American experience he grew up around in New Jersey, fit squarely into rock’s established fan demographic, the genre itself was revealing the effects of fissures of the past decade. It’s this white male seriousness of Springsteen’s mission, his uncritical idolization of and investment in an apocryphally uncomplicated idea of rock and roll that would curtail his appeal among subsequent generations, while cementing the commercial purchase of his novelty as the 1980s rolled in.
In current American headlines, young straight white males mobilize at Tea Party rallies and open fire at elementary schools. They do not represent as pop culture scions. A heteronormative white man is not a particularly cool thing to be at the moment (though it retains other perks). Nor do most young white men, at least outside the American South, listen to music that speaks explicitly to their immediate socio-demographic experience, the way white America recognized itself in Springsteen, and particularly in Born to Run.
Nineties alternayouths turned out to be mostly uninterested in sincerity however packaged, and their gimlet-eyed successors preferred their vintage music a little further outside their experiential wheelhouse. Luckily for Springsteen, his Boomer fanbase proved both loyal and willing to pay the three figure ticket costs for his shows. Not that The Boss is not entirely without younger listeners either. In fact there now seem to be two distinct strains of post-Boomer Springsteen fans – the mostly urban tastemakers who appreciate his music as “white camp” à la yacht rock, and the mostly rural superfans with whom his old-school values resonate, tastemakers be damned. But these pockets are blips in the cultural landscape, compared to the numbers commanded by current hit performers. The U.S.’s Top 40 listings and top rated Pandora stations indicate that we as a country are mostly listening to rap and hip hop, genres which are predominantly black-identified and black-identifying.
This ethnic diversification of bankable star personae is as good for music as it is for the general state of affairs. But the zeitgeist’s effect on popular alternative music (née rock and roll) has been asphyxiating. In the late 1970s, leading rock critic Lester Bangs articulated rock from pop, explaining, “Rock and roll is not an art form – it’s a raw wail from the bottom of the guts.” In Bangs’ estimation, rock privileged uncalculated, “natural” creative sounds and live performance, as opposed to the studio-produced sounds of disco. Bangs’ distinction is complicated by rock and roll’s archival tendency, in which its musicians actively sought out and cited recordings of their predecessors, as well as counter-examples of extensive production among some of the leading rock performers of the time. To a certain extent the rock category is one that’s internally qualified vis-à-vis its distinction from pop, but this dichotomy has always been riddled with inconsistencies and overlap. Rock is perhaps more accurately the sensibility of rebellion, self-consciously distilled through the filters of its own continuously archived back catalogue. It’s a contradiction Springsteen himself wrestles with – between his inclination towards live performance and the “raw wail,” and the meticulous craftsmanship of his songwriting and recording process. As memorialized within indie oral history, Springsteen heard a Suicide album and approached the protopunk band to collaborate. He was soundly rebuffed. While Springsteen’s own songs had some of the rage and rawness of punk, he was forever attempting to reconcile this transparency with the glossy proficiency that gave his music its pop credence.
In terms of tackling the white male psyche in a slickly produced format, the Boss’s closest successor is probably not the contemporary alternative rock of the Coasts but Southern new country – a genre where straight white men are still disproportionately represented, and whose tropes of sincere, misunderstood drifters, hetero romance, veterans, financial difficulty, and other proletariat themes of the American heartland he mapped out decades earlier. Contemporary country’s hardscrabble hero is an iteration of the small town Boss of Springsteen’s early albums, although he’s reemerged considerably less jaded and more square.
The penultimate line before “Racing in the Street”’s coda – Tonight my baby and me, we’re gonna ride to the sea, and wash these sins off our hands – employs a theme of water as site of renewal that is itself finite. Springsteen revisits this iconography two albums later in The River’s titular single of Holden’s review, where the now-dried riverbed acts as placeholder for the protagonist’s fallow, loveless marriage to the girl who used to fuck him there. (“Now those memories come back to haunt me. They haunt me like a curse. Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true? Or is it something worse that sends me down to the river though I know the river is dry.”) And so in the 2013 country single “Drink a Beer,” Luke Bryan sings that he is going to “sit right here on the edge of this pier, watch the sunset disappear, and drink a beer.” The singer, mourning a fallen Iraq War comrade via proxy of water, is unable to make sense of this development within the greater plan for his life. The lake is where he and his friend sat together; now this lake offers itself as placeholder for the body of his friend, an empty/full body that suffices to manifest the emotional experience of loss, of a resonant but ungraspable person. But while indebted to Springsteen’s iconography, Bryan’s metaphoric pilgrimage to the water’s edge stops short of Springsteen’s abject wallowing in the dry riverbed, thus skirting a significant innovation in his predecessor’s catalog: Springsteen not only wanted your empathy; he courted your self-loathing. His everyman is you with all your festering sores.
Whether a performer defines his fanbase or whether the fanbase ultimately dictates the terms via which the performer is read is an uroboros. And Springsteen’s own liberal politics have occasionally clashed with his conservative base (see 2004’s New York Times’ article, “For Fans at Springsteen Concert, the Music Seems to Matter More Than the Message,” in which Right-leaning ticket-holding fans at a Springsteen benefit concert expressed their disapproval of the show’s cause to oust George W. Bush). Despite Springsteen’s track record as a political campaigner for the Left, direct political reference is rare within his songs, which are, after all, intended to be universal. But there’s plenty that’s polarizing within the Springsteen catalog for those inclined to unpack. The songs are distended with half-baked clichés – resolving conflicts by driving somewhere else, prostitutes with hearts of gold, The Man, mysteries of the night. There’s a scattering of savior motifs. The Boss can remind you of that dickhead in your life with whom the argument is never worth the effort.
There’s the need for women as silent accomplices. Beyond inspiring or thwarting the dreams of the narrator, women don’t seem to do much in Born to Run, Darkness on the Edge of Town, The River, Nebraska, and Born in the U.S.A., the five Springsteen albums that span the decade 1975 to 1985. Springsteen is ungenerous and flat in his treatment of women on these records. But he’s riffing on a preexisting narrative within the journeyman folklore he idolizes. To demand that he depict women in a more nuanced, “accurate” way would be to implicitly suggest his workaday, blue-collar heroes are themselves an accurate depiction of real American folk, rather than romanticizations come to life. It would be to equate the bandana’d performer himself with this quintessential American man of his invention.
In “Where Is the Promised Land?: Class and Gender in Bruce Springsteen’s Rock Lyrics,” feminist cultural geographer Pamela Moss infers from “Racing in the Street”s We take all the action we can meet and we cover all the northeast state a lyrical implication of drag racing competitions as metaphor for women’s bodies at the ready for dominant men. Which is a fair extrapolation. But perhaps only as relevant as my comparing Bruce Springsteen to a dickhead indicates my own gendered phrasing for emotional weight. That is to say, most colloquialisms are rooted in gender. The gender binary is a pretty sexy system – instant, legible, impactful.
Pop itself has frequently been construed as female within the dichotomy of popular music versus music of substance, as typified in “Mass Culture As Woman: Modernism’s Other” (1986), in which cultural theorist Andreas Huyssen critically positions female-gendered pop music as subaltern to male-gendered music with critical cache. The notion of commercial production as feminine is itself a curious one, seeming to reconfigure the pop versus rock binary as an extension of the “spurious” mass production Clement Greenberg pitted against the virtuosic avant-garde of abstract art. While it’s unclear exactly how any sort of commercialism could be construed as a female phenomenon (and kitsch for Greenberg was never explicitly gendered), in terms of boots on the ground pop has always counted more women among its ranks than rock. If you run with this dichotomy, you might chalk up the agro-vehemence of punk, the pre-sexed/asexual separatism of indie and the alternatingly apocalyptic and raunchy themes of metal (all nascent genres at the time of Darkness’ release) as stances meant to distance these genres from the feminine kitsch of pop romance.
Springsteen’s ambivalence towards pop and rock, both rapidly splintering and mutating into new genres by the turn of the eighties, is evident in his heroes’ desire for genuine connection hobbled by a resolute refusal to explore the nuances of female and male experience. Pop demanded The Boss be tender; rock made him hard. The Springsteen that resulted was capable of great warmth but incapable of empathy. Whether the result of life experience or the need to keep stylistic pace with his no longer quite youthful fanbase, it’s worth noting that Springsteen’s less rock-driven albums that succeeded Born in the U.S.A. were significantly richer in terms of the romantic relationships they explored.
LUCAS AND BECKY’S WEDDING
Some guys they just give up living and start dying little by little, piece by piece. Some guys come home from work and wash up, and go racing in the street.
According to the documentary The Promise: The Making of Darkness on the Edge of Town, Springsteen recorded multiple versions of “Racing in the Street”. As he describes,
“There was one where there was no girl in it. [It was a] continuation of the story of the two guys in the first verse… I asked Steve [Van Zandt, E Street Band guitarist] and Steve says, ‘The one with the girl in it.’ He says, ‘Yeah, you know. That’s what happens in life. Two guys are pals and then a girl comes along and that’s it.’ When I asserted the relationship in the last verse, it made sense of the journey that the guy’s taking.”
But now there's wrinkles ‘round my baby's eyes and she cries herself to sleep at night. When I come home the house is dark. She sighs, "Baby did you make it all right?”
“A girl comes along and that’s it” is one approximation of marriage. But it felt like a stark cut for Lucas and Becky’s wedding. I’d known them only peripherally but Lucas and Becky, my date’s L.A. friends, were an impressively fun couple. The long weekend during which they got married had that feeling that you’d look back on it as the best wedding you were ever going to go to except maybe your own. Which made Lucas’s tearful serenade especially curious, given the convivial tone of everything that preceded and followed the performance.
As Dave Marsh, Springsteen’s confidant and the author of both volumes of The Bruce Springsteen Story recalls, Springsteen introduced “Racing in the Street” as the finale for the 1985 Born in the U.S.A. tour with this story:
“It was around the end of summer, and I had this old convertible Camaro. There was this little strip off the river–I guess it was like a junkyard, where people from town would come down and they’d dump the things that they didn’t want anymore and just leave em out there to rust. But there was this little spot where we’d all meet on Friday and Saturday, and that was the first place that I met her. And it was one of those–like, when you’re first goin’ out with somebody and everything’s funny, it’s easy…
But then time kinda passed, and I don’t know what happened. It seemed like the things that made her happy once didn’t make her happy anymore. And I was spendin’ my time tryin’ to figure out kinda what had happened, what I could do to make her happy again. And she got to where she didn’t want to talk–she wanted to stay in at night. And she’d take my keys so I couldn’t take the car out.
And it was hard to get her to understand, and I know she knew because she remembered–she loved it once–that when I took the car out and when I won, that it was the only time that I really got to feelin’ good about myself.”
As Marsh tells it, Springsteen ends the song with a spoken postscript. “So that was the night that we left.” The band swells and the confessional folds like a wave over Springsteen the performer and Springsteen the character who did these things, twisting one with another in the murky darkness.
But of course, this is deception. Bruce Springsteen is performing.The limit of The Boss’s appeal lies in the reality of this performer’s investment in embodying a working-class hero. To what extent does he acknowledge his hero is fictional? Desire and belief once bonded cannot be split without damage to both. Springsteen’s promise, what he’s always driving at, is the embodiment of roll as shared experience. His insistence on an unmediated connection between author and protagonist, between performer and audience, at once serves to undermine his postmodern project and defines him as an icon. But his unique capacity to equivocate is the tourniquet that staunches the emotional river to which The Boss lays claim. Disingenuousness is Springsteen’s sticking point. In lieu of the oblique figures of Dylan or Young, and in starker contrast to the insouciant, ironic poses of current pop icons, The Boss’s duplicity resides in his explicitly stated belief that authentic communication can be made through rock, and transferred between performer and audience. You can see this transference of belief in the devotional tone with which everyone interviewed in The Promise refers to Springsteen. This figure who asks again and again for our belief is so fully realized that you barely notice him slipping into character in the footage. Springsteen: “You know a lot of the songs deal with my obsession with sin – what is it. What is it in a good life. Because it plays an important part in a good life also. How do you deal with it. You don’t get rid of it. How do you carry your sins. That’s what the people in ‘Racing in the Street’ are dealing with. How do you carry your sins.”
How do you carry your sins?
A convincing mirroring is the white lie that defines great performers. But it’s also an apt depiction of what you’re looking for when you forge any kind of union, with another person, with an audience, with yourself. Maybe one interpretation of marriage is that it gives you an answer to this open question of disappointment, the impossibility of becoming anyone’s other half. You’re operating from an ideal, performing the gestures of communion and hoping the discrepancies will resolve themselves in the future. Maybe the stakes of “Racing in the Street” are the weight of the everyday disappointments of people you’ve made commitments to. These small, willed pacts of understanding of our past and future failings, the grace of blind faith despite it. By asking advance forgiveness of another person for everything you are going to do and by acknowledging their capacity for failure in return.