Thursday, June 4, 2009

Song Lyric of the Day (Bruce Springsteen, to a Friend)

“Now we went walking in the rain talking about the pain from the world we hid
Now there ain’t nobody nowhere nohow gonna ever understand me the way you did.”—Bruce Springsteen, “Bobby Jean,” from the Born in the U.S.A. LP (1984)

In the long career of Bruce Springsteen, fans might have other CDs that are favorites, but Born in the U.S.A.—released on this date 25 years ago—made him indisputably a superstar.

It yielded seven Top 10 singles, even making the pride of Freehold, N.J., briefly the object of GOP adulation when Ronald Reagan praised the title song without comprehending its angry lyrics.

Almost any song you take from this album has a claim on your attention: “Born in the U.S.A.,” with its fist-pumping beat at such variance from its content about a bitter, discontented lower-class Vietnam vet; “Dancing in the Dark,” putting The Boss front and center performing for the first time on a music video (and featuring a young Courteney Cox as the “fan” he impulsively pulls out of the audience); or “I’m on Fire,” whose lyrics of desire sound made for Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash at their slim, young, and dangerous best.

But I keep returning to “Bobby Jean,” one of the most personal, yet odd, songs in the entire Springsteen catalog. 

Why odd? Many people—myself among them—were surprised to learn that this was not a love song to a woman, but a tribute to longtime friend “Miami Steve” Van Zandt, who had just decided to leave the E Street Band and strike out on his own.

Nowhere in the song is the word “love” even mentioned. So what could have given us the idea that it concerned a woman?

Well, because most of Springsteen’s songs to this point were. But listen to the song again—or, better yet, just read the words. 

From the first line to the last, it’s all about loss, regret, even elusiveness (the second line goes, “Your mother said you went away”)--the type of thing you associate with a lost love.

People embrace this tune so much, I think, because it is about finding a soulmate—the irreplaceable person who knew you when, who accepts you for what you are despite everything, who will always be there for you. 

There is a form of love here, but it’s less a matter of eros than caritas (i.e., spiritual or brotherly love).

Springsteen’s CDs have moved progressively toward embracing community, but this process starts by connecting to one person. In a time of unrest and disorder, when even the values of “My Hometown” have come asunder, that bond gives us enduring hope. 

It makes us feel blessed—bright and warm—like the Clarence Clemons sax solo that concludes this song about arguably the charter member of Springsteen’s “Band of Brothers.”

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