I heard the voices of friends vanished and gone
At night I could hear the blood in my veins
Black and whispering as the rain.”--Bruce Springsteen, “Streets of Philadelphia,” from the Philadelphia Soundtrack CD (1993)
One of the most searing songs in the overflowing catalog of Bruce Springsteen is “Souls of the Departed,” from his 1992 Lucky Town CD. It evokes “young lives over before they got started,” whether in the first Iraq War or in the inner cities of Southern California. The same title could just as easily have been used for the opening song of Philadelphia—except that this time, the narrator rightly fears that he will soon join the “friends vanished and gone” because of the AIDS crisis. He already feels like a wraith-like creature (“Saw my reflection in a window I didn't know my own face”).
On this date 20 years ago, Springsteen beat out an idol of his, Neil Young, for Best Original Song at the Oscars. Coming as it did in the midst of a career drought, two years after The Boss had launched a tour to promote the Lucky Town and Human Touch CDs without the E Street Band, the victory confirmed that he still possessed serious songwriting chops, no matter the (temporary) vicissitudes of his career.
The lyrics are simple and stark, yet, for all that, Springsteen accomplished something pretty daring here, becoming, in the words of The Nation columnist Eric Alterman, “the first heterosexual rock star ever to sing in the voice of a homosexual man.” An audacious phrase in the song, “faithless kiss,” comes just before the final chorus. It more than acknowledges the intimacy that led to a terrible disease, or the abandonment and betrayal by those who no longer want to be associated with a disease carrier; it also forms part of the question of tolerance that is the real subject of the movie and song. In other words, are you, the listener, ready to keep faith with an afflicted person who, at heart, is your brother—or abandon him, faithlessly? (“Ain't no angel gonna greet me/It's just you and I my friend”).
(There are some among my readers who, recalling another recent post on The Boss, might ask, “Isn’t this a bit much in the course of a week?” To which I say: There is no such thing as too much Bruce Juice!)