This gun’s for hire

Nick Hornby, in his essay on Bruce Springsteen’s “Thunder Road,” writes, “Very occasionally, songs and books and films and pictures express who you are, perfectly.” While in my dreams, I am named after the Wendy of “Born To Run,” “Atlantic City” has been playing in my car now for a month. Right after being assured that everything dies, baby, that’s a fact, I can press the leftward pointing arrow of repeat, and sure enough, I’m re-living the tale of a man who is down on his luck in the second Sin City.

It’s not the version from ’82’s “Nebraska.” I’ve been listening to the live version courtesy of MTV’s Unplugged days, though I’m pretty sure Bruce and his band plugged in for most of the set. I prefer this version because Bruce sounds tired as he sings “Atlantic City,” as tired as the protagonist in the song who knows too well that “our luck may have died.” Like many (early) Springsteen narrators, the character in this song seems to have got himself in a jam and has plans for escape – “I bought us two tickets on that Coast City bus.” Hopefully they’ll make it to the glittered promised land of Atlantic City and get the second chance they so crave, that is, if the highway isn’t too jammed with broken heroes on a last chance power drive.

Hornby makes me want to aspire to a deeper understanding of “Atlantic City,” but the truth is, when Bruce says “put your makeup on and fix your hair up pretty,” I suddenly feel like I am in a movie, like he is talking to a song version of me, and I am the woman who is ready to get on that Coast City bus and see if our luck can’t turn around.

I realize this is why I go to movies, why I watch television, why I can’t wait for Sunday to turn around and reveal a new episode of “The Sopranos” to me: I love to escape. And the numbers on the Nielsens tell me I’m not alone – maybe to some extent, we are all born to run. At least for the 5 minutes and 37 seconds of “Atlantic City,” I am not myself. I am with a man, headed to a land where the sand’s turning to gold. And it is only perhaps in these orbits of song and TV shows and movies that we are allowed to, like astronauts looking over the curve of earth, see our lives from a distance.

So many of Springsteen’s (early) songs are a yearning for what has left us behind. And while this is what most people find histrionic and bombastic about Springsteen, it is exactly why I mainline him, why the older I get, the more these songs make sense to me in a way I couldn’t imagine when all I knew of The Boss was a red kerchief hanging out of the butt of some faded Levi’s and “Born in the USA” might as well have been a Pepsi commercial.

I hated that Springsteen, because the song was on every turn of the dial and because I had no context for those opening bars of “Born in the USA” other than screaming stadiums and a sweaty guy on stage sweeping a supermodel off her feet and holding her out to the crowd like a virgin offering to appease the gods below. But I was twelve that summer, and a virgin myself, and it was before I had a job and before I’d gone down to any river, before any union cards and wedding coats. Depeche Mode made more sense in the 8th grade than Courtney Cox dancing on stage. But like anyone, it was only a matter of time before I grew tired and bored with myself.

“Springsteen went from being rock ‘n roll’s future to a lumpy, flag-waiving, stadium-rocking meathead in the space of a few months, with nothing much having changed, beyond the level of his popularity,” Hornby notes. I have come to love Springsteen in reverse of his popularity; what I hear now, as a woman almost three times as old as that Pepsi summer, is the longing for those times past, the longing to change what is impossible to change – the knowledge that “you ain’t a beauty but hey, you’re all right.” For me, the “cool rocking daddy in the USA” has given way to the guy trying not to lose that supermodel in the tunnel of love (my favorite Springsteen record).

So heartache, age, and one more thing: Bush has made me the Springsteen lover I am today. After six years with this dude, I am desperate for that Coast City bus, a person who has nowhere else to go except a land of luck and roulette wheels, of favors and sin. Dubya has become the inescapable.

“When it comes down to it, I suppose that I too believe that life is momentous and sad but not destructive of all hope, and maybe that makes me a self-dramatizing depressive, or maybe it makes me a happy idiot,” Hornby writes, again about Springsteen. And while he takes consolation in that “‘Thunder Road’ knows how I feel and who I am and that, in the end, is one of the consolations of art,” what I love about “Atlantic City” is that it is not who I am, perfectly, but it is who I want to be, a believer in the (also Justin Timberlakean) knowledge that “everything someday comes back,” a person able to escape the favors owed and able to find the luck that is waiting to be found – that another consolation of art is the promise that the courage of who we want to become can be found in a song on iTunes and then lived in our everyday lives, on the highways, in the tunnels of love, in the badlands waiting to treat us good.

17 responses to “This gun’s for hire”

  1. Tim Wager says:

    Nice! Wendy, you really should read Rob Sheffield’s Love is a Mix Tape. He’s a great writer on music and what it has meant to him over the years. It’s an amazing, very moving book about mourning the death of his wife while sifting through the mix tapes they shared. He’s a great writer, and the book is really smart about what pop music promises, delivers, and withholds at different stages of his life. (Rob’s also a friend of mine and Stephanie’s from grad school; Stephanie even makes it into the book.)

  2. Scott Godfrey says:

    In the last line of the last chorus of “Promised Land” Springsteen substitutes the word “and” with the word “yet:”

    The dogs on Main Street howl ‘cos they understand, if I could take one moment in to my hand. Mister I ain’t a boy, no I’m a man, yet I believe in a promised land.

    To me that “yet” is the most important word in the Boss’s entire cannon. This is where the entirety of his hope is manifested.

    WW: for someone not from Jersey, you sure get the beautiful poetry of East Coast style anti-heroes.

  3. Stephanie Wells says:

    Ah, my favorite kind of writing of all time: rock explication! What I find so interesting about this post is your wish to insert yourself into the songs; while I know Springsteen has plenty of female fans, what I’ve always hated about his songs–and argued with Scott, Tim, and every other fan I know about him–is that while he may be really voicing the angst of a million small-town men, I never can find anyplace in his songs for myself because they’re so gendered, and the women just have to stand there barefoot by the screen door waving while he roars away into a better life. I know Wendy does get to sit on the back of the bike, and I’m sure this comment will generate zillions of responses full of lyrics that contradict this sense that I have, but that’s the reason he’s never spoken to me. Do those female fans want to be with him (I know many do), or just want to be him (cause they never can)?

    I must admit that in recent years a few songs, including “Thunder Road,” have begun to wiggle chinks into my anti-boss armor and I’m starting to get some of them, but even that one–he invites her to come along, but adds “The door’s open, but the ride ain’t free”? Ew. Overall, I feel like all we can be is props in his songs, which I think is why I’ve resisted him (well, that and his voice) for all these years before even listening to the lyrics. Perhaps you will convince me otherwise..

  4. Stephanie Wells says:

    I feel the need to clarify something about my comment. I certainly do not believe that Bruce Springsteen or any other artist has any type of obligation to try to speak to or for all of his or her listeners/viewers. Absolutely not! I’m just trying to figure out why he’s never worked for me. I’m just not that guy.

  5. Rachel says:

    Mixtape Mondays from now on?

  6. AW says:

    Whenever you Greatwhatsiters take to writing about music, I realize that I really don’t get out much. Still, you make me consider my connection with Springsteen and other music. Thanks. (This post also prompted me to re-read “Drunken Sailor” from earlier this year, which I don’t know how I missed and really enjoyed.)

  7. W2 says:

    hey, y’all. thanks for reading, and the swell suggestions (book sounds great, TWag) and comments (oh, Scott, yes yes and yet, yes). And I feel you, SWells, in that the women in Springsteen’s world aren’t exactly dynamic — but as a listener, I am able to identify with both males and females in his songs — able to be at once the lipstick wearing girl and also a guy with debts that no honest man can pay. Good writers, I think, do this, allow us to shrug into someone else’s skin — I am Frank Bascombe one minute, Berie Cart the next. As a female listener, I want both: to be with him and to be him and somehow am able to hold both ideas in my brain at the same time.

    For me, the elegiac thrust of so many Springsteen songs boils down to simple yearning-filled feelings that rely less on gender than on simply being alive. His songs are like a freight train running through my head because I have these longings, I know that there’s 57 channels and nothing on, I know that there’s a joke here somewhere and it’s on me and who doesn’t know what it is to be alone and know you can’t go back home again. That Springsteen can couch these universal truths in mini-movies makes them go down all the more easier. For I am at once running on the bad side with my back against the wall and also sitting in my office needing to do laundry and worried that the suicide machine in my garage has a flat. I am not a prop in Springsteen’s songs but a willing – needing – participant, his songs becoming for a moment the Promised Land, found.

  8. W2 says:

    And, I have to add — oddly sometimes, I don’t like the sound of a Springsteen song — the jaunty saxophone of “Hungry Heart” is too much for me, but the song itself — I’ll lay down my money and play my part. It’s always been his lyrics that I’ve loved more than the music – I much much prefer Pete Yorn’s interpretation of “Dancing in the Dark” to the aforementioned Courtney Coxian version. Hearing different artists sing his songs – from Odetta to Patti Smith to the Hold Steady – spotlights his simple yet lovely words.

  9. jeremy says:

    this insightful, beautiful post almost makes me want to listen to the Boss… but, in truth, i’d rather just re-read your essay about the Boss…

  10. Dave says:

    I have to agree — enjoyed the essay, but I ‘m not going to rush out and download the Boss. I can’t get past the music, since I rarely listen to lyrics very closely at all. Luckily, Springsteen doesn’t need another fan.

  11. I sort of disagree. I remain open to finding the nuggets in there. “Thunder Road” grabbed me for the first time a few years ago. I can’t say I’ve ever bought an album — or even downloaded one in its entirety — but I’m trying to get past the idea that I can dismiss an artist of this stature categorically. It’s sort of like saying you don’t like seafood. Major portions of the world’s population subsist on this — there has to be something in there to explain why.

    I say this, having been sort of converted to Elvis Costello via TGW’s collective recommendation of Imperial Bedroom. I could do without all the outtakes on the bonus disc, though.

  12. W2 says:

    SW — a pal just sent me a funny short story by Tama Janowitz called “You and the Boss” (written in the second-person heyday of the mid ’80’s) about a woman that lobotomizes Bruce’s wife and takes her place beside him on tour (until she grows tired of making love next to Jersey landfills) and Bruce… doesn’t notice the difference.

    JZ/Barber — it is the music or lyrics or just both? Because his music is not well, pleasing, exactly. I wonder if y’all’d like the same lyrics with a different melody? I wasn’t a fan of “Born To Run” (I lumped everything into PepsiBruce and changed the station, always) until I found it in a poetry anthology in high school, right there between Tennyson and Olds. I’ve never heard the song the same way since.

  13. Jeremy says:

    for me, it’s not really the lyrics–it’s the music. sadly, like dave, i don’t really listen to lyrics much. so, yeah, you could probably take the boss’ lyrics and put them in, say, a camera obscura song, and i’d listen the night away…

  14. PB says:

    Coming in late as usual–but what a great post!!
    I am not a huge Bruce fan, perhaps I just haven’t discovered him yet, like AW I don’t get outside my ipod much. But I love your musings on escape, losing yourself in a world invites you in with both similarities and difference. The songs can reflect how you feeleven if the context is a million miles from reality. The way you weave the music, the essay and your own thoughts and experience is really amazing.

    I had funny experience the other day–my son and I found a mix CD of mine from about 5-6 years ago, we played it, thinking it would be fun. It was so dark and moody that I had to face a million questions before yikes, pop that puppy right out! Sometimes music can reflect a side that is just between you and the artist and the moment captured.

  15. T Hope says:

    That BITUSA era ruined Springsteen for me, too, and I don’t think I ever recovered, because as a kid I remember my mom and aunt listening to Born to Run, Rosalita, and even Hungry Heart, and I was aware even then that this guy had tapped into something really huge. By 84 I was too cynical to see his BITUSA album as anything other than a flag-waving tie-in with soda and the LA Olympics, and I just couldn’t stand it. So much of my musical development was shaped by what my mom listened to, as she was a
    hippierocker who had Zeppelin, the Stones, etc and who also went deep into a
    “native american/Country” phase somewhere in the late 70s where all she
    listened to was Kris Kristofferson, Rita Coolidge, and Hank Williams Jr. I hated that
    crap then (I mean, why listen to that when you can be assaulted with the life
    changing violence of punk?) and it took me years to really appreciate the beauty
    of old Country.

    Now my mom listens to David Grey, Lucinda Williams, and this band called the
    Trailer Park Troubadors, and a few years back I caught her reading the bible
    (this is the Mom who never LET me go to church). At least I still have all her
    old original discs (Humble Pie! Quicksilver! Johnny Cash! High Tides and Green
    Grass!), to remind me that, as my Papa once said, “The apple don’t fall

  16. T Hope says:

    whoa. sorry for the goofy spacing. it looked okay on my screen….