Bruce Springsteen’s Roads, Highways Remain Vivid Through His Lyrics
By Marc Bona, The Plain DealerThe Plain Dealer
Few songwriters have traveled roads like Bruce Springsteen has.
The roads of his songs have taken him to the depths of despair and back to the land of hope. Tuesday, those roads lead him to East Sixth Street and Huron Road, where he and his E Street Band will play The Q.
His characters speed and ramble along America’s highways. They drive through misty rain (“Radio Nowhere”). They take the midnight road to the devil’s door (“Iceman”). And they race along a rattlesnake speedway in the Utah desert (“The Promised Land”).
The road traveled can be one of good intentions long forgotten (“We Take Care of Our Own”). Or just simply a dark place (“Further On (Up the Road)”).
For Springsteen, it seems his journeys never end. He has trudged through the swamps of Jersey, shuffled along streets, driven across the plains of Nebraska. His characters are bad guys, good guys and everyday guys.
Say what you want about the Boss, but he gets around.
Here’s a look at the imagery and themes found on the streets in a few of his songs.
Harry Scull Jr., The Buffalo NewsBruce Springsteen, at a concert Friday, April 13, in Buffalo.
“I walked the avenue, ’til my legs felt like stone.”
At this point, the character in “Streets of Philadelphia” has nothing left, nothing to look forward to. The only thing certain in his future is a horrible death, with few loved ones around. It’s as lonely as one can be.
The past, the present
There’s a dusty beach road in both “Thunder Road” and “Prove It All Night.” In the former it’s a sign of the past, the girl’s collection of ex-boyfriends. In the latter, a couple drives that dusty road to buy a ring and a dress as they look to their future.
“And everybody’s wrecked on Main Street from drinking unholy blood.”
There are only two types of characters in “Lost in the Flood” — those who are streetwise with little chance of breaking free from their ruined lives, and those who are dead. Innocence isn’t lost; it has run away.
“Sprung from cages on Highway 9 . . .”
The cages are classrooms, and the character is getting as far away as fast as he can. Who wouldn’t? After all, it’s a death trap. You get the feeling those broken heroes are always going to be out there in “Born to Run.”
“When the strip shuts down we run ‘em in the street, from the fire roads to the interstate.”
A man’s relationship has run its course. But the one bright spot is the road, and he’s on it, racing for money and bragging rights. Speeding away is all the characters have in “Racing in the Street.”
“New Jersey Turnpike ridin’ on a wet night ‘neath the refinery’s glow . . .”
No one wants to be pulled over. But when you’re the driver constantly checking your rearview mirror in “State Trooper,” when it’s late, and when you have a criminal record, you really don’t want to be pulled over. You can almost feel his heart race as he pleads over and over: “Please don’t stop me.”
“I pulled over the side of the highway and watched his taillights disappear.”
In “Highway Patrolman,” Springsteen imagines an honest cop named Joe Roberts with a troubled brother, Frank. When Frank messes up, it’s up to Joe to chase him. They get five miles from Canada, and at the moment of truth, Joe lets him go. Springsteen’s message is clear: Nothing feels better than blood on blood. Frank, by the way, is driving a car with Ohio plates.
“I met Wanda when she was employed behind the counter at the Route 60 Bob’s Big Boy . . .”
The entire song takes place on the road, a solitary driver, jazzed up along the New Jersey skyline and pining for his girl, with nothing to keep him company except bad radio and a Texaco road map. “Open All Night” is a toe-tapping ride that makes you imagine the refinery towers and the gas stations and the overpasses. And leaves you hoping the guy gets to his girl.
Life and death
In “Jungleland,” the street’s on fire, it’s alive, it’s where life is being played out, for better or worse.
“Hiding on the backstreets, with a love so hard and filled with defeat.”
In “Backstreets,” friends hang out, friends fall away. Who hasn’t had a summer like that growing up?
“Well the streetlights shine down on Blessing Avenue.”
These aren’t the gritty streets Springsteen’s characters cruise or strut along. It’s anyone’s suburb, and times aren’t that great (“Things been a little tight, but I know they’re gonna turn my way”). Those lights shine for everyone in “Girls in Their Summer Clothes,” on any street and in every diner and storefront. “In just a glance / down here on Magic Street / Love’s a fool’s dance / I ain’t got much sense but I still got my feet.”
“I’m driving a big lazy car rushin’ up the highway in the dark.”
Like the driver in “Open All Night,” here’s a guy who just wants to get to his girl. Thoughts of her make him appreciate everything around him, from nature’s surroundings to “that great jukebox out on Route 39.” “Valentine’s Day” is one of Springsteen’s sweetest songs, a peaceful waltz.
“I’m gonna meet you tomorrow night on Lover’s Lane / Ah, we can find it out on the street tonight, baby.”
In “Incident on 57th Street,” Johnny is torn between life on the street and time with his girl, Jane. He goes from trying to meet girls on Easy Street to the hustlers on Shanty Lane. The street offers everything, from gentle innocence to hard realism. It’s where kids play, where Johnny will meet his girl, and where trouble awaits. Johnny and Jane are good for each other. In the end, Johnny has to choose the life he wants. (At one of Springsteen’s last concerts in Cleveland, he dedicated this song to longtime rock writer Jane Scott.)
Now, the cars that traveled all these roads, well, that’s another story.
Bona is the editor of PDQ. Tuesday will be his 12th time seeing Springsteen in concert. To reach this Plain Dealer reporter: firstname.lastname@example.org, 216-999-5012