Tramps Like Us

Somehow Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run is forty years old. This Atlantic piece gets to the heart of why his music hit so hard at the time, once he stopped trying to be too Dylan for Dylan (not that I minded that). The first song of his that made me a fan was ‘Rosalita’ because of its buoyant hope, I think, but the music that stays with me — and made the music for a time, too hard to listen to — is that period where he really hit his stride.

Born to Run, Darkness on the Edge of Town and The River captured the small town America I knew all too well as a kid. Zeitz mentions the 1970 strike against General Motors (in my town, most people worked for GM like my dad or they worked for Fisher Body like my cousins). I didn’t realise how well I remembered that time. My dad going off to the picket lines, my mom packing his lunchbox extra times. The tension because money was extra tight; my dad finally moonlighted at Knapp’s the local department store to get money for Xmas gifts.

Shiftwork affects more than just sleep. I recall us kids watching scary shows with my mom when my dad was working nights. The night the bat got in the house and we all stood out on the lawn in our pajamas watching it swirl around the light in my parent’s room. My mom had been so startled she got out the bedroom and closed the door, locking the dog who was her shadow inside, whimpering.

When I hear certain Springsteen songs, I am transported instantly to my teen self, staring out the window in the kitchen as I did the washing up and terrified I would be trapped in that town forever. I was filled with such desperation I understood why people did foolish things in hopes of getting out. At times I felt my foolishness rising to dangerous levels.

When I first got out — all the way to Los Angeles, just like in ‘Rosalita’ — I felt so recklessly free. But it’s not a thing you can shake off entirely, that fear. First ‘payment’ I ever got for writing was a 50 word essay about why I should get to go see Springsteen with the editor of the student paper. He told me later most of the entries were thinly veiled come-ons. I almost didn’t enter, but my boss made me go out on my break at the campus store and write something. 50 words about desperation and how his music gave it voice.

The song that decided to pop into my head while I read this piece is not one of my faves. ‘Adam Raised a Cain’ always rubbed me the wrong way. I realise now it’s an ice pick right into my anger. The desperation, the longing, the fear: they were acceptable. The anger was not.

In the darkness of your room your mother calls you by your true name
You remember the faces, the places, the names
You know it’s never over, it’s relentless as the rain

Here’s to getting out.