BOOKS DISCUSSED IN THIS ESSAY:
Tramps Like Us: Music and Meaning Among Springsteen Fans
by Daniel Cavicchi
Oxford University Press, 1998 256 pp $19.95
It Ain’t No Sin to Be Glad You’re Alive: The Promise of Bruce Springsteen
by Eric Alterman
Little, Brown, 1999 282 pp $20
WHEN I was eighteen years old, I abandoned my small Midwestern town with a vengeance. It was a place where my friends and I joked about who would be the first to succumb to a kid, a mortgage, and a job at the local machine works, Precision Twist and Drill. I had only the slightest inkling at the time that the economic and political transformations gripping the country in the late 1970s were transforming what we most feared in life—a good manufacturing job and an affordable home—into one of the most coveted set of trappings in blue-collar America. Our fears were best expressed in Bruce Springsteen’s haunting title cut to his 1980 album, The River. His tale of despair, entrapment, and unwanted pregnancy left him to lament, “And for my nineteenth birthday I got a union card and wedding coat/ We went down to the courthouse/ And the judge put it all to rest/ No wedding day smiles, no walk down the aisle/ No flowers, no wedding dress.”
Seeking to escape such a fate, I rolled out of town in a chartreuse Volkswagen detailed with cancerous rust and crammed with the possessions that only an adolescent male might deem essential. I slipped into the battered tape deck the anthem that served as the bedrock of my psychic survival throughout the trying years of adolescence. “Thunder Road,” the classic opening song from Springsteen’s 1975 album, Born to Run, evoked all that I sought to leave behind—front porches, tentative girlfriends, and Roy Orbison’s lonely ones. In exchange, I believed myself to be embracing “faith” and “magic in the night.” Following groundwork laid by dissenting wanderers from Walt Whitman to Jack Kerouac, I pointed the car toward the west-bound side of the interstate. Rolling down the on-ramp toward California, I punctuated the last line of the song, as we always did, with head out the window and my voice straining to compete with Bruce’s: “It’s a town full of losers/ And I’m pulling out of here to win”!
I was reminded of this awkward turning point in my life when I, along with tens of thousands of other fans, sang those same words more than two decades later at New Jersey’s Meadowlands during one of the fifteen sold-out shows of the E Street Band reunion tour. The stagehands threw on the house lights for “Thunder Road” as fans united in chorus. For the first time that evening, our focus was directed toward each other rather than the stage—a reminder of the ways in which music offered collective salvation from the isolation and loneliness of our seemingly individual struggles. “Well now I’m no hero/ That’s understood/ A...
For just $18 a year, get access to new issues and decades' worth of archives on our site.
Print + Online
For $30 a year, get new issues delivered to your door and access to our online archives.