Monday, April 9, 2007

Images of Freedom in Popular Song....

I was reading something someone over at Expecting Rain had posted in a discussion of Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen and he'd quoted one line from Springsteen's "Thunder Road" which is one of my favorite lines, ever.

"So what else can we do now, except roll down the window and let the wind blow back your hair."

There's something about freedom, something about possibility, something about... I don't know, I can't quite articulate it; something about... Old America in there.

I don't mean the Old Weird America that Greil Marcus works out in his book about (not about) The Basement Tapes. I mean some vague ill-defined notion of an earlier America, an America that still had a sense of uphill motion, still had some sense of possibility.

And I say all this very much aware that I may not be thinking of America at all as much as remembering some earlier version of myself.

But I digress.

There is a mixture of freedom and responsibility in Springsteen's "Thunder Road" that I think is unique within American popular music, at least of the last century or so.

The screen door slams, Mary's dress sways
Like a vision she dances across the porch as the radio plays
Roy Orbison singing for the lonely
Hey that's me and I want you only
Don't turn me home again, I just can't face myself alone again

When you're hearing the song for the first time it's easy to hear that verse in the voice of Charles Starkweather driving up to the house where Caril Fugate stood on the lawn. A few years later Springsteen would write "Nebraska" and sing into a 4-track cassette recorder,

I saw her standin' on her front lawn just twirlin' her baton
Me and her went for a ride sir and ten innocent people died

But here Springsteen isn't in Truman Capote mode yet, isn't trying for a 3 minute version of In Cold Blood. He's writing about the same people he was writing about on every record so far - and this I think is crucial in understanding Springsteen - he follows his cast of characters from their adolesence into adulthood.

Don't run back inside, darling you know just what I'm here for
So you're scared and you're thinking
That maybe we ain't that young anymore
Show a little faith, there's magic in the night
You ain't a beauty, but hey you're alright
Oh and that's alright with me

What makes this song as powerful as it is might be that it is never about sex. Sex isn't anywhere near as scary as what she knows he's "here for." And he's a charmer, isn't he? Maybe a lack of articulation is the sincerest form of flattery.

You can hide `neath your covers and study your pain
Make crosses from your lovers, throw roses in the rain
Waste your summer praying in vain
For a saviour to rise from these streets
Well now I'm no hero, that's understood
All the redemption I can offer, girl, is beneath this dirty hood
With a chance to make it good somehow
Hey what else can we do now?
Except roll down the window and let the wind blow back your hair
Well the night's busting open
These two lanes will take us anywhere
We got one last chance to make it real
To trade in these wings on some wheels
Climb in back, Heaven's waiting on down the tracks

Driving on a 2-lane black-top in the night, in the dark, with the window down and her hair blown back by the wind.... Can't you feel the plastic wrapper on the cigarette pack stuck in the arm of your t-shirt pressing against your bicep? Can't you see the headlights cut a path through history?

Or is it just me?

The whole song could come crashing down in ruin if the third line in the next verse were "your front porch to my back seat." But this song is not about sex, though I don't doubt that the two characters are having some. The ride's not free because it turns out that nothing really is.

Well I got this guitar and I learned how to make it talk
And my car's out back if you're ready to take that long walk
From your front porch to my front seat
The door's open but the ride it ain't free
And I know you're lonely and there's words that I ain't spoken
But tonight we'll be free, all the promises'll be broken

There were ghosts in the eyes of all the boys you sent away
They haunt this dusty beach road
In the skeleton frames of burned out Chevrolets
They scream your name at night in the street
Your graduation gown lies in rags at their feet
And in the lonely cool before dawn you hear their engines roaring on
But when you get to the porch they're gone
On the wind, so Mary climb in
It's a town full of losers and I'm pulling out of here to win.

1 comment:

Laura said...

Freedom songs...Thunder Road is a good one. My favorite lines:

"Oh-oh, come take my hand,
We're riding out tonight to case the Promised Land"

It's a promised land, but not promised to them, and if they show up at the front gate, they'll undoubtedly get turned away. They're going to enter the Promised Land by the old method of sneaking in and acting like they belong there. What could be more Old America freedom than having nothing promised?