In America, freedom is the driving force behind success and happiness, so we're told. The more freedom we have, the better we are, in theory. But in the current age of narcissistic rage, freedom becomes the rationale for doing what we want to do, never mind the consequences.
I am at the age where I look back more than forward. I don't long for the past, sweet as it was for me; I just understand it better than the present. The rules were more transparent and straightforward back then: Do your best, and things will turn out all right. Don't cause trouble. Keep your pride in check. Work hard if you want to succeed. That thinking is not so prevalent anymore. Maybe that's the reason I find myself listening to Bruce Springsteen these days.
If I were to pick someone who characterizes the changes of the last 50 years, it would be The Boss. Like millions of others, I heard his song, "Born To Run," in August of 1975 and identified with his yearnings to break free from societal constraints. "In the day we sweat it out on the streets of a runaway American dream." Deathtraps, suicide raps, gotta get out while we're young. So, pick up your girl, put her on the back of the Harley, and ride the hell out of town. Freedom! The same-named album opens with "Thunder Road," a shout-out to choosing between playing it safe or running away to an adventure, then showcases "Bad Scooter" and his E Street Band coming together in "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out." "Night" describes working at boring jobs during the day and driving fast cars at night with a girl by your side. In the rambling and wordy lyrics that define Springsteen's songs, "Jungleland" showcases the desperate hope, despair and eventual defeat of those who can't escape the rough and mean-spirited streets of youthful existence.
Bruce, now a star, was 26 years old, thrust into the limelight of adulation and responsibility. Musically, America was coming out of the optimistic '70s, headed for a decade of high interest rates, recession, Iran-Contra and wrestling-rock music videos. Similarly, Springsteen's music shifted from high-energy, optimistic themes to more solemn topics. His albums "The River (1980)" and "Nebraska (1982)" dealt with darker subjects of murder, grace, redemption and just being down on your luck. In music videos, he personified the oppressed working man struggling to raise a family in times of high unemployment, or the 19-year-old who gets his girlfriend pregnant, or the guy who simply walks out on his family because his heart just isn't into commitment. We watched this phenom with the bushy hair, youthful face, and slim stature strut and sing, seemingly on top of the world, singing of glory days and dancing in the dark.
Springsteen now admits he is something of a fraud. He's never worked in a factory or been a street thug. He never worked five days a week until he started his Broadway show. The themes of his songs were less autobiographical and more observations of life around him. He sang of the injustices experienced by Vietnam veterans in his seventh album, "Born in the U.S.A.," even though he got out of being drafted. Later in life, he acknowledges the fear of going into war and realizes now someone else went in his place.
When 9/11 happened, close to his home in New Jersey, Bruce reacted just as all of us did. His songs from "The Rising" reflected the loss felt by Americans and the hope of rising from the ashes to become something better. The album also resurrected his career. Reunited with the E Street Band, we saw an older and less sure version of The Boss. Just as America was shaken by the events of 9/11, Bruce's songs were slower, more thoughtful, less confident, filled with shadow and doubt, the vast wall of sound so prevalent in his early Telecaster days replaced by soft Takamine acoustics.
Subsequent albums such as "Devils & Dust," "The Promise," and "Wrecking Ball" showcased the anger of an aging Boomer seeing injustice piled upon injustice, along with the feelings of being helpless to change the things now ingrained into American culture. Wall Street corruption and the lack of government accountability, infused with an awareness of social inequality riffs through the albums with fury and spit, solidifying Springsteen's creds as a voice for the blue-collar worker.
My attention wandered back to Bruce when he released "Western Stars" in 2019. The back cover of the album jacket features Bruce with an acoustic guitar in the foreground of a desert scene, dark clouds over a lonely highway reaching towards distant hills. His hair is short, and his face is wrinkled, a perfect contrast to the younger Bruce pictured on "Born To Run." The album's songs look back to southern California's pop music scene, with a nod to the likes of Glen Campbell and Burt Bacharach. In true Springsteen form, the songs tell of working jobs that don't satisfy, relationships with no real meaning, and the despair of life that holds no hope. The description in "Moonlight Motel" of a rundown motor inn, once filled with happy lovers, now with an empty pool, weeds growing through concrete and no borders may be an apt description of a culture's lost soul. Listening, one wonders whether America's best days are over.
I would not be surprised if Springsteen's 2020 album, "Letter To You," ends up being his last. The latest songs came about after the death of several close friends, and anguish and loss display prominently in the album's title track. My generation, who grew up with Bruce, now holds him close because he voices our fears of death and regrets of lost chances, just as he declared the strength and ambition of our earlier years. So, the last track of the album, "I'll See You In My Dreams," is our brave final declaration while wondering how free we actually were.
"I'll see you in my dreams when all our summers have come to an end, I'll see you in my dreams, we'll meet and live and laugh again. I'll see you in my dreams, yeah, around the river bend, for death is not the end, and I'll see you in my dreams."
• • •
Devin Houston is the president/CEO of Houston Enzymes. Send comments or questions to [email protected] The opinions expressed are those of the author.