Sunday, January 9, 2011

New Jersey

Where to even start here? I guess I could make some New Jersey jokes, but probably you've heard them. Or I could use this post to analyze some of the fine musical stylings of Jersey Shore's Pauly D, who is allegedly a DJ. But, of course, when you think of New Jersey you think of Springsteen. (If you don't, go buy Born to Run immediately and rectify the gap in your musical knowledge.) The hardest part of writing this entry was not thinking of songs to write about, but choosing from the wealth of options created by Bruce and the E Street band during the last 30 years of his career.

A couple of years ago, I was on my way to New York by train and chatted with a man from Georgia who was sitting beside me. He'd never spent any time in the northeast and asked me if our trip, from Philadelphia to Manhattan via New Jersey, would be scenic. I was surprised, and had to break the bad news to him that NJ isn't exactly known for its stunning vistas. Even Bruce Springsteen, arguably its most famous and loyal resident, spends a lot of time singing about how much he'd like to leave New Jersey. And that's what this entry will be about. In New Jersey, I'll consider the traditional American expansionist mentality: the desire to go West in search of a better life.

Earlier in this blog, I looked briefly at the writings of Sir Walter Raleigh and the consistent desire in American art to escape and expand. Springsteen looks from his home state toward loosely “western” spaces like the Badlands, California, and even Florida; he is more concerned with the idea of escape than the destination. "Born to Run" displays perhaps the strongest sensibility of the West as freedom or redemption, though these are themes that run throughout his extensive catalogue. Springsteen associates the West with the redemptive qualities of speed and youth, closely tied to American ideas of rapid progress. His catalogue is filled with songs that crescendo from quiet vocals to bombastic finales as western spaces open before bold young protagonists (“Thunder Road;” “Jungleland”). Springsteen begins “Born to Run” by identifying what must be redeemed through a westward journey: “in the day we sweat it out in the streets of a runaway American dream.” Labor, once a gateway to success in America via the Puritan work ethic of Underhill’s peers, now symbolizes entrapment. Springsteen’s New Jersey home is populated with grim factories and grinding labor. “Working on the Highway” compounds this commentary on the loss of pride in work through a story of what seems to be honest employment, but is really convict’s toil “on the Charlotte County road gang.” “Atlantic City,” however, offers Springsteen’s most negative vision of soulless labor in the East: “Well, I got a job and tried to put my money away/ But I’ve got debts that no honest man can pay… I’ve been looking for a job, but it’s hard to find/ Down here it’s just winners and losers and don’t get caught on the wrong side of that line.” In these lines, Springsteen paints a grim portrait of what must be escaped via westward travel.

Economic freedom, an escape from the poverty of Springsteen’s New Jersey, becomes a chief motivation for the speedy escape that “Born to Run” prescribes. Springsteen was “born down in a dead man’s town” where “the street’s on fire/a real death-waltz between what’s flesh and what’s fantasy” (“Born in the USA;” “Jungleland”). “Mainstreet’s whitewashed windows and vacant stores/ Seems like no one wants to come down here no more/They’re closing down the textile mill across the railroad tracks/Foreman says these jobs are going boys and they ain’t coming back,” he worries in “My Hometown.” In the face of this poverty, he speculates about “packing up our bags maybe heading south.” His greatest desire is to leave the “swamps of Jersey” that bog him down literally in “Rosalita” and spiritually in dozens of other tracks. In the face of impossibly high debts in “Atlantic City” he says, “So I drew what I had from the Central Trust/And I bought us two tickets on that Coast City bus.” Springsteen portrays movement—to anywhere new—as the first and most logical escape from sorrow and poverty.

Love and youth also become obsessions for Springsteen in his rejection of the oppressive East. “I’ll love you with all the madness in my soul,” he promises Wendy in “Born to Run.” Most images of westward escape in Springsteen include a partner to escape with, whether “Rosalita,” the woman the narrator addresses in “Atlantic City” or Mary in “Thunder Road.” “Thunder Road” links the romance of escape to the re-attainment or preservation of younger, happier times—a connection first made in Raleigh’s redemptive explorations for Elizabeth. “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,” Springsteen tells Mary when he proposes that she “climb in” and leave their dreary town behind (“Thunder Road”). They are not too old to hope for a better future together. For Raleigh, the West is a chance to return to past joy; for Springsteen, it is a place to stay young and in love.

So, maybe this entry wasn't about New Jersey, but about how to leave it. No matter what Springsteen thinks about his home state, one thing is certain for me. There is no American musician who captures the spirit of life in our nation the way Springsteen does. Some might argue for Bob Dylan, but I'm ruling him out because at this point I can't even understand him when he sings. The first song I remember hearing was 'Thunder Road.' I was three and my mom had a cassette of Born to Run that she often played in her car. At that age I didn't know who Roy Orbison was, but even at that age I could envision the scene in rest of the opening verse.

The screen door slams,
Mary's dress waves.
Like a vision, she dances across the porch as the radio plays...

No one else has ever captured a moment, and such a quintessentially American one, in the way Springsteen does. When he sings, I'm on my porch too. The boards are too hot under my bare feet and the paint is chalky, a sun-faded blue grey. Screen door springs are always worn out, so the door closes behind me with a metallic clang that rings down across the yard. There's actually nowhere to drive a car near my porch, but every once in a while I still look out past the columns hoping someone will be waiting with an offer to set off for somewhere new. In Springsteen's America he would have a beat up car and guitar. Maybe that's the real American dream--certainly an American tradition, anyway--setting off to explore even though you might not really be ready.

Who would have thought? The most beautiful music about America might come from New Jersey.

Born to Run
Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)
Atlantic City

For more on visions of the West in American music, I recommend Greil Marcus' excellent book Mystery Train.

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