Recently Rolling Stone published a list of the 100 greatest Bruce Springsteen songs of all time as decided by a panel of Rolling Stone judges.
Predictably “Born to Run” nabbed the first spot, and predictably, some folks in my earshot complained that Rolling Stone’s panel seemed a little bit white and a little bit male. I wasn’t overly bothered by this as Springsteen too has always been a little bit white and a little bit male. I’m not sure the list would be different in any way if the judges had been more diverse.
Yet I was also interested in the fact that I and my friend and fellow lit crit/Springsteen fan, Hester Blum both balked at the list in the same way. Our mutual position was clear: “Backstreets” should have been number one, not number six.
“Backstreets” is the song on Born to Run (1975) that is sometimes overshadowed by the grandeur of the album’s other songs: the title track, “Thunder Road,” and the operatic “Jungleland.” The combination of the Rolling Stone poll, and Springsteen’s appearance on Jimmy Fallon as a younger version of himself, piss-taking Chris Christie’s recent traffic violations, inspired us to think about Springsteen’s sexual politics, and the genius of “Backstreets”. Was our love of the song some kind of girl thing? Is there some way in which this Springsteen anthem differs from all other Springsteen anthems? I thought that maybe Hester and I should have a conversation about this, with Avidly hosting.
Pam: Of course, there are all sorts of personal reasons for choosing one Springsteen song over another Springsteen song. As it happens, “Backstreets” for me is bound up with a semi-requited, almost ran, from deep in my past. But that is also what it’s about for everyone: failure. Failure and the promising, engulfing, erotics of friendship. Maybe it’s about failure that is as good as, or better than, success? I am always still blown away by the intensity of its beginning, “One soft infested summer me and Terry became friends/trying in vain to breathe the fire we was born in.” Something happens here to the whole meaning of friendship; it’s life to have a friend, death to lose one. How can you make it if you have to breathe in fire, alone?
Hester: “Backstreets” first unfurled itself to me in its irrefutable top of all-timeness in a car as a teenager, as all Bruce songs should. I liked the song, liked Bruce, but had not–yet!–had the chest-cracking moment of revelation that would produce eternal fandom. The intensity of the beginning, Pam–god yes, the soft/infested tension is startling and amazing. But it was the end of the song that blew me away–the repetition of “Hiding on the backstreets, hiding on the backstreets,” endlessly looping and repeating itself even within each line. Hearing that repetition in a car in traffic (I would love to say it was on highway 9 or the Turnpike or the fire roads, but it was on the Meadowbrook Parkway on Long Island, visiting my Grandma Sadie) drove home the devastation of being “just like all the rest.” And then when the bottom drops out of that repetition…that rhythmic build brings not release but total deflation. “It’s all right,” though, Bruce tells us.
Pam: You talk about revelation, Hester, and for me too, listening to Bruce has always evoked a religious vocabulary of revelation and redemption. It occurs to me that this is one song in which things can’t finally be made all right; the only redemption on offer, once you’ve lost the angel on your chest, is that secular searing, but completely inadequate cry “It’s all right”. And it’s only all right because you can hide out on the backstreets, again and again, even if now you are alone (but perhaps not totally alone because that loneliness is also communal: “At night sometimes it seems you can feel that whole damn city crying.”) Even in a bleak masterpiece like “Racing in the Street” there’s a redemptive, quasi-religious promise of riding to the sea, with the girl, to wash your sins from your hands. But not here. The redemption is only in that repeated cry, that demand to hide again. [When Born to Run came out Bruce was attacked for repeating the phrase “hiding on the Backstreets” twenty-five times, although according to Dave Marsh it is only eighteen.]
How queer do you think this song is? I wonder if part of its power comes from the fact that it can’t sit comfortably with the masculinity/femininity thing Bruce does so well elsewhere. He’s in Lou Reed land in “Backstreets”. The masculine juke joints of other songs are here invaded by Valentino drag.
Hester: I am a Jersey girl and thought Bruce songs were all about cars and girls. But Terry is a dude. There is nothing in his characterization that has any of the dependency or loneliness that characterize Bruce’s girls: Mary, Jane, Wendy, the girl stolen from the dude with the Camaro from LA. Those girls wait in tattered clothes, they register the crush of the deflation that comes with striving, with hoping. But Terry is the one that holds out the promise: that love “so hard,” so “filled with defeat”–the love that dare not speak its name, that exists but for fate and ban. Bruce and Terry park with desperate lovers, they sleep coiled on the outskirts. They run, they hide; forced to confess, the truth runs them down. Terry breaks down from something other than the usual pressures in Springsteen’s America. It’s not economics, or ambition in an unpromising land.
Pam: That is so right; this isn’t the story that he repeats elsewhere in which the reality principle (gendered female) punctures the fantasy (gendered male). I totally agree that Terry is no Mary or Wendy, but I’m not convinced that Terry has to be a dude. Part of the greatness of the song is that it allows for some form of attachment outside the usual seductive, but ultimately deadening version of romance and collapse that is repeated so often in Springsteen’s songs. When the car crashes, or the cycle runs out of gas; when one of you finds herself pregnant, and the other has to get a job working construction at the Johnstown company, the girl (the realist) balks, and racing in the street becomes an echo of the freedom it once represented. But the romance of “Backstreets” is different—boy or girl, does it really matter? They’re in it together, against the world, tying faith (which I always heard as fate—maybe if you’re Catholic they are equivalent?) between their teeth, getting wasted in the heat. It’s about the (maybe terrifying) possibility that putting all your eggs in one basket, layering sustaining friendship with desperation and sex is the best thing and worst thing that can happen to you. For Bruce, usually, gender difference is easily ratified. He says “let me in I want to be your friend” but actually he wants to guard her dreams and visions—be the knight in shining armour. What’s scary (and what’s queer) about “Backstreets” is that the romance is more intense because it can’t be parsed through gender roles. Friends don’t let you down, but when they do maybe it’s not going to be all right. Whoever, or whatever you blame it on.
Hester: That is beautifully said, Pam. You take us right to the “huddling” that is so evocative both in this song and in “Born to Run”: the union that is formed is both defensive and bracing itself for a counter-challenge. Huddling in a car with Terry takes on more of the sporting metaphor (they are waiting for the bell) but we are always mindful of its counterpart, the huddled masses–especially in the line that stands for me the best writing in the history of rock: “the amusement park rises bold and stark, kids are huddled on the beach in the mist.” Huddling with a friend (or a friend with benefits) speaks also to your question about tying faith (or fate!) between your teeth. When do we tie things with our teeth?–when we don’t have someone there to be the third hand, the extra limb, the thumb that holds the knot-in-progress (third limbs and thumbs=I still think Terry is a dude). The keening howls and moans that peter out to an exhausted “ooooh” register that loss of the love of comrades.
Since that intensity can’t be sustained–not even in pleasures of this particular call-and-response we are having now–I think we should close by saying a few words about Chris Christie and Bruce, who serves perhaps as Christie’s Terry in the Fort Lee/GWB traffic scandal. Christie is a well-known Springsteen fanatic, having seen over 100 concerts, and he cried during a conversation with Bruce after Hurricane Sandy. Maybe it is the North Jersey in me (Christie and I went to the same high school), but I will confess to feeling very sad for Christie when I read that he couldn’t bear to watch the “Governor Chris Christie’s Fort Lee New Jersey Traffic Jam” parody that Jimmy Fallon performed as Bruce, accompanied by the real Bruce and his unreal sexagenarian muscles. “And I hated you when you went away…” Where do you think Christie’s “mighty rims” fit into this conversation, Pam?
Pam: Oh Hester, you nailed it. It is so obvious that Bruce was Christie’s Terry, and, his Terry has just irrevocably gone away. That clearly breaks Christie’s heart, but then if someone has to break your heart who better than Bruce? If Christie’s resilient (I’m guessing he is. He looks resilient.) he might also be thinking, “Bruce sang a song about me! Even if it’s about how I’m a petty, vindictive schmuck with too much power over traffic cones!” However, perhaps a Philly girl like myself should not venture to guess what goes on in the heart of a Jersey Governor.
Re-watching the clip from the show, I loved again the fact that the real Bruce took these lines, instead of giving them to Fallon, as he so easily could have done:
“Governor let me in, I want to be your friend, there’ll be no partisan divisions/Let me wrap my legs round your mighty rims and relieve your stressful condition” (Bruce Springsteen singing with Jimmy Fallon on “Governor Christie’s Traffic Jam”)
Of course, Bruce and Fallon are joking, dangling every rabid Springsteen fan’s favourite motorcycle metaphor fantasy before the Governor and his big old man crush. But on the other hand, Bruce has also always managed a juggling act around masculinity, just as he has around patriotism; apparently representing it at its most steely-eyed and certain, while questioning some of its most entrenched assumptions. Being born in the USA doesn’t mean you have to support Ronald Reagan, or Chris Christie. Walking like a man might be even better in Valentino drag. “Backstreets” gets this, and so many other things, about romantic friendship, about trying and failing to live up to ideals, about hiding in plain sight.
Remember all the movies, Hester, we’d go and see, trying to learn to walk like the heroes we thought we had to be?
Hester: And if we’re just like all the rest, then we are not alone.
Pam’s top 10 (that goes up to 11)
- 11. Dancing in the Dark
- 10. One Step Up
- 9. Racing in the Street
- 8. My love will not let you down
- 7. For You
- 6. Thunder Road
- 5. Stolen Car
- 4. Incident on 57th Street
- 3. Growing Up
- 2. Darkness on the Edge of Town
- 1. Backstreets
Hester’s top ten (Sunday, January 19, 3:15pm EST):
- 10. Spirit in the Night
- 9. Girls in Their Summer Clothes
- 8. The Promise
- 7. New York City Serenade
- 6. Racing in the Street 78
- 5. For You
- 4. Thundercrack
- 3. The Fever
- 2. Incident on 57th Street
- 1. Backstreets
Alternatively (both of us agree):
- 10. Backstreets
- 9. Backstreets
- 8. Backstreets
- 7. Backstreets
- 6. Backstreets
- 5. Backstreets
- 4. Backstreets
- 3. Backstreets
- 2. Backstreets
- 1. Backstreets
Hester Blum: Long time listener, first time caller.
Pam Thurschwell: Just a wave, not the water.
*from Dave Marsh book, Two Hearts: The Story (p. 106): Henry Edwards, writing for The New York Times Arts and Leisure Section in an article called “If there hadn’t been a Bruce Springsteen, then the critics would have made him up” (Oct 5th,1975) attacked Springsteen for repeating the phrase “hiding on the backstreets” 25 times. According to a website he does it only 18 times.
Hester’s note: in my count it is 31 times, which does not include the 2 “running on the backstreets.”
Hester would like to acknowledge her dear high school friend Jon Brolin, who taught her about Bruce, even if it took a bit for the lesson to stick. She also thanks Martha Nell Smith for an instructive conversation about Terry being a dude.
Pam’s note: I am totally happy to go with Hester’s count. I’d like to acknowledge my older brothers, Adam and Eric Thurschwell, for giving me Bruce, and Gavin Edwards’s article, “Hiding on the Backstreets” from Nadine, Volume 4, # 3 (February 1988) which first made me think of course, Terry is a dude!