It’s a lonely place where I stand with Springsteen. It’s difficult, not enjoying an American musical icon.
I was reminded of this when I left an offhand Facebook comment about a Bruce Springsteen concert that broke some kind length record. Hours and hours of the Boss, and my comment was, “I’m sorry, but this is my worst nightmare.” Another person left another, “I know, right?” kind of comment below me with one of those out-sized Facebook emojis or stickers or whatever they are. Another commenter rushed in to scold us both for even commenting ,as clearly we are part of what’s broken in America, pointing out that the “If you can’t say something nice” mentality that used to govern all areas of discourse is gone, and even though it never existed, it’s our fault. She and the other commenter commenced rolling around in one of those comment fights where neither person is right. I just rolled my eyes and remembered why offhand Facebook comments are usually a bad idea.
I remember when my brother brought home “Greetings from Asbury Park, NJ.”
I didn’t know exactly where Asbury Park, NJ, was, to be honest (I was thirteen and living on a ranger station). New Jersey was not a real place to me, but I assumed it had something to do with New York. New York in the 1970s was notoriously dangerous, gritty, and fascinating to a girl living in the clear mountain air of Montana. And I knew the record (yes, an LP) was something strange and different. The raw tumble of his sorrowful voice, the sheer velocity (stuff came out of him in a torrent), the complexity of the lyrics set against such unadorned production. I listened to it on the headphones a few times, trying to puzzle it out. Then I put it back on the shelf and went back to Todd Rundgren and Cat Stevens.
The Pointer Sisters, and their beautiful single “Fire.” Though it was the Pointer Sisters I was noticing, Bruce was an aside. “Did you know,” my fellow highschoolers would say, “That’s a Bruce Springsteen song?” No, I hadn’t known that. Somehow, my older brother arranged to play me his version–maybe it was a B-side and he sent me a single, because we lived in different states, but I heard it. It was okay. I love to mimic people, and Bruce sang “Fiiiiire” like he was from Alabama, not New Jersey. The best part of his version, for me, was singing along in that twangy, hokey way. But I liked this version so much more.
I’m on Fire – 1984. This was a Bruce I understood, a taciturn, blue collar Bruce with axle grease under his fingernail. I loved the song the first time I heard it, though how it made it to popular radio in 1984, I’ll never understand. This is a cowboy song, with the low-range, giddyup phrasing, the sorrowful class-difference theme, the lonesome whoo-hoos taking you down a highway and far away from that beautiful, tempting, lonely wife. It’s a Johnny Cash song. And the video? When Bruce rolls out from under that car?
This remains my favorite Bruce Springsteen song of all time.
The other song he released in 1984–the song that made his career–was also a favorite, because you could kind of dance to it. And in the video, you can see Bruce kind of dancing to it.
Like, is that really dancing? Does it matter when he looks so cute? And Clarence Clemens? And Courtney Cox in her sneakers? A moment in music history, and I loved it.
Lake Oswego is beautiful little Oregon town that remains oh-so-exclusive and clannish. The big draw in LO is not the lake, which is crowded and somewhat polluted. It’s the schools, which crank out well-educated children. If they could build walls around it, they would, but instead they erect a barrier of class, inflated property values and income. And that’s fine, really, the rich people have to live somewhere and I understand that rubbing elbows with people like me, who shop at the Grocery Outlet, is something they’d rather not do. But this was where Julianne Phillips came from. And Bruce seems like the kind of guy who forgets his deodorant, who wears his socks several days in a row, who says “ain’t.”
Now, I don’t know Bruce. But Bruce Springsteen was a kind of man I recognized. He would have been part of my social group in 1974; tough boys and tougher girls shouldering their way through adolescence in Bozeman, Montana. When my parents moved us there, I’m sure they had no idea that Montana would take my sister and I, who had been high-achieving, activities-involved honor students in Arkansas, and turn us into tough, scruffy hoods. It was a socially polarized place. We were outsiders who had no chance of breaking in. We frizzed our hair, patched our jeans and fell in with a crowd of tough boys who would grow up to become garbage men and auto mechanics.
He would have been there with us, part a group of brothers who all wore sheepskin-lined jackets, who stole their cigarettes, got drunk on cheap beer, wired together some heap that was never insured or street legal, and spent their weekend days working in gas stations and their weekend nights at keggers. It was a time of drinking, drugs, basement apartments, rusty trailers and junkyards. Bruce would have fit right in, right up until his musical genius lifted him up and away.
That’s why I knew his marriage to Julianne would never last. I knew they would fail in some painful, class-based way. But she inspired the most beautiful song he ever wrote, in my opinion, a song that gives me shivers because it’s an ode to the part of a woman she keeps to herself.
Bruce Springsteen is a musical icon. I recognize his genius, his longevity, his importance. He has good politics and bedroom eyes. Bruce Springsteen has released almost 300 songs in his long career.
And I only love four of them.
I’ve been working on a poem for a poetry challenge I’m doing with my friend Alex, and realized the poem would be greatly enriched by my journal notes on this particular little chapel I saw in Italy in 1993. It was impossible to look it up on the almighty internet because I couldn’t remember what it was called. It’s a small chapel in northern Italy.
I knew I’d written about it in the travel journal that my sister gave me before I left on my first trip to Europe. My mother and I went to Venice, Florence, and various points in Friuli, and spent a few days in Amsterdam on the way home. The journal held the overly careful notes of a traveler who knows she will probably only pass that way once in her life. I didn’t know that I’d be back with my sister a few years later. So I wrote everything down that I could bear to. I even made some strange little sketches.
It did come home with me. I knew that, because I’d taken it up to Seattle in 2004, eleven years later, to read to my mother as she was dying. I thought it would calm her down and give her something distracting and lovely to hear. That was a romantic idea, but it had nothing to do with the honest physical struggle involved in her leaving this world. I don’t remember seeing it since that day.
So, this evening I remembered that I’d transcribed the original journal soon after coming back. By hand.
I probably thought I was too honest in the original. It was an interesting time in my relationship with my mother, and I might have recorded some of the more tribulational events of the trip in the original journal. My marriage was a shambles, that probably earned a mention or two. And there was that panicked phone call from the same sister who’d given me the journal, a call that had ruined a lot of the vacation for me. Probably, none of that made it into the duplicate, but that’s okay because my memories of the hard parts are unfortunately sharp.
Excited, the hunt began for the duplicate. Where the hell was it? I checked every bookshelf in the house, and listen, I have so many bookshelves. Finally, I opened the old trunk that sits at the foot of my bed. There, under the Jack Wild scrapbooks and photo albums of past marriages and my high school diploma and senior pictures, I found the duplicate.
That’s a nice little book to write about Italy in, isn’t it? Very Florentine.
Here’s the front page, in which I’ve happily started to edit my reality.
The sad and funny thing about that page is, the Twin Towers are gone.
So, of course, is my mother.
But underneath that duplicate book was this little beauty.
That same book went to Italy and back, and it holds all the truth I need, as well as my notes on the Tempietto in Cividale.
I wish I could open a door and find my mother happy, healthy and smiling. But I have this little record of our time together, good and bad, and I’m all set to go on that poem.