|This Associated Press photo was originally printed in my high school yearbook, 1984|
Bruce Springsteen released the album Born to Run on August 25, 1975. I was born a little too late to run, being not quite eight years old at the time.
My parents were still married. From the deep backseat of their Chevy Impala, I remember Glen Campbell. Johnny Cash. Dolly Parton. Loretta Lynn. Tennessee Ernie Ford. It was the kind of music that was on AM radio in small town southern Missouri, where we lived.
At the pool and at the park and at the ice cream stand, roasting through those hot humid summers we had down there, the big kids in the little towns would have their transistor radios on. I got to hear what actual teenagers were listening to, even though I was far from one myself. Philadelphia Freedom. War. Wings. Janis Ian. It was different than my parents' music.
Like most kids, especially then, the music wasn't something I chose. I was a passive absorber of the adult culture around me; so when Captain and Tennille sang that love would keep us together, I didn't even really think about it. It was a song on the radio that I didn't control, and like bedtimes and homework and wearing uncomfortable shoes to church, it wasn't something that even occurred to me I could reject or even ask for something else. I didn't even know there was a something else.
I do not remember Bruce in any of this. I don't think he was there yet-- for me, anyway.
In just a few years' time, my life changed dramatically. My parents split up; my mom moved north with my sister and me, to a different town in a different state. That wasn't something I chose either. It was a painful time for my parents, so it was a painful time for me. I seemed to land with a hard thump in junior high, chubby but stretching rapidly up, ratty sneakers, knee socks that kept slumping down, thick eyeglasses, and long bangs that flopped in my face. Grown-ups had proven themselves to be too indifferent, or insensitive, or insistent, or too much of all those things all at once, to be trusted. I read a lot. My bedroom door was closed a lot.
It was into this scene that Bruce Springsteen walked. I giggle a bit at the drama of that sentence; as if the curly-locked and leather-jacketed Boss had leaned off the Big Man's shoulder on the cover of the Born to Run album, and into my doorway instead, guitar still at the ready.
The beginnings were actually a bit murkier. By the time I was thirteen, I'd acquired a cheap turntable stereo. I'd discovered that 45s were 99 cents at the record store at the mall, which I could walk to from our harvest gold apartment. I had some spending money every once in awhile, some time to myself, and just enough freedom to choose-- if not my life, exactly-- then at least the music I listened to. I might not have been born to run, but I wanted to catch up. To what, I didn't yet know; I just knew I liked the sound of it.
It was during this time that Mr. Springsteen eased his way in to the metaphorical doorway of my life. First Born to Run. Then back a bit, with Darkness on the Edge of Town. I wasn't sophisticated enough yet to be interested in Nebraska yet, and I couldn't afford The River, because double albums cost too much for a kid with no job. But it was enough. And even though I was also listening to all the other stuff that was coming out at that time, prog rock and new wave and punk and metal, I kept coming back to Springsteen.
In that "I'm the only freak of my kind" way that teenagers often think of themselves, I was crazy enough to believe that Mr. Springsteen was a secret that I alone possessed. Yeah, you could read about him in the pages of Rolling Stone and there were other people standing in line at the record store to buy his stuff, but music critics and other fans didn't know what I knew.
His songs gave form and recognition to feelings and thoughts I'd been having, things I didn't have the experience or vocabulary for-- yet. It made me feel part of the human condition called adulthood that I was only just beginning to understand, and wasn't quite ready or sure I wanted to enter. I was tethered to my turntable by bulky headphones behind a closed bedroom door. It was a secure vantage point, not just to love the music, but absorb the stories Springsteen spun about life.
It has been said over and over again that the appeal of Springsteen's songs is their narratives, universal themes of the working-class everyman and everywoman. For all I know academic papers have been written about that very topic.* But I want to write about the universal made particular, made singular, made Laura Beth, made her want to be the barefoot girl on the hood of a Dodge drinking beer in the soft summer rain.** I want, and am trying to write, a love letter to the maddening, skinny, dark-eyed, wild-hearted, day-dreaming woman-child I was at seventeen. I owe one to her, the one who thought of herself as the girl in those songs.
In the summer of 1984, Bruce Springsteen and his E Street Band released Born in the USA. It was a post-Vietnam era rock assessment of the most difficult relationship any American will ever have, the one with the place you were born-- the ideals you want to keep, finally recognizing the wrongs you need to walk away from. Did the sixteen-going-on-seventeen girl listening to the radio in that Chevy Impala she now drove, consciously and deliberately recognize these metaphors between country and home, citizenship and family?
Oh, hell no.
That didn't come until much later. But the people in Springsteen's songs were people I recognized. They were never promised perfection, and they certainly couldn't buy it. They were all too aware of what they didn't have. But they were willing to work. They were willing to prove it all night.** They were willing to give what they had. I wanted that in myself. I wanted it in other people. If I saw myself as the girl in those songs, I wanted no less than the boy in those songs too.
As it so often happens at exactly that point in a young woman's life, a Boy in the Song appeared. He came along as part of a small circle of friends who delivered one of the first of many best gifts from the universe-- a feeling that I belonged somewhere. His eyes were intensely blue when he looked at me, and he spent a lot of time coaxing words and emotions out of my quietude. They all made it feel good to laugh. On November 16, 1984, this new group of friends went to see Bruce Springsteen live and afterward, the Boy in the Song kissed me lightly on the cheek, outside the concert stadium in the frosty night.
It is hard to put words to the revelation, for these people and that Boy to arrive in my life at exactly that time. They seemed to hold a different map, one I never got, and they showed it to me and pointed "you are here." I was able to put a pin down somewhere, anywhere, and with people who were just like me. Now I knew, for the first time, that it was possible to belong somewhere other than to the place you were born. It wasn't just an important thing. It was everything.
In the profound joy and relief of that moment, compounded by inexperience and teenage hormones, it was too easy to overlook the fact that the reason they found me, the reason they were so happy to see me, is that they were lost too. And as much as I wanted and needed them to be my rescue party, we were all just lost together.
But at least we had each other, and all the moments we could steal from reality. We had old sofas in dark basements, and hands held under tables in the high school lunchroom, and phone calls late at night when no one could yell at us to "get off the phone!" Just like the friends in the song, we made our commitments to love and friendship like they were weapons against all we'd ever known. We made a promise we swore we'd always remember-- no retreat, baby, no surrender.**
But the Boy and the friends and I, we failed each other. Not just in the typical teenage ways that everyone experiences growing up, but also in ways that were very specific to our particular brand of damage. Our parents had done their best with what they had, but across all our families poverty, divorce, addiction, alcoholism, mental illness, Vietnam-- all those things cut a wide swath through our upbringing, whether our parents could help it or not. And mostly, they couldn't. Neither could we.
I expected a lot of that scared, wild, rapturously angry and romantic young man, and that scruffy, rebellious tribe of friends. They expected a lot out of me. But we were still lost, some of us getting more so, and life was about to launch us out into the world.
By the time I left high school, the music industry had rolled into cassettes and quickly on into CDs-- my life and even my music went on to other formats whether I wanted them to or not. Bruce recorded albums without the E Street Band. Those songs sounded like bumping into an old friend with a new life that didn't include me. I knew what that felt like. It hurt. It made me think that all the things I believed in, including the Girl in the Song, were at least wrong, and possibly worse, didn't even really exist.
So I stopped listening. I dumped Springsteen for R.E.M., the Offspring, U2, anything and everything but the songs that had led me to pain in the past. It was comfortable to like music without being emotionally invested in it. I went to college and kept writing but for the sake of a journalism degree rather than for myself, another comfortable choice. I also ended up marrying a nice boy who was not in any song whatsoever, just to be on the safe, comfortable side. During those years, I couldn't bother to stay informed of Mr. Springsteen's latest musical endeavors. When his concert tours were in town, I was invariably vastly pregnant, nursing, or in some other way tied to a domestic life I couldn't have escaped if I'd wanted to. I didn't want to.
But another strong theme that weaves its way through Springsteen's music is the idea that, however much running or leaving or walking away you do, your truths are going to be there, waiting for you in dark bedrooms, on lonely highways, and through the hard lessons life serves up. You can't escape yourself. I certainly didn't.
That was the reason I spent the last decade struggling to become, if not found, at least un-lost, locatable on a map I had drawn myself, in a landscape that felt like the best kind of home. It was an act of survival, and like a lot of acts of survival it involved desperation, poor choices, fear, exhaustion, and loss. Eventually it also began to involve things like independence, home ownership, self-regard, and if I am being completely honest, some more exhaustion and loss. Because this shit is hard.
It also came to involve Tom. One night this summer, I came home to find him, asleep in his armchair, deeply tired out from his day's work. On the television, Springsteen on Broadway played to this lightly snoring audience of one. Tom had been re-watching it without me. It would be a good story, a perfect story, if Tom loved Bruce Springsteen as much as I do. Somewhere in the struggle to find my place in the world, in a way almost as complicated as the struggle itself, Springsteen's music came back to me. But Tom isn't a passionate fan, and has a way of referring to him as "Phil Springsteen" just to tease and annoy me.
It occurred to me that night and more and more as time goes on, that the longer Tom is in my life, the more he seems to be in all the songs, in just the right way. If I need someone to wait for me or for a sunny day, to cover me or to be tougher than the rest, Tom seems, always, to be that.** On our wedding day in 2017, our program quoted Springsteen: "There's another dance. All you've got to do is say yes." So, we did.
As I write this, it's been 35 years to the day of that night in 1984, when Bruce took the stage in my hometown.** The girl who saw herself in those songs wasn't wrong about herself, or what she wanted. She knows that now, and still has the music to prove it.
*The minute I typed that sentence, it got me on the academic journal search engines, and I found THIS. I will most likely read it, because I am that kind of fan. And geek.
**All the references made to Bruce Springsteen's words and music are not in any way intended to be an infringement of any copyright belonging to him, the E Street Band, or to their publisher. His work is entirely his own. Moreover, the writer owes a debt of gratitude to Mr. Springsteen. Thanks for helping me with the growin' up.