On the evening of August 7th in a ‘movie house’ in Asbury Park, Bruce Springsteen and his wife Patti Scialfa witnessed the debut of a film Blinded by the Light, a true story, of a young man so enamored of the Jersey rocker and his E Street Band that his life was forever changed. Boy, can I relate.
Having taught English for 32 years, I found that one way I could nudge my students into an appreciation of literature and its powerful themes was to use songs, “a three minute record, baby” (as Springsteen reminds us in “No Retreat, No Surrender”). One particular Springsteen song from the 1980’s connected viscerally with my high school students: “The River.”
“The River” tells the story of young high school lovers whose passion leads to unexpected, let predictable consequences. Pregnancy, dropping out of school, a marriage of conscience, and the eventual regret these forlorn lovers feel would imprint on my high school students especially when the lovers eventually see their dreams fade away as deeply as the wrinkles that line their faces. It was a good lesson for seventeen- year olds…it is a lesson
“The River” may well have been one of the many songs in the Springsteen collection that propelled the new film Blinded by the Light; I don’t know for sure since Asbury Park is 3,000 miles from Encinitas, California where I pen this essay. But one thing I do know for sure: Bruce Springsteen has not lost his touch with his latest work: Western Stars.
Being authentic is one quality that writers understand to be essential. One either writes what one knows or seeks to find out that truth by going to the source. It boils down to understanding empathy and sympathy, and Springsteen’s thirteen songs have a little of both. They are told as vignettes of chorus and verse with Springsteen’s raspy voice holding its center. This is an album that only a writer of Springsteen’s stature can produce as the poet laureate of his medium, and with the enthusiasm of a youthful orchestra behind his melodies, he touches a nerve that makes one twitch.
And what, you ask does a (soon to be) seventy-year old Springsteen have to offer today? He has followed his Broadway life story chronicled from his autobiography Born to Run, with this album filled with characters facing their own mortality, and in many cases…all alone. These stories depict the evolution of Springsteen from a rollicking rocker to a wise sage, time travelling to those places west of the Mississippi where the wild horses, the movie stars and truckers roam. Wherever he takes us, we remind ourselves of the pain and joy that comes with age.
Springsteen’s stories begin with a wandering “Hitchhiker” who seems content with riding shotgun and appreciating the lives of those who trust him enough to take him anywhere down the road. Far more somber is a lonely truck driver often loses track of where he is, who he is, and what loves he has left behind. He’s reduced to calling himself “The Wayfarer.”
All is not doom and gloom. “Tucson Train” is a redemption yarn, the story of a man who has worked through “the pills and the rain” in an effort to prove to his past lover that all was “not in vain.” He is going to prove to her that “a man can change” as he is waiting for her to arrive “on the 5:15.”
Perhaps the most intriguing tale is the album’s title track “Western Stars.” His aging storyteller finds himself no longer a bit player in the western movies of yesteryear, but instead he’s milking the last of days of his B star fame, doing commercials for Viagra. He knows all he is good for is retelling the old story of how he was shot by John Wayne to bar hounds willing to pick up his tab. The songs goes farther though, as Springsteen gives homage to the old cowboys and the charros, the proud Mexican riders who Springsteen’s narrator insists are his brothers who “cross the wire and bring the old ways with them.” It is a bittersweet melody that one is drawn to despite the fact that the old cowboy knows his only hope is that when he wakes up in the morning “his boots are still on.”
Springsteen charts the sunrises and sunsets, some somber but some miraculous as he crosses Montana, California and Arizona. The most upbeat sunset appears when he saddles up to “Sleepy Joe’s Café.” The surf guitar and the accordion get the locals who show up at sundown to dance and “flirt the night away,” putting their hard day’s work behind them for at least a few hours before beginning anew the cycle of “an honest day’s work.”
The quietest, most sober song is whispered by a guitar player who has come “into town with a pocketful of songs”: the town, Nashville. His mission to land a contract in the town that makes musical careers come to life. Unfortunately, “Somewhere North of Nashville” is where this poor soul realizes he “just didn’t do things right.” He’s just another broken record, freezing in his car and utterly lost.
It is an authentic, panoramic view from atop hills in Montana at all those times one “Chasen’ Wild Horses” only to dream about catching one and someday and riding her as “her hair flashin’ in the blue” is beyond reach.; like a wild horse, he’ll never lasso or tame her — those days over and done.
These are not the songs I would teach to high school students. No. They are meant for those of us who have driven those El Caminos down Highway 5 for many a decade. When we were young, we were “Blinded by the Light” — nowadays, it’s time for us to look up to the night time stars that shine and take stock of who we are and what really matters in life.