Bruce, Again

Anna E. Clark

I was six when my mom moved out and into a one-room studio across town. It was temporary, she said, except it wasn’t. I saw her on weekends, sleeping next to her on a pullout futon and listening to The Supremes or The Talking Heads as she made us pancakes on the two-burner stove. But the real action was back at my former home, now an uncanny place called “Dad’s.” Each Sunday evening’s return would reveal some new transformation: the family photo wall suddenly blank, the living room rearranged. One week, it was the records, hundreds of them, now vanished. In their place, a hulking five-disc CD player and pile of CDs, still in Mylar. They had pictures of men and guitars on their covers. My dad had been sullen and absent, but with this new music a strange freneticism set in. Something was being exorcized. So began the Born to Run years.

 

Born to Run played as my dad cleaned house, scouring telltale gaps left by recently vanished items of furniture. Born to Run played while he made effortful, inedible dinners, and played when he got mad at my refusal to eat them. Born to Run played while he sequestered himself in his basement office. It played when he reemerged, marinated in pipe smoke. It played on an endless loop during the two-day Christmas road trip to visit the grandparents and, after that awful holiday, on the two-day road trip home. Even after the pain of that year faded and we acted like we’d moved on, Born to Run lived permanently in the stereo, the whereabouts of its jewel case no longer a matter of concern. To me, it had become as much atmosphere as sound, omnipresent to the point of disappearing.

 

Time passed. I found my own rock. I moved in with my mom. Another few years and I left for good. My dad remarried, sold the house, got less angry. Now when I visit, his music is studiously anodyne—Oscar-film soundtracks, acoustic guitar covers. It might as well be white noise.

***

 

As albums do, Born to Run returned to me because of a crush. I was living in Chicago after college, smote with a guy who claimed the only acceptable Bruce was Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. He was the kind of person who said the N.J., every time. I knew I was expected to banter. I decided to ally myself with the most conventional, middlebrow Springsteen in hopes he’d take it as a flirtatious provocation. The fact that I neither owned nor had listened to Born to Run in years seemed beside the point.

 

I downloaded it. At first, I didn't recognize what I was hearing, but before “Thunder Road”’s opening harmonica faded something weird was happening in my chest and by the time that demolishing saxophone came in I was palming away tears. When I’d thought of this album I’d remembered proud anthems, but the music I was listening to was brutally forlorn, every chime and horn raging with the grotesque splendor of a self-immolating fire. And the lyrics, holy shit, even from songs so overplayed they might as well be “Happy Birthday.”

 

There were ghosts in the eyes of all the boys you sent away

They were like the optical illusion where one second you’re looking a pretty young woman and the next a sunken-cheeked crone, jubilant desires and their last rites all at once.

 

Together, Wendy, we can live with the sadness

 

I’d remembered these songs from my dad’s reactions to them, shuffling to their beat across our wood floors, fist-pumping at their crescendos. They were his jams, his walk-up songs. They’d energized him, seemed to drown things out. Had he heard what I was hearing?  When I probed my memory for an answer I found only my own old sore spots, still tender—the feeling of watching him dance, the joy of it so discordant with everything around us. I didn’t know if I was reading my own ache into the music or if it had been there all along.

The crush flamed out. Born to Run stayed. In my ears on sub-zero walks, headphones plastered in wool and down. Soundtrack to lakeshore bus rides, dirty waves out dirty windows. The truth was that I’d never stopped listening to versions of it, searching out its brothers and fathers and sons. My playlists were chock-full of the anthems of white male angst. Love. Smog. Van Morrison. Dylan. The Mountain Goats. Big Star. Lou Reed. Returning to Born to Run was tasting cream after years of skim. I owned other music, but the cornerstones, the things I turned to to feel feelings, were songs in the key of men’s disappointments.

 

Still, I couldn’t shake the sense that Born to Run wasn’t mine, was itself a remnant of the past my dad had tried to drown out, a further paternal tyranny, my own taste his shame. When I left Chicago for grad school in New York, I made an effort to expand, new music for a new life. I listened to what I understood to be cooler, tried to make my preferences align with the kind of person I wanted to be: worldly, unsentimental. If Born to Run popped up on shuffle, I clicked past it. But the songs had already worked their way in, a foreign substance embedded in my genes, changing their expression, guiding the way I saw and moved in the places Bruce sang about. 

If I’d wanted to escape him, New York probably wasn’t the place to go. Already, its landscape felt personal. I’d been born in city-adjacent New Jersey, my mom a social work student at Columbia, my dad an assistant professor at Rutgers. They’d just bought a house, were settling in to new parenthood, only to learn he didn’t get tenure. Before I’d turned two they’d moved west. I knew the reason we’d left only because my mom told me years later, after the divorce; it was one of the many things my dad wouldn’t acknowledge.

 

Back in that milieu, strange in its familiarity, Born to Run and that cast-off past blurred into one another. Sometimes an Ikea errand or a talk at the very campus that had once been my dad’s would pull me into New Jersey and I’d ride the train through that unaccountable mix of primal marsh and massively-scaled concrete that divides city from suburb. In my Bruce-tinted gaze, missed chances seemed to radiate from the landscape as palpably as heat from pavement. I’d wonder what it would be like to be from a place like that, our nearly-home, in the great city’s penumbra. This was the era of Bridgegate and Chris Christie and amid all the news stories of petty revenge and corruption there’d be an occasional item about Christie’s deep love for The Boss: he’d attended over a hundred shows, he’d begged Bruce to play the opening of an Atlantic City casino. The point of the stories was humor—this ridiculous yet powerful man, made vulnerable by his fandom—but I found them unsettling, as though my own father’s failures were being held up for ridicule, as though somehow they were my own too.

I think it’s for the best that my dad let Bruce go. I’m glad he doesn’t need that music, doesn’t seethe the way he did then. But it’s also yet another part of himself that he’s excised, another fact he won’t own. To this day, I am regularly stunned by his lack of self-reflectiveness, by his inability to tell an account of himself that bears any relationship to the complicated story I know. If in earlier years this self-mythologizing was compensatory, today it’s just his truth. He tells his past like it’s a best-of compilation. All the hits, all the time.

 

If I had to guess what he heard in those hymns of struggle and loss, it was the story they tell about self-reinvention, their music’s alchemical properties, turning hurt into rapture, the best things always in front of you if you can get out while you’re young. But to me, the power of the songs lies in the fact that you won’t get out. There is no escape. You don’t leave parts of yourself behind. They’re all there, whether you acknowledge them or not. I think he listened the way he’s lived, only letting in the good part, jettisoning the rest, leaving a wake of emotional detritus for the rest of us to contend with. 

 

Every so often I still play Born to Run. Now, close to my dad’s age when he bought the album, I have my own home, my own list of disappointments. I married a man who’s never really gotten Bruce, who regards my affection for his music as an endearing character flaw. I listen on solitary road trips or alone, with headphones, late at night. It feels deeply mine now, the auditory equivalent of a long-borrowed shirt, less my dad’s rock than rock that was my dad’s too.

What I hear in it now is the sound of someone else’s catharsis, pain that’s not walled up or muted or transmuted in blame or anger at others but given lucid voice. It feels like a kind of omniscience, prying open what never made sense and laying it bare. Sometimes I can convince myself that the way I hear it is the right way, the way it’s meant to be heard, but I know there’s more there too.  Like my dad, I listen for what I want, songs about people who call out what they feel, who know themselves, who tell us who they are, even if it means they tell us they’re mangled and sad.

 

All the same, it’s still men’s music, still filled with their elation, their blind desires. I don’t know what to do with this fact. I can’t reconcile what my dad loved with what the music means to me. I don’t want to. All I can do is hold them side by side, our separate Born to Runs, the legacy of my own taste tethered to the past he ignores. Sometimes, on certain tracks, I catch a glimpse of how they might fit together, how the music might tell another, richer story about us both. But then the horns surge, Bruce howls, and it’s only my voice I hear.

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