Racing in the street: the one about my favorite song

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Allow me, if you will, to steal and paraphrase from three men better than I will ever be: This might just do nobody any good. But now the end is near, and as I face the final curtain for my Weekly blog, I am feeling a tad nostalgic and sappy. It is on that note that I would like to give one last good luck and goodbye to the people and the campus that, for better or worse, made me the musical moron that I am today.

In fact, I am going to break one of my own rules and talk about my favorite song, and why it holds that esteemed position. It is one I have brought up before, but for the uninitiated who have not heard me talk endlessly about Bruce Springsteen, the work in question is Track 5, Side 1 off of the 1978 album “Darkness on the Edge of Town,” The Boss’ masterpiece “Racing in the Street.”

Biographer Dave Marsh called this track “the line of demarcation separating casual Springsteen fans from the fanatics,” and I could not agree more. Among my friends who regularly cruise E Street, there is a universal recognition of this song’s brilliance, even if it is not one’s favorite. It encompasses everything that makes Bruce Springsteen one of the greatest American voices in pop culture — a manifestation of his strongest works musically, lyrically, and emotionally. All of this contributed to a moment in April 2012 when I heard the song live, and what I learned about myself and music that night.

The journey starts a few years before the concert and a little under a thousand miles north of Los Angeles in my hometown of Tualatin, Oregon. As a budding young music enthusiast (a precursor to the obsessive-compulsive one I am today), I had decided I needed to not just own a few of Bruce’s albums, but all of the albums. Settling for nothing less, I began expanding my collection with the aforementioned “Darkness.” To this day, it remains one of my favorite collections from the E Street Band as a stark, melancholy work of art that hinted at the darker albums to come.

It was not until my sophomore year of college that I found myself often playing a particular selection from Darkness. Whether I was lifeguarding, spending long hours on homework in the Green Bean or hiking back to my dorm from the library, I was constantly turning to “Racing in the Street” as my song of choice.

At first, I could not place exactly what drew me to the song. It seemed to be more subdued than my usual favorites from The Boss and a bit too long for the softer tracks of his I enjoyed. Yet, by the time April and the impending concert rolled around, it had become a daily part of my routine. Wake up, leave my dorm, play “Racing.” Go to class, go the library, play “Racing.” Finish my work, pack up, play “Racing.”

Eventually, I figured out why I was falling in love with this track. Musically, the ballad-like composition is nothing short of brilliant. The instruments slowly build one on top of the other, from Roy Bittan’s gentle piano, the steady beat of Max Weinberg’s drums, to the haunting subtlety of the late, great Danny Federici’s organ. When played live, the guitars and bass become more prominent, as does the horn section, only adding more beautiful layers to the tune. “Racing” ends with a coda that is extended longer during concerts, only adding to the grand scale of the song.

Lyrically, it is some of Springsteen’s finest work. A spiritual successor to “Thunder Road,” the protagonists grow up racing their souped-up rides “from the fire roads to the interstate.” The song plays on tropes of young American men finding escape and freedom behind the wheel of a car.

However, it is not a cheery portrayal of this stereotypical scene. There is not a guaranteed happy ending for the racer and his girlfriend. As they get older, the stress and worries take their toll, particularly on the woman, who spends her night alone worrying, staring into the night “with the eyes of one who hates for just being born.”

I told my friends Gary, Carol, Clarence and Wendy (as always, names changed to protect the innocent and guilty alike) all these things on the drive over to the show, along with the hope that we might hear the song that night. I was not expecting it, since Gary and I had looked at set lists from earlier stops on the “Wrecking Ball” Tour and did not see it on any recent concert summaries.

This is why, when the first few piano notes echoed across the L.A. Sports Arena,, I sat down and (my friends will attest to this) held my face in my hands with only my eyes peeking out for the duration of the song. It was unlike anything I had experienced before, both in music and in life, and I do not know if I will ever have a moment akin to it again. (While not the exact performance I saw, this professionally filmed version best captures what I witnessed.)

Remember how I warned you about me becoming uncharacteristically sentimental? Good. Let’s continue.

I have been thinking about that song constantly ever since that night, and much more often as of late. The prospect of leaving the bubble of college and entering the larger world is terrifying, but like most trials and obstacles, I am making sense of it the best way I can — with music.

There might be a danger in this, using pop culture to define and shape how we perceive the world around us. Too often we become associated with the things we love, and not why we love them. Sure, I do not mind being known as “that guy with all the band t-shirts” or “that guy who talked about superheroes in the Green Bean for over an hour,” but that is only telling half of the story.

When we are young, we expect everything to have a happy Disney ending — that all of our relationships, platonic and otherwise, will last lifetimes and play out like all of those that came before. Ironically, as I grew older, I found myself and others identifying more with the cynics and the depressed. We thought we had grown up, and instead began accepting “500 Days of Summer” and other tales and tunes of heartbreak, rejection, pain, misery and loss as our reality.

Yet talking about this is just as cliched as the happy ending, and is not necessarily a better way to lead a life. Why do listeners gravitate toward these more “honest” stories and songs? Are they really any more accurate? In truth, loving sad songs (which is essentially loving most of pop music) is a masochistic relationship, especially for those who define their lives through lyrics and guitar riffs. We expect the music to be there for us — to help us through another breakup, the dissolution of a family or group of friends, even just to get by when facing another day seems like too much.

And then the music changes. Our favorite bands let us down. Where we once loved an artist we now find it easy to hate on them. Sharing music brings no joy. The heroes we strove to emulate turn out to be just as weak and flawed as we are.

Sound familiar? It might, since the same aspects can be said about what might happen to the other seniors and I in a few weeks, why the idea of graduating can be terrifying. Friends fall out of touch. We get caught up in job hunts, graduate school classes, paying rent. Over time, we begin just standing still during concerts, another glowing face in a sea of smartphones.

Despite this I am hopeful, and it is all because of “Racing in the Street.”

On the cusp of real adulthood — not I-can-finally-legally-go-to-the-bars adulthood, but actual responsibilities and worries adulthood — the idea of becoming disconnected from what moved me in my youth, of being alone and dissatisfied, seems alarmingly possible. But even if I only have a chance at finding success that works for me I want to take it, because the alternative, of becoming stagnant and stuck in a rut for the rest of my life, is an even worse prospect.

That is the ultimate message of “Racing in the Street,” and what music truly means to me. By the end, the narrator and his girlfriend are not ready to accept the world around them. With no certain promises, they strike out one last time for the chance at redemption, to drive to the sea and “wash these sins off (their) hands.”

The best music, even at its saddest and most depressing, is about redemption. Everyone, from the rockers to the rappers, the poets and the punks, can find meaning and hope on the neck of a guitar, on a DJ controller, through even the cheapest pair of headphones. With music, you can grow old while still staying young in spirit, even if it is only for a fleeting moment, because ultimately it is better to fail trying than to never try at all. It’s like they say: it’s better to burn out than fade away.

The best music, like people, are the ones you fall in love with each time you more than once. I loved music before I heard “Racing in the Street,” but I did not truly understand that love until later on after the concert. True, listening to it now does not produce the exact same effect as it did back then, but some part of that night comes back to me each time I play that song, and that is what is most important. The songs and people that stay with you, that mean something, even if you cannot always explain it, are the ones you fall in love with over and over again.

I am not always the best at expressing myself, but if there is anything to take from “Three Minute Record” and me, from “Racing in the Street,” from music, and from pop culture as a messy, awkward, painful, beautiful whole, it is this: “Some guys they just give up living/Start dying little by little piece by piece/Some guys come home from work and wash up/And go racing in the street.” I think I am more ready to face graduation now, because I will not face it alone. I have the best friends, brothers and family than I could ever ask for, and when things get rough, I will always have The Boss to lean on.

There is a promise in music: not a certain promise, but a promise all the same, and anyone who tries to impede the road to that promise best keep out of the way. Because summer’s here and the time is right for racing in the street.

Until next time: No retreat, no surrender.

JTB

Jack Butcher is a senior history major. He can be reached at butcher@oxy.edu or on Twitter @WklyJButcher.