I don’t pay much attention to the age of rock stars but it’s still hard to believe that Bruce Springsteen turned 70 yesterday. I always thought he was a good bit younger than me, certainly more than two years anyway, and when I watch him do his thing his energy befits a man 20 years my junior. Footage of Bruce popped up all over my news feed yesterday, but none of it showed him performing this song which, over time, has edged past the pack to become my favourite from a catalogue that simply refuses to stop growing, and one that holds its place among the shifting playlist of old and new songs I listen to all the time.
‘Racing In The Street’, from 1978’s Darkness On The Edge Of Town, is not really about racing cars at all. It is a metaphor for the terrifying, uncertain prospect of growing up, far more so in fact than the hi-energy but rather wordy song of that name that appeared on Springsteen’s second album in 1973. In this respect it can be likened to the songs that Pete Townshend found himself writing for The Who By Numbers when age was catching up with him, so yesterday, as Springsteen entered his eighth decade, I felt like writing about how much I love this song.
On first hearing you could certainly be forgiven for thinking ‘Racing In The Street’ was another of Springsteen’s songs about cars, their performance and taking girls for rides in them, subject matter he once seemed lumbered with like Chuck Berry or The Beach Boys. But that’s just the first verse, the sharply detailed opening that sets the scene against a measured but edgy musical backdrop with hints of The Crystal’s ‘Then He Kissed Me’ and, in closing couplets loosely repeated throughout, a clever juxtaposition of lyrics from Martha & The Vandellas’ ‘Dancing In The Street’. This was youthful music for youthful escapades that are abandoned midway into verse two, reluctantly perhaps, since there’s a realisation that they can’t – and won’t – last forever.
This is when Springsteen looks despondently around him as his peers pack away their dreams, symbolised by the cars in which they race, and he’s conflicted. To stay the same or grow up; to ‘blow ’em off in my first heat’ or ‘start dyin’, little by little, piece by piece’? It’s a dilemma we all face sooner or later, and one that those of us who love our rock’n’roll that bit more than maybe we should tend to defer to our cost. (And perhaps it’s because I waited until I was 44 to marry and have children, far later than average, that ‘Racing In The Street’ resonates in me as much as it does.)
By the beginning of verse three the weight of his choice, of growing up, of the inevitable, has taken its full toll, and Springsteen is staring into the beyond. Is this all that life has to offer when once I was racing in the street? There’s trepidation when his girl stares forlornly into the night – is he right for me? – but force of will surmounts and as the final verse winds down he’s come to grips with his dilemma and is riding to the sea with his girl to wash their sins – their past – off their hands. Well, that’s my reading anyway.
But there’s another, more specifically Springsteenish, interpretation I think about when I listen to ‘Racing In The Street’, and this is that the song connects the contradictions of Springsteen the performer. On the one hand, in the earlier lines, there’s the kid with that old Broadcaster who doesn’t want to grow up, who bounces on stage like he was born to rock, singing requests from the audience like that joyous cruise through ‘You Never Can Tell’ that you can’t avoid on YouTube, or getting a girl up on stage to join him for ‘Dancing In The Dark’, or racing through party anthems like ‘Sherry Darling’ or ‘Out In The Street’. This is Bruce the Younger, the kid who worships rock’n’roll and will go to his grave defending it as the most fun you can have with your clothes on, the romantic whose electric guitar has unlocked the door to a personal paradise.
Then, in the song’s conclusion, there’s the guy who sings about decay and change in ‘4th Of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)’, or hard times in ‘The River’, or injustice in ‘American Skin’, or a life lived on the wrong side of the tracks on Tom Joad, or tragedy in ‘Wreck On The Highway’, or even ‘Badlands’, as powerful a rocker I know about the price you have to pay. This is Bruce the Elder who grew up and got married, had kids and, although he’s banked a pirate’s treasure, tries his best to stay grounded, to retain a conscience, a responsibility that comes with the weight of fame that, like The Beatles, he must carry a long time.
‘Racing In The Street’ links these two Bruce Springsteens together for me. Its stately, sombre, minimal piano-driven pace makes it more profound than any of the other ‘serious’ songs he’s written and when, in more recent live versions, it reaches that instrumental coda, all five minutes of it, we are ever-so-slowly lifted up by this repeated surge, rim shots becoming pounding drums, a swirling organ, ringing guitars, a gradual escalation in intensity, crescendo after crescendo like an incoming tide as the E Street Band join him from every angle, rising and rising so as to restate the message of that final verse, that despair can turn to joy, and the question ‘Did you make it alright?’ is finally answered. Yes, we really can grow up and make it alright. It really is the greatest song he’s ever written.
For the record, I listen to four versions of ‘Racing In The Street’ – the original on Darkness…, live versions from 1978 (Agora, Cleveland) and 1981 (Meadowlands, New Jersey) and an embryonic version on The Promise, also from 1978 – and a live version by Emmylou Harris that is suitably reverent but instead of the lengthy coda features a lovely vocalised sign-off. I found the pic with the lyric on Google (credited to YouTube) and the version of ‘Racing In The Street’ on YouTube I attached above is from 2009, Paramount Theatre, Asbury Park, where it all began for Bruce. Happy 70th birthday old man.