Monday, February 06, 2023

This Year: 1975

"This Year" is a series of weekly posts, each about one song from one year of my life. See the introduction for more.

I've lived in New Jersey most of my life. I say that as a possible excuse, or reason - you know there's got to be some Springsteen on this list somewhere.

And I wrestled with a bunch of different songs, trying to fit them into the sequence. Atlantic City was a strong contender, and The River - as always, I love songs that tell stories, especially bleak ones. The demo version of Stolen Car has been one of my favorite songs since I heard it, but that seemed too much like special pleading: a list like this needs to be focused on normally-released works, things that were out and in the world in the years when they were made, not something sneaking out in a collector's package decades later. I can't claim a song for a specific year when it wasn't available until decades later.

In the end, for Bruce Springsteen, I came closer to optimism than I usually do, and picked Backstreets as my song for 1975.

Springsteen, to my mind, is most drawn to things broken, lost or gone - breaking away, getting out (on the positive side) or getting stuck and left behind, on the more common negative side. His biggest song was about getting away from where you came from while you still could; his most misunderstood song is about coming back and finding things are even worse than before.

Backstreets is about living there - wherever your "there" may be - about still being young and energetic enough for hopes and dreams. And about how those hopes and dreams are dashed.

It's still about a break. Most of Springsteen's songs are about the speaker, but Backstreets is about the one spoken to: Terry, who did something and is now gone. For a song this wordy, this specific about so many things, it's notable that what happened is entirely vague - "when the breakdown hit at midnight."

Not just vague, but passive. No one did anything - Terry, or the mysterious "him" who the speaker hates. Like so much Springsteen, the world is overwhelming, and individual people will be overwhelmed. But here, the speaker is still fighting, still holding onto that thread of life and plans.

That's what gives Backstreets life. That's what makes it a song of hope, despite whatever happened to Terry. (Did he switch sides in some gang fight? Did he go away forever? Is he dead?)

But remember where they are, what they're doing - they're not defiant. They're not out in the center. They're not standing up in the light of day. They're running for their lives at night on them backstreets.

And that might be - no, absolutely is - the best we can get, and it is enough.

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