[This week, I finally get to cross off one of the very top items on my bucket list—seeing Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band in concert with my sons! In honor of that truly momentous occasion, I wanted to share a handful of the past posts where I’ve featured Bruce on the blog—leading up to a special weekend reflection on the concert!]
On two very different ways to AmericanStudy one of Bruce’s most ambiguous songs.
As my 2013 series on ambiguous songs (and any other time I’ve written about music on this blog) no doubt proved, when it comes to music I’m a lyrics guy—by which I mean not just that I listen to them closely, but that I try to figure out what they mean, even when (as with one of my favorite 21st century bands, The Killers) that’s damnably hard to do (“Jealousy, turning saints into the sea”?!). There are no artists to whose lyrics I’ve listened more frequently and more attentively than Bruce Springsteen, and thus few Springsteen songs that I haven’t obsessively figured out. But there are still some that remain elusive to me, their ambiguity defying my repetitive listens and analyses. And at the top of that list would have to be the most eerie and evocative song on an album full of them (and about which I wrote yesterday as well), Nebraska’s “State Trooper” (1982).
From its title track on, Nebraska can be located in the American tradition of what we might call outlaw romanticism, valorizing—or at least sympathizing with—the misdeeds of those who find themselves living and dying outside the law. The opening verse of “State Trooper” concludes with an indication that its speaker sees himself as precisely such a justified outlaw: “License, registration, I ain’t got none / But I got a clear conscience ‘bout the things that I’ve done.” Seen in that light, his repeated injunction to “Mister State Trooper, please don’t you stop me,” might reflect an outlaw code of honor, a sense that while the speaker and the law are by necessity opposed, he hopes to avoid violence whenever possible, particularly against innocent men who “maybe … got a kid, maybe … got a pretty wife.” “My argument is not with you,” says Jason Bourne to a Moscow policeman at the start of his trilogy’s final film (NB. since I wrote this post that has turned out not to be the final Jason Bourne film, but in this household it will always be!), before he takes his outlaw fight to the heart of the American power structure.
Despite their cynical attitudes toward the law and power, such outlaw narratives tend to be ultimately optimistic, at least in their sense that there are those who will fight back—and their admiration for such figures. Yet from the final lines of its opening title track—“They wanted to know why I did what I did / Well sir I guess there’s just a meanness in this world”—Springsteen’s album is far more dark and pessimistic, portraying its outlaws as embodiments of a fallen and perhaps irredeemable America (although the album does end with another ambiguous song called “Reason to Believe”). While the speaker of “State Trooper” is apparently driving “to my baby,” the final lines suggest that he has nowhere to go: “Hey, somebody out there, listen to my last prayer / Hi-ho silver-o, deliver me from nowhere.” Seen in this light, the speaker’s injunction to the state trooper is simply a threat of more darkness and violence to come, in a world “where the great black rivers flow” and where “the only thing that I got’s been bothering me my whole life.” This is the land of the American nightmare, and its outlaws are simply symptoms of the disease, not a potential cure.
Next Bruce blogging tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?