So here's a piece I wrote for a graduate class I took a few years back. I've been meaning to post it for, well, a few years—in fact, I'd actually forgotten that I hadn't. So here it is, occasionally funky formatting and all.
• Follow That Dream •
Tracing the story arcs of characters in the songs of Bruce Springsteen
Bruce Springsteen has a history of revisiting certain subjects over the years, most notably cars, driving, and the open road. This has led to more than a little criticism—
“Springsteen has glued together a badly imagined shantytown of ‘blue collar’ images and buzz-words—‘mill,’ ‘car,’ ‘street,’ ‘girl’—meant to touch a suburban generation that only knows the ‘working class’ through sitcoms and ‘nostalgia’ films and old black-and-whites in granddad’s wallet.” (John Lombardi, Esquire Magazine, December 1988)
—and even parody, as in the Bob Dylan song, “Tweeter and the Monkey Man” on the first Traveling Wilburys album. What such critics miss is the way in which those subjects change with each album, from a symbol of romance, freedom, and power on Born to Run, to desperation, longing, and escape on Darkness on the Edge of Town, to isolation and emptiness on Tunnel of Love, and even to death and pointless murder on Nebraska.
So too has Springsteen revisited certain characters over the years. In some cases it’s been not a literal sequel as much as a reusing of archetypes, although as Springsteen himself pointed out, many of the characters on subsequent albums may indeed be the same as on earlier, even if they’re not named:
“I’ve tried to keep my eye on the ball, to keep a clear view of those things. And I try to be consistent with the characters. The guy on ‘Beautiful Reward’ is the guy on ‘Born to Run.’ Hey, that’s where life has taken these people. I always try to make sure the stuff I’m writing is inclusive in that sense. That it’s broad enough. It’s partly about me but for it to work right it’s got to also be partly about you. If it’s just one or the other something’s missing.” (“Ambition, Lies, & the Beautiful Reward: Bruce Springsteen's Family Values,” Interview by Bill Flanagan, Musician, November 1992)
But while he has often followed characters from album to album throughout his career, actual direct sequels are rarities in Springsteen. In fact, there are only a few times in which Springsteen seemed to do a literal update. In this instances, his song choice is most notable indeed: “Thunder Road” and “Rosalita,” two of the most beloved songs—in fact, possibly the two most beloved songs to his most devoted of hardcore fans—in his entire canon. It is, of course, impossible to know for sure why Springsteen chooses to revisit certain characters. But what does become clear, upon examination, is the result: it adds depth and extra meaning to the songs themselves, both the originals and the sequels. The new songs start off in a world which has already been established, enabling the listener to fill in many of the blanks easily, and characterization can thus be focused on, as the need for exposition is greatly reduced. Given the right circumstances—the correct songs and the proper framing—the results can be stunningly powerful.
“Thunder Road” is, without question, one of Bruce Springsteen’s greatest and most important songs—as well as one of his most popular. According to Wikipedia:
In 2004, it was ranked #1 on the list of the “885 All-Time Greatest Songs” compiled by WXPN (the University of Pennsylvania’s public radio station). Rolling Stone magazine placed it as #86 on its “500 Greatest Songs of All Time.” The song came in at #226 in Q magazine’s list of the “1001 Greatest Songs Ever” in 2003, in which they described the song as “best for pleading on the porch.”
Among other things, “Thunder Road” is one of Springsteen’s very first songs to make explicit themes—the power of the automobile and the freedom of the open roads—which would come to dominate his music for the next decade and beyond.
Although never even released as a single, it would become a staple of AOR radio in the 1970s and 1980s, and Springsteen would go on to release multiple versions of it, from the piano-based live version on Live 1975-1985, to the 1979 No Nukes version on his video anthology, to his acoustic guitar rendition on MTV Unplugged in 1993. Springsteen himself acknowledges the song’s power, while seeming a bit mystified by it:
“I’m not sure what that song has. We played it the other night at the Sony studio, when we were taping a European show, and it just felt all-inclusive. It may be something about trying to seize a particular moment in your life and realizing you have to make very fundamental and basic decisions that you know will alter your life and how you live it. It’s a funny song because it simultaneously contains both dreaming and disillusionment.” (“Human Touch: Bruce Springsteen reflects on his music, life with and without the E-Street Band, and the glory of rock & roll,” Neil Strauss, Guitar World, October 1995)
In August 1976 Springsteen began playing a new song in concert, “The Promise.”
Speculation immediately began as to the song’s “meaning,” speculation which was later to prove decisive in determining the song’s fate. The main interpretation was that it was about the contentious lawsuit between Springsteen and his manager, Mike Appel. In an interview with Paul Nelson, Springsteen denied that it was about the Appel situation, per se. “I wrote it before the lawsuit,” Springsteen claimed. “I don’t write about lawsuits.” (Bruce Springsteen: The Rolling Stone Files, 70) He did, however, much later admit on the Charlie Rose show that “The Promise” was indeed a continuation of the “Thunder Road” narrative, when responding to a question as to why it wasn’t on the Tracks album:
“Basically, I went back and I listened to it and we never really got a good recording of it in my opinion. It’s been a favorite song of a lot of..a lot of people mention it. It sort of was the sequel to “Thunder Road” in some fashion, it referred back to those characters. But I went back and we sort of had a very plodding, heavy-handed version of it. I couldn’t quite live with it, so maybe another time.”
One of the keys to Darkness on the Edge of Town is the hope to be found in each and every one of its songs. While its pervasive sense of pessimism is the album’s most prominent feature—indeed, following the youthful romanticism of Born to Run, it feels like its defining feature—that nugget of hope contained in each song is the key to the album. In many of its most popular songs—most obviously “Badlands” and “The Promised Land”—the optimism is unmistakable, but even the album’s most somber songs, the ones which upon first examination seem devoid of any spark of hope, reveal themselves to have at the very least a glimmer. “Factory,” for example, may very well be the starkest, most desolate song on the album, yet even it contains the line
Factory gives him life
Coming as it does hard on the heels of the previous line
Factory takes his hearing
it is, at the very least, a mixed blessing, to be sure. Nevertheless, as compromised and difficult a life as it may be, the fact remains that the factory does give him something—and not just anything, but specifically life. What’s more, the song ends with the promise
And you just better believe, boy, somebody’s gonna get hurt tonight
Even after all the workers have been through, years and even decades of back-breaking, grueling, (almost) thankless and unrewarding work which has taken its toll, the men are still fighting, not just metaphorically, but literally, an act which in and of itself proves that they’ve not acquiesced, surrendered or given up. It’s not ideal…but nor is it nothing. It’s not ideal, but it is still something.
That stands in stark contrast to “The Promise,” perhaps the bleakest song Springsteen had written up to that point, and thirty years later, still one of his grimmest songs. The narrator runs down a list of his friends and acquaintances:
Johnny works in a factory and Billy works downtown
Terry works in a rock and roll band
Lookin’ for that million-dollar sound
It’s interesting to note the way “The Promise” begins here, with a recitation of the narrator’s friends, as opposed to the only characters in “Thunder Road”: just the singer and Mary. No one else is named in the earlier song, and there’s barely even a mention of another human, in fact, save Roy Orbison’s disembodied voice singing about loneliness. The only other people who get brought up are Mary’s lovers, for whom she idly and vainly makes crosses, until the end of the song:
There were ghosts in the eyes
Of all the boys you sent away
They haunt this dusty beach road
In the skeleton frames of burned out Chevrolets
They scream your name at night in the street
Your graduation gown lies in rags at their feet
And in the lonely cool before dawn
You hear their engines roaring on
But when you get to the porch they’re gone
On the wind
So are they even real? Are they ghosts? Are they merely metaphorical? Whatever they are, they’re not physical, tangible presences like Mary and the singer, no more able to touch or be touched than Roy Orbison’s voice floating in the background.
There may be one additional character in the initial song, but it’s not human: it’s Thunder Road itself, the only other proper name in the song, and which exhibits some decidedly human traits:
Lying out there like a killer in the sun
Hey I know it’s late we can make it if we run
Oh Thunder Road, sit tight take hold
Is the singer directing Thunder Road to take hold? Is he telling Mary to grab onto Thunder Road? Is he telling her to grab onto him in order to keep that killer in the sun from snatching her? Whatever the answer, the result is that Thunder Road itself becomes an actor in this drama, and one which shows up in the sequel.
Acting, in the sense of taking action, is notably missing from “The Promise.” The narrator’s friends may have jobs to which they go, but he himself isn’t exactly ambitious
I got a little job down in Darlington
But some nights I don’t go
Some nights I go to the drive-in, or some nights I stay home
This isn’t the romantic rebellion of a guy stuck in a job he hates, who’s willing to throw it all away for a shot at something bigger and better, and it’s not a former grad student filled with what he imagines is intellectually-viable existential ennui: this is a man who’s learned the ugly truth of what the world is really like. As Springsteen himself said in Philadelphia on December 9, 1980, “It's a hard world that makes you live with a lot of things that are unlivable.”
So sometimes the singer goes to his job and, well, sometimes he doesn’t. And when he doesn’t, it’s not to run off to the beach—or even some sleazy hot sheets motel—with a girl, it’s to go to the drive-in, apparently alone: certainly there’s no mention of Mary or any other female. Unless he doesn’t go to the movies either, on those nights when he can’t even be bothered to do that. And yet the listener doesn’t get the impression that the narrator’s what would later be termed a “slacker,” a guy who’s voluntarily, even happily, dropped out of society, seeing it for the receptacle of inherently shallow set of values it is. The narrator of “The Promise” is man who has learned, to his crushing disappointment, that despite what he was always told growing up, this is the reality of the adult world. This, we discover, is a man who tried the best he could to play the game the way he was taught in school, and learned the hard way that the game is a fake, that it’s rigged, that the American dream is a con, a shell game, and that guys like him, from his socioeconomic class, are always the marks.
I followed that dream just like those guys do up on the screen
And I drove a Challenger down Route 9 through the dead ends and all the bad scenes
And when the promise was broken, I cashed in a few of my dreams
Like the singer of “Racing in the Street,” and so many other Springsteen songs, the narrator of “The Promise” views cars as, among other things, a means to freedom. And as a symbol of rugged American self-reliance, both singers actually built (or, more accurately, rebuilt) their own cars themselves. From “Racing in the Street”:
I got a sixty-nine Chevy with a 396
Fuelie heads and a Hurst on the floor
She's waiting tonight down in the parking lot
Outside the Seven-Eleven store
Me and my partner Sonny built her straight out of scratch
So too the singer of “The Promise”:
Well now I built that Challenger by myself
But unlike the singer from “Racing in the Street,” whose car continues to be a means of support, both financially and spiritually:
And he rides with me from town to town
We only run for the money got no strings attached
We shut 'em up and then we shut 'em down
the singer of “The Promise” has lost his car:
But I needed money and so I sold it
But the loss of his car is more than merely an inconvenience. It symbolizes his loss of faith and hope later in the song.
All my life I fought this fight
The fight that no man can never win
Every day it just gets harder to live
This dream I’m believing in
Thunder Road, oh baby you were so right
Thunder Road there’s something dyin’ on the highway tonight
How far the speaker has come since the Born to Run album. Then the highway was an escape. From “Born to Run”:
Sprung from cages out on highway 9
and “Thunder Road” itself:
Well the night's busting open
These two lanes will take us anywhere.
The road signifies freedom and unlimited possibilities, and any fear Mary feels isn’t so much fear of the open road or its chances, but her own reticence, her hesitation to leave the safety of home—and perhaps her doubts about the long-term prospective of the singer. It may not have been an easy path to freedom:
The highway's jammed with broken heroes on a last chance power drive
but the fact that it’s jammed means it’s clear that everyone knows what the highway is: it’s the way out. Furthermore, note who it is on the highway—broken heroes—and they’re not merely fleeing but on “a last chance power drive.” Even the language implies strength and a vital desperation, compared to “The Promise,” where death, whether physical or spiritual, awaits. It’s not even clear just what’s dying—it’s ambiguous, as though it’s too dark and murky to be able to tell for sure. But that something is dying there, there’s no doubt.
The narrator of “Thunder Road” had seemingly limitless beliefs in himself and life’s possibilities:
Show a little faith, there’s magic in the night
but by “The Promise” any such illusions have been stripped away and he’s learned that even if you seem to have won, it’s not enough:
I won big once and I hit the coast
But somehow I paid the big cost
Inside I felt like I was carryin’ the broken spirits
Of all the other ones who lost
When the promise is broken you go on living
But it steals something from down in your soul
Like when the truth is spoken and it don’t make no difference
Something in your heart goes cold
As with many of the other songs on the Darkness on the Edge of Town album, “The Promise” takes the singer far from the east coast of the first three albums. But whereas the Utah desert of “The Promised Land” had its share—maybe more than its share—of trials and tribulations, the region of “The Promise” has nothing to offer but rundown dives without even the devastating power of a tornado:
I followed that dream through the southwestern flats
That dead ends in two-bit bars
And when the promise was broken I was far away from home
Sleepin’ in the back seat of a borrowed car
Even here, so far from home, so broken-hearted, it comes back to cars. But how things have changed, how far he’s fallen: he’s in a car, but he’s not racing it, nor is he cruising—he’s sleeping, apparently homeless. But not just homeless: despite being reduced to living in a car, it’s not even his car—he actually has to borrow a car to sleep in.
Thunder Road, for the lost lovers and all the fixed games
Thunder Road, for the tires rushing by in the rain
Thunder Road, Billy and me we’d always say
Thunder Road, we were gonna take it all and throw it all away
The listener never actually finds out what promise was broken, not literally, but it doesn’t really matter. The very ambiguity attached to that mystery enables the listener to identify all the closer with the concept, for who hasn’t had a promise broken and felt the accompany devastation of betrayal? The singer doesn’t overly romanticize the reality of the harm done: he admits it’s not life-threatening, that the damage isn’t physical. But he insists that it robs a piece of your soul, with the strong implication that if it’s not a fate worse than death, it’s not far from it, at best. And yet the singer is “merely” wounded, and not even dead. He lacks the strength to even throw it all away—perhaps because he feels it was already taken from him or perhaps because he’s just a shell of the man he used to be. Either way, he’s a man who’s been pushed beyond his limits. And, unlike other Springsteen characters who find that out beyond their furthest limits they have still more as-yet-untapped resources of which they’d never even dreamt (such as the singers of “Darkness on the Edge of Town” and “The Promised Land”), the narrator of “The Promise” has no such resolve. He has been beaten and can do nothing more than lie in the dark, listening to the melancholy, woeful sound of cars driving past him in the rain—driving past him, away from him, leaving him behind, again and again and again, and the existence of the rain implying he’s no longer in the southwest but is instead right back where he started from, in the northeast again, but with a decidedly untriumphant homecoming—as he, carless and bereft, is impotent, powerless, unable or unwilling to act.
Which may just give a clue as to what the broken promise was: perhaps it was the promise the narrator of “Thunder Road” felt was made by those two lanes, and which he, in turn, then tried to sell to Mary. “We’re pulling out of here to win” is not just an exultation, it’s a promise, a guarantee that good times and good fortune lie ahead. And indeed, the narrator of “The Promise” seems to have won, at least once, and that apparently a big win. But what the narrator seems to find out is either that one big win doesn’t make one a winner or perhaps that it doesn’t guarantee future wins. In any case, it makes that closing promise of the earlier song a lie. That is the promise which has been broken and which has, in turn, so utterly broken his spirit.
It’s fascinating to note that while Springsteen himself admits “The Promise” is a sequel of sorts to “Thunder Road,” that there’s no mention of Mary. Whether she decided to stay on the porch and forced the narrator to travel on alone, or whether she’s the cause of the narrator’s crushed spirit is unclear: there’s no textual evidence to support either view. But her very absence looms large either way, especially as through the rest of his career Springsteen would continue to use the name Mary again and again, in more than a dozen songs, and even more than that if one were to count the number of times “Maria” pops up in his work. It is as though the Mary of “Thunder Road” became a prototype for The Springsteen Female, almost an archetype to which he returns times and again. Yet in “The Promise” itself she’s notable mainly by her glaring omission, especially when limned against the dramatic appearance of Thunder Road itself in the chorus.
“The Promise” is one of the finest songs Springsteen wrote in the 1970s, with a beautiful melody and unexpected yet still logical chord changes, and a complex lyric. But it’s also an utterly pessimistic song, lacking any of the optimism to be found in even the grimmest of songs on his first four album. While there’s no doubt that the way song was already being viewed vis-à-vis the Appel lawsuit was a major, perhaps even the major, reason for the song’s exclusion from Darkness on the Edge of Town, it is this unrelentingly harsh viewpoint which makes the song more fitting for later Springsteen works such as Nebraska and merits exclusion from the album, regardless of its high quality. Additionally, it is hard to discount the idea that Springsteen himself back away from casting such a negative light on “Thunder Road,” a song which had already begun to take on a mythical, almost mystical quality, as he himself would admit. It’s one thing to write and sing such a bleak sequel in concert; it is something else entirely to go on and release it on an album.
In virtually any list of The Most Important Bruce Springsteen songs, “Rosalita” holds a unique position. The song is large and rather unwieldy for an artist known largely for his straightforward rock and roll, and it is wild and passionate but lacking the depth for which Springsteen, a writer renowned for his complex lyrics, is known. And it’s the only song from his first two albums to have played a significant role on some tours—such as both his Born in the U.S.A tour as well as The Tunnel of Love Express—which virtually ignored his earliest records. As Jimmy Guterman writes, “The lyric is simple—I’m going to be a rock and roll star, I’m going to transcend my Jerseyness and you should be my girl.” Springsteen himself spoke of “Rosalita” this way in his book “Songs”:
“‘Rosalita’ was my musical autobiography. It was my “getting out of town” preview for Born to Run, with more humor. I wrote it as a kiss-off to everybody who counted you out, put you down, or decided you weren’t good enough. The lyrics also took a peek into the future—‘Someday we’ll look back on this and it will all seem funny.’ Not that it would all BE funny, but that it would all SEEM funny. Probably one of the most useful lines I’ve ever written.”
Anyone who grew up in the New York/New Jersey/New England area in the 1970s or 1980s will have had little choice but to be familiar with “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight),” as it was a staple on rock radio, as well as in other Springsteen mainstays such as Philadelphia and Cleveland. Seven and a half minutes of barely controlled chaos, it’s one of the most irrepressible Juliet and Romeo love songs in the rock canon—although, unlike Shakespeare’s play, the ending is left unresolved: the lovers are alive but remain separated, the singer camped out below Rosie’s bedroom window, still calling for her to come out tonight.
Springsteen ended every single concert with this barnburner from the time he wrote it back in 1973—as Guterman wrote, “You’d end your shows with it too if you had thought of it”—until about halfway through the Born in the USA tour, when it became more sporadic. The song returned for the first half of the Tunnel of Love Express tour, with a horn section and a slightly altered melody. Since then it’s been an occasional presence, but one that Springsteen clearly came to consider something of an albatross, especially as in concert it would often balloon to as much as fifteen minutes.
One result was that Rosalita—both the song and the girl—are beloved but seemed encased in amber, unchanging and eternally perfect, the happy ending presumed but always just out of reach. And the song is really more about the narrator’s quest to win the girl than the girl herself—no matter how many times one may have heard the song, the listener still knows virtually nothing about Rosie, except that the singer will do anything to be with her, despite the strenuous objections of her parents.
Of all his songs to revisit, the sprawling behemoth that is “Rosalita” would hardly seem likely. It’s a young man’s song in more ways that one. Not only is the narrator clearly a young man, with the passion and apparent depth of a young man, but the structure itself screams that it was someone barely out of his teens. It’s got multiple verses, multiple bridges, sections that don’t fit any particular mold, every rock chord the key could accommodate, an acappella singalong section and an energy level that’s off the charts, propelled by great guitar, raucous sax and drumming that leads the listener to wonder if the drummer, Vini “Mad Dog” Lopez, snorted rocket fuel immediately before the take. All of which makes it perhaps the most unlikely of his early songs for the older, more mature Springsteen to go back to. And yet on “Long Time Comin’,” Springsteen, as unpredictable an artist as American rock and roll has produced, did exactly that.
“Rosalita” opens with a statement of purpose:
Spread out now, Rosie, doctor come cut loose her mama’s reins
You know playin’ blindman’s bluff is a little baby’s game
Immediately the listener knows exactly what this song’s about: the singer is being denied access to his girlfriend by her overbearing parents, and he finds this situation intolerable. The next two lines lay out the rest of his basic philosophy:
You pick up Little Dynamite, I’m gonna pick up Little Gun
And together we’re gonna go out tonight and make that highway run
And with those opening lines, the entire song is laid out in microcosm: parents are oppressive and overbearing, friends are what you need to have a good time, and the open road promises freedom.
The rest of the song only expands upon these assertions, as the narrator runs down where each friend is and what he or she is doing:
Dynamite’s in the belfry playin’ with the bats
Little Gun’s downtown in front of Woolworth’s tryin’ out his attitude on all the cats
Jack the Rabbit and Weak Knees Willie, you know they’re gonna be there
Ah, sloppy Sue and Big Bones Billie, they’ll be comin’ up for air
We’re gonna play some pool, skip some school, act real cool
Stay out all night, it’s gonna feel all right
Compare the vibrancy of these friends, exemplified by their names, and their actions with the way the parents are presented:
Papa’s on the corner waitin’ for the bus
Mama she’s home in the window waitin’ up for us
She’ll be there in that chair when they wrestle her upstairs
‘Cause you know we ain’t gonna come
Although it’s not spelled out, the implication is that Rosie’s father is waiting for the bus to take him to work on the night shift, while her mother is merely sitting. Not playing with bats in a belfry, not trying to impress the guys down on the corner with a surfeit of attitude and most certainly not shooting pool. Just…sitting. And trying to keep her daughter from the fun that awaits. Or so the singer seems to believe.
In stark contrast to the opening of “Rosalita,” “Long Time Comin’” couldn’t possibly open much differently.
Instead of a raucous electric guitar call to arms, we get a gently strummed acoustic guitar at a much more moderate tempo. And whereas the earlier song announced from the fourth word that it was directed to Rosie, the sequel doesn’t mention her by name until well into the third and final verse, although the flowers the singer’s carrying can safely be presumed to be a present for her.
What’s more, the setting of “Rosalita” is urban. This is clear from context: the rest of The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle, from the opening track, “The E Street Shuffle,” through to the gorgeous finale, “New York City Serenade,” is set in the New York/New Jersey area, ranging from the boardwalk of “4th of July, Asbury Park,” to the Bleeker Street of “Kitty’s Back,” only veering away briefly for “Wild Billy’s Circus Story.” But it’s also clear just from “Rosalita” itself, as Springsteen sings of waiting at the bus stop on the corner, hanging out in front of Woolworth’s, and skipping school in favor of the pool hall.
“Long Time Comin’,” on the other hand, begins far from the city:
Out where the creek turns shallow and sandy
And the moon comes skimmin’ away the stars
The wind in the mesquite comes rushin’ over the hilltops
Straight into my arms
Straight into my arms
This pastoral opening couldn’t be more different from the earlier work, and whereas “Rosalita” laid out its intent right in the first line, this opening shows little hint of the conflict to come. The rest of the verse subtly introduces the song’s main theme:
I’m riding hard carryin’ a catch of roses
And a fresh map that I made
Tonight I’m gonna get birth naked and bury my old soul
And dance on its grave
And dance on its grave
Although it won’t be made obvious until the next two verses, Springsteen quietly sets up the theme with his birth and death imagery, subjects with which the rest of the song will be concerned.
But it’s worth noting the preponderance of nature in this first verse. It’s not just that the song is set outside the city, nor is the country a passing mention; Springsteen spends considerable time singing about the creek, the moon, the stars, the wind and the hills. And not merely to set the mood—while the middle verse seems to be set back in the city, he returns to nature for the final verse. “Rosalita,” on the other hand, barely makes any reference to nature at all and when it is noted, briefly in the final verse, it’s in a derogatory fashion, a passing mention at the unfortunate circumstance of a car (that symbol of freedom) being “stuck in the mud somewhere in the swamps of Jersey.” In “Rosalita” nature is a place of (mild) danger, of mud and swamps, where your beloved automobile (even if it is a dud) gets trapped, much as Rosie is trapped by her parents. Yet in the sequel, the wind rushes straight into the singer’s arms like a lover, an echo of the way “Rosalita” ended:
Hold on tight, stay up all night ‘cause Rosie I’m comin’ on strong
By the time we meet the morning light I will hold you in my arms
But unlike the world of “Rosalita,” in this world nature is not an irritant or obstacle, and isn’t even just an idyllic backdrop: it’s lovely, friendly and welcoming—a mirror to the different manner in which family will come to be viewed.
Unlike “Rosalita,” “Long Time Comin’” has not a single mention of cars or trucks or motorcycles. The narrator does mention riding hard and while it’s never specified, given the rest of the opening verse, one gets the impression that he just might be riding a horse—and what could be much further from the stereotypical Springsteen mode of transportation?
Whereas “Rosalita” announced its presence and point with authority right from the very beginning, “Long Time Comin’” backs into its major argument, lightly touching upon its theme of family in the first verse and only addressing it head-on in the second.
Well my daddy he was just a stranger
Lived in a hotel downtown
When I was a kid he was just somebody
Somebody I’d see around
Somebody I’d see around
This father bears little resemblance to Rosie’s parents: her overprotective mother standing guard at the window, ready to repel intruders, and her hard-working father, off to man the night shift and disapproving of her boyfriend, whom he can’t understand. The narrator’s father is here just a cipher, not a tangibly oppressive presence, just a malign shadow, just some other ghost out on the street to whom he doesn’t even stop and politely speak when they pass on by. And whatever the faults Rosie’s parents may have—traits which, one suspects, the singer would perhaps view differently nowadays—they had a home and a job, while the narrator’s father appears likely to have at most one and possibly neither, hence the hotel residence.
But here’s where “Long Time Comin’,” already a lovely song, begins to pick up emotional power, as we contrast the singer’s relationship with his father to his own identity as a father:
Now down below and pullin’ on my shirt
I got some kids of my own
Well if I had one wish in this god forsaken world, kids
It’d be that your mistakes would be your own
Yeah your sins would be your own
Again the contrast with the earlier song could not be more stark. Whereas in “Rosalita,” the singer crowed of possessing God’s favor:
My tires were slashed and I almost crashed but the Lord had mercy
Here he proclaims this world a god-forsaken one and wishes—not even prays—that the sins of the father would not be visited upon the sons, leading the listener to intuit that perhaps the singer’s father was not such an insignificant presence after all: perhaps they had next-to-no contact on a daily basis, but the father’s actions, certainly past and possibly present, indeed maybe his very existence, has left lasting scars, and the singer devoutly hopes his offspring won’t know the same pain.
What had seemed a lovely, almost bucolic song in the first verse—albeit with some slightly ominous overtones, with its references to a metaphorical funeral—has turned quite a bit darker here, as family is brought up and presented as a burden. Even as the world is god-forsaken, the singer laments the notion of his sins having a deleterious effect on his children, compared to “Rosalita” where God’s mercy is clear and the concept of “sin” absent—indeed, given the ebullient tone of the song, virtually laughable.
But the third verse marries the tone and ideas of the first two verses together, as again the listener is brought back to the country:
Out ‘neath the arms of Cassiopeia
Where the sword of Orion sweeps
It’s me and you, Rosie, cracklin’ like crossed wires
And you breathin’ in your sleep
You breathin’ in your sleep
And here, at long last, we get to see Rosie again, after so very long, and we discover that what had been unresolved—would the lovers get together?—has been most definitely resolved, and for quite some time: certainly long enough for the two of them to have children. Most encouraging of all, the Rosalita who lit the seemingly unquenchable thirst in the singer of the earlier song may be older, may be a mother, but she’s still got the spark that nearly drove the younger version of the singer out of his mind with desire, as things between the two of them are still electric. And this despite the fact that she’s actually asleep, a huge change from our last glimpse of her, standing at the window, high up above, ungettable, almost unapproachable, certainly unattainable—but most definitely wide awake. Here she’s asleep, and the change in action brings with it possible connotations of old age, being worn down, beaten, exhausted. But not this time, as Rosie and the singer still have that sexual tension between the two of them as strong as ever, despite the fact that we have certifiable evidence that they have, in fact, consummated their relationship (leading one to conclude that her tongue was not, in fact, the only lover he would ever need). Yet here they are, still as randy as ever after all these years, which leads to her slumber being viewed with nothing but positive connotations: security and contentedness and if exhaustion is in there as well, it’s the exhaustion every mother knows, a very real weariness, but a pleasant one, most unlike that of the men walking through the factory gates in the rain.
Nature and Rosie even begin to reflect each other, as the spark that is Rosie and the fire burning nearby mirror the other:
Well there’s just a spark of campfire burning
And the kids that had been pulling on his shirt earlier have also dropped off to sleep:
Two kids in a sleeping bag beside
And then comes one of the most beautiful and intimate lines Springsteen has ever written:
I reach ‘neath your shirt, lay my hands across your belly
And feel another one kickin’ inside
In another context—“The River,” for instance—it would be easy to see this move as a precursor to the singer feeling trapped, or cutting and running, as the singer of “Hungry Heart” did. But here we see a man determined not to be anything like his father was and who, whether he realizes it or not, is already far different, as his attitude towards his children is never less than protective (but not, one suspects he would argue, overprotective, as Rosie’s parents had been) and always loving, even tender. And yet he’s still determined to improve:
I ain’t gonna fuck it up this time
After each verse the singer repeats the same basic line twice:
It’s been a long time comin’, my dear
It’s been a long time comin’ but now it’s here
It’s a nice chorus when heard the first time two times, but after the third, and repeated as it is, it takes on extra weight, gaining momentum and importance as the song progresses, and by the end the listener realizes just what it is which has been so long in coming and which is finally here: maturity and understanding and true adult love, the ability of the narrator to love and be loved, to realize the way he was brought up affected him, how he’s determined to do better by his own children, and the ultimately limited extent to which he’ll be able to do so.
On December 11, 1996 in Columbus, Springsteen introduced “Long Time Comin’” as having been written for the Ghost of Tom Joad album, but explained why it didn’t make the cut: “Too damn happy!” he said, and laughed.
Only Springsteen could consider a song as nuanced and complex as “Long Time Comin’” happy. Because it’s not a happy song, per se. It is layered, aware of the difficulties of parenthood, of the hardness of the world, of how desperately parents want to protect their children and how, as Springsteen would say on the Devils & Dust tour, they can’t possibly. None of which leads to “happy.” What it does lead to, in the case of “Long Time Comin’” is instead deep, adult joy, a joy borne of the deepest love, never ignoring or denying the difficulties of family, but able to look past them or perhaps even amplified by them. It is one of the greatest songs Springsteen has written in the past decade and a half and perhaps of his entire career.
It’s instructive to compare and contrast “Rosalita” and “Thunder Road,” as both are, when stripped down to their most basic essence, about a guy trying to get a girl to run away with him. The difference is in how the two young men approach the situation. The singer of “Rosalita” says, in effect, hey, look, I know this awesome little place down around San Diego. I scored a record contract, so why don’t you run away with me? It’ll be great! Whereas the singer of “Thunder Road” basically says, there’s nothing but losers in this town. It’s gotta be better somewhere else—I’m sure of it. Come on, let’s go. But he’s got no set destination in mind, simply “somewhere other than here.” And while he certainly would seem to be the more mature, more grounded of the two narrators, he’s lacking the material career prospects Rosie’s guy has. So while the song “Thunder Road” is by virtually any yardstick the more mature, sophisticated work, in the end, it is the narrator of “Thunder Road” who is the more childish of the two narrators, lacking the clear vision and definite goal the singer of “Rosalita” has. He doesn’t want to get someplace specific, he merely wants to get anywhere else. Rosie’s guy wants to go mainly because he’s in love with her. Mary’s would-be suitor wants to go because he hates where they are.
It’s also instructive to compare and contrast the history of the two sequels. “The Promise” was written soon after “Thunder Road,” about a year and a half later, but then remained unreleased for an additional 22 years—and when it was released, it was semi-buried on 18 Tracks, a compilation which sold a fraction of what even a lesser-selling original Springsteen album would be expected to sell. “Long Time Comin’,” on the other hand, wasn’t written until roughly 20 years after “Rosalita,” and then had to wait another decade to be released—but when it was, it was a highlight of Devils & Dust, an acclaimed and successful album of new material. So one sequel was written relatively quickly after the original, while the other wasn’t written for decades. The first was hidden and only saw the light of day in a way and time unlikely to gain it major attention and was only released because of demand from a fairly small (but devoted) group of hardcore fans, while the other came out because it finally fit an album. But the grim message of “The Promise” would have fit on The River, or Nebraska (even if its tone wouldn’t have) or The Ghost of Tom Joad. Yet still it remained unreleased, as compared to “Long Time Comin’” which merely had to bide its time.
And in the end, these four pieces are linked not just by the extreme popularity of the original pair of songs, “Rosalita” and “Thunder Road,” but by the fact that in their sequels the listener discovers the power of the promise: how in “The Promise” a vow being broken leads to utter destruction, while in “Long Time Comin’” the vow being kept leads to ineffable joy.
Paul Evans once wrote, “…with Springsteen’s growing older we see a chance that we missed with Elvis—that of a great American rocker confronting age with grace.” (The Rolling Stone Album Guide, 665.) Fifteen years after Evans wrote that, it’s clear that we have, in fact, a great American rocker not just confronting age with grace but continuing to grapple with the biggest of questions and in doing so turning out some of the best work of his entire career: which is to say, some of the greatest rock and roll ever, made all the more powerful for revisiting earlier works, updating, and even improving upon them—not a risk most rockers would care to take. But then, Bruce Springsteen isn’t most rockers. He’s one of the true American masters.