30 August 2008

Bruce Springsteen - Stolen Car

The most startling thing about the song Stolen Car is the sheer bleakness of the place Bruce Springsteen is coming from. Springsteen is a story-teller, capable of drawing on his own experiences and emotional depths to create compelling fictional characters and events. But the power of Stolen Car is so great that you’re forced to ask, if Springsteen never lived through the desperation and loss described in this song, how did he make it seem so real? Where in his mind did it all come from?

The way Springsteen described his songwriting developing in the second half of the seventies is half legend and half history. It’s history because, as he often tells us, he did move away from the romantic triumphalism of his earlier work. Perhaps realising that the convoluted street stories and their idealised characters were fun for a while but not sustainable, and seeing that when the young dreamer hops in his car with his girl and gets out of that one-horse town, what follows isn’t always that much better, Springsteen started to write about real people, leading normal lives, engaging in everyday struggles. The song often given as early and important evidence of this shift is Factory, from the depressing Darkness on the Edge of Town (1978), in which he combined concise, powerful lyrics with a stately, respectful accompaniment that was ideally suited to the metronomic nature of his character’s life’s routine:

Early in the morning factory whistle blows
Man rises from bed and puts on his clothes
Man takes his lunch, walks out in the morning light
The work, the working, just the working life

But this is far from being the whole story. For all its blue collar regularity and poor person’s economics, the Darkness album contains plenty of the hopeful, daring self-improver exemplified by Born to Run, Thunder Road and the rest. Following a wonderfully clear (if simplified) exposition of a normal person’s priorities, when faced with the double-whammy of poverty and oppression, the narrator of Darkness’s opening fanfare, Badlands, makes clear the hope that remains in his heart, and his desire to make it real:

Poor man wanna be rich
Rich man wanna be king
And the king ain’t satisfied ‘til he rules everything
I wanna go out tonight
I wanna find out what I got

So Springsteen shouldn’t kid us that the struggles of his characters from the late seventies onwards were the struggles of that idealised everyman. The point about the man in Factory, the central certainty which lends him both his tragedy and his dignity, is that he doesn’t want to go out tonight to find out what he’s got – or at any rate, he doesn’t want to do it enough actually to make him do it. To do so would be to sacrifice whatever it is that he has built up, gradually, day by day – some measure of security, maybe a family, some sense of local stability, where any fragility comes from events beyond his control. In short, this man can’t afford to take risks.

That sounds pretty depressing, and so it is little surprise that Springsteen’s songs from that point on didn’t simply follow that pattern. From Darkness up to the present time, most of his songs contain a rich blend of reality, hope, action and both pent-up and released emotion. But not all of them. A world away from the ambition of Badlands, and a hundred times more depressing than any thought Factory can evoke, lies the grim world of Stolen Car.

The song Stolen Car is to be found buried in the second half of the album The River (1980). This album is Springsteen’s White Album in one (and only one) sense: it is sometimes asked, why didn’t he make it a really good single album, rather than a pretty good double? Conventional wisdom has it that either he couldn’t decide which songs to leave off (despite having left off several songs of substantially better quality than some that made the cut), or that the concept of the album required a particular length and order. The truth of either of these justifications suggests to me that he needed better advice at the time, but I like to think that there was another reason. The songs recorded for that album generally seem either to set the scene, or to describe the better life or world that the narrator or characters strove for. Very few of the songs do both.

Right from the outset, you know that Stolen Car is really moving around in the deepest wells of despair and hopelessness. Set significantly quieter than the songs around it, the song starts with a persistent (though lacking the urgency to be described as “insistent”) guitar which oscillates between two chords for the entirety of the song. On first listen, the tension created by this tightly coiled rhythm part threatens that at any moment it could unwind into that third chord of rock and roll convention – but it never does. To do so would bow not just to normality, a sense of the average, but to accede to the lightening of the mood which the fifth chord brings, after a few bars of the first and fourth. That isn’t Springsteen’s intention, and the two chords provide a sullen backing all the way.

Colour, such as it is, comes from Roy Bittan’s tinkling piano – used to great effect across the album, in a way that he never quite managed subsequently. The hesitating, descending nuances of Bittan’s playing on Stolen Car bring together the love inherent in the tale to come with the lack of any real hope of salvation: in short, they provide Springsteen with instrumental poignancy.

Next up comes the E Street Band’s ultimate instrument: Springsteen’s voice, this time drenched in echo and not letting the band slow him down as he tells his story. He starts by touching on hope – but hope as described as a thing of a past, making it clear that the hope has gone. In fact by the terminal angst in his voice, you get the sense that in his view, hope had existed where none had the right to:

I met a little girl and I settled down
In a little house on the edge of town
We got married and swore we’d never part
And little by little we drifted from each other’s hearts

This seems to be a verse, but there’s no chorus or refrain, just yet. Springsteen’s voice picks up the tempo fractionally, as if he is afraid to pause in the telling and not have the strength to continue. He gets a bit louder too. But the genius of this song’s structure is that the narrator skips a bit of his own history. He doesn’t tell us what happened, at least for the moment. He skips straight to his own bleak assessment of why it went wrong. More accurately, he tells us what his initial assessment was, then dismisses it in favour of something bigger, more portentous, and left undefined:

At first I thought it was just restlessness
That would fade as time went by as our love grew deep
In the end it was something more I guess
That tore us apart and made us weep

What happened, and why it happened, are so far left unexplained. One thing, and one thing only, is for sure: whatever happened was terrible.

What this doom-laden story lacks is a context, a sense of physical surroundings, and that is exactly what the chorus now provides. Springsteen switches to the present tense, and sings:

I’m driving a stolen car
Down on Eldrich Avenue

The literal intention seems to be that this is a description of what his narrator is doing now, as he looks back at the past. But the overwhelming feeling is that this is no mere drive down memory lane - driving stolen cars is also his past, and possibly what brought him and his lover/wife to their sad end. This suggestion is enhanced by the accompaniment to the chorus, as the lone voice of the verses is joined by church-like background vocals, singing simple “aahs”, moving gradually downwards, giving the motoring lyrics a funereal quality. Against the wave of finality they create, the narrator’s subsequent attempt at defiance comes across more as admission of the futility of his vague rebelliousness:

Each night I wait to get caught
But I never do

Whether he waits out of a desire to get caught, or simply the expectation that that is what must happen, is not clear. What is certainly clear is the message of muted thunder of the drums which enter around this point, sending a character to their musical death of ever an instrument could do so.

Accepting those drums as the inevitable partner to the rest of his story, and even adding a plucked bass to add weight to it, Springsteen gets on with telling the tale. He doesn’t bother to go back and fill in the gaps – instead, he remains in the present, in retrospective mode, but switches perspective – or shares it:

I asked if she remembered the letters I wrote
When our love was young and bold
She said last night she read those letters
And they made her feel one hundred years old

Whatever happened to the love between the two of them, it doesn’t seem like either of them died. Actually, Springsteen makes seem natural what is in reality an unusual narrative device: rather than using a sole voice to describe what happened between two people in the past, he uses both people’s voices to describe what happened to something – a feeling, an emotion – which seems too huge to personalise. In particular, the last two lines of that verse seem to say everything and nothing. Everything, because the despair with which he sings them, and the respect commanded by the use of the ancient age suggested at, suggest something so immense as to be transcend adequate description (what did she mean?). Nothing, because what she actually says is to commonplace as to be verging on funny – we all look back at the evidence (or just memories) of our young, bold love, and say they make us feel old. But then, the genius of Springsteen is to convince us that what has happened to these two tragic characters is more, much more, than that commonplace process of ageing, and gathering wisdom as we go, that the rest of us are forced to endure. Helped by Bittan’s piano, which reflects the growing elegance of the tale by spreading his chords out, adding depth to the music, he sews that seed of doubt in our minds – is he singing about me, or is he creating a back-story between the lines that surpasses anything I have ever experienced, in terms of its tragedy and implications?

There’s more, of course. Defying expectation (especially set against the standard structure of the album’s more prosaic songs), Springsteen introduces not one, but two new choruses – retaining the musical shape of the first one, keeping the ethereal choral backing, but using every line of music to add flesh to the story (although not at the expense of the song’s mystery):

I’m driving a stolen car
On a pitch-black night
And I’m telling myself
Gonna be alright

Again, there’s that uncertainty regarding whether this is a memory, or a description of what the narrator is doing as he plunges the darkest depths of memory. He seems temporarily optimistic, although he presents no reason for this momentary hope, but he immediately dismisses it with his very next word, and reinforces his hopelessness with the last lyrics of the song:

But I ride by night
And I travel in fear
That into this darkness
I will disappear

Finally, you feel able to make a judgement about the tense of the choruses: as the vocals vanish suddenly from whence they have come, echoing the sentiment they last expressed, you feel sure that the stolen cars, night riding and fear of the choruses are a part of the narrator’s sense of now, not part of the story he is telling in the verses. This knowledge takes away that growing sense of context and physical space that the choruses had gradually given the verses, leaving them ever more elusive and unexplained. More importantly, it tells you that whatever happened in the past, in those verses, never went away, never eased, and has led Springsteen to consider, even predict, his own demise, even as he remembers.

So it is inevitable that after these final words, the persistent hollow drums (different from the persistent guitars only in that one wanted to make sure a story was told, while the other wants to ensure the story ends, in our heads, with the one irrevocable conclusion we all know) are joined by an organ solo, as beautiful in its conception as it is devastating in its delivery. Emerging at first through what sounds like a dense thicket of guitar, bass, piano and drums, Danny Federici’s solo, as church-like as those earlier vocals, meanders thoughtfully around Springsteen’s earlier melody, before emerging to take centre-stage by rejecting the rhythm set by the other instruments, and commanding them to follow in its wake, as the music fades to a quiet sense of nothing.

If you have never heard Stolen Car before, or if you have heard it without ever really listening to it, put it on, and after it has finished, press stop. Whatever follows this exquisite song of yearning hopelessness and unspoken tragedy is bound to be mundane, and it is bound to ruin what came before. Sit in silence for a few minutes, and let all that has been sung, and all that has been left to your own imagination, sink in. Like I said before, this is no ordinary story of every day life. This song is one of a kind.



Blogger 23/7 said...


just kidding, good stuff mate!

4:24 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Extraordinary analysis. One of my favorite songs.

5:20 pm  

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