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  • Nathan Weakley

Thank You, Bruce Springsteen

On the warmest day of the winter, I drove my car down a road without a name, the tires kicking up gravel all around us on one of the long, neglected backroads that leads from my hometown to Urbana, with an old friend of mine in the passenger seat. The song we were listening to ended, and it was quiet for a moment before the opening piano of “Thunder Road” by Bruce Springsteen poured in through the speakers. Before I could get to it, she grabbed the dial and turned the volume as loud as it could go, and I rolled down the windows and cranked the heat to make up for it.

The screen door slams, Mary’s dress sways

Like a vision she dances across the porch as the radio plays

Roy Orbison’s singing for the lonely,

Hey that’s me and I want you only,

Don’t turn me home again

I just can’t face myself alone

I spent the last month back home for Christmas break. It’s a strange feeling to be home, and not entirely a good one. It’s lonely, to be sure, and though comforting at times, it can feel like I’m being returned unready to a lifestyle that no longer fits me, a reminder that my favorite parts of this world are now foreign to me. I left the country behind, and sometimes I get this lonely, paranoiac feeling that it hasn’t forgotten my betrayal. My old shoes are busted at the heels, and I’m begging them for just a little more life. Really, it’s only the time I spend with my friends that makes me feel at home. But they look and sound different and older, and so do I. There are times when I’ve got to look long and hard into their eyes to find anything that puts me at ease.

So you're scared and you're thinking

That maybe we ain't that young anymore

Show a little faith, there's magic in the night

You ain't a beauty, but hey, you're alright

Oh, and that's alright with me

I’ve been listening to him nonstop lately. Most of my Chicago friends think of Springsteen’s music as something outdated (if they think of it at all). At best, it is sweetly vintage and hokey. But where I’m from, a tiny town in rural Illinois, it feels different. We’re not cool enough, nor are we far enough removed from the loser towns and burned-out backroads of his lyrics to look down on it, even in a loving way. His songs are the ones I’ve been hearing and seeing manifest my whole life. They are the songs that connected me to my parents and to others I didn’t know—the ones we listened to together on the Fourth of July or any other summer day when the stereo sat on the front porch and I was somewhere within its reach, barefoot in the grass. The screen door slams, and Mary’s dress sways. My mind goes to a million places, all of them warm, familiar, and my own. I can’t help it. I must have seen Bruce’s ass on that album cover a hundred times before I was ten.

Supposedly, Bruce wrote “Dancing in the Dark '' about his struggle to write a hit song. But for me and many others, the song is about something much more fleeting—the act of throwing your body and soul into a passion that will last one night and be gone in the morning, remaining only in your memory and fading a little with each sunrise. Heat and feeling—that diaphanous experience that seeps into the soul, hazier and heavier than sound or vision—you can’t truly communicate it to anybody else, no matter how you try. Dancing in the Dark. The honest love between two people sets the wind to blowing and the sun to rising and sinks like a heavy fog into the fantasies of the lonely.

Springsteen’s songs shine a light on quiet lives. Blue-collar, everyday people who live in their moment and leave behind little save for a curt newspaper obituary and vague traces of their spirits in the eyes of their sons and daughters. The people I grew up around. When I bought my vinyl copy of The River, I’d chosen the cheapest record from nearly a dozen identical used records. The man at the counter said that they’re always getting them in from estate sales. Maybe it’s a morbid way of seeing things, but so many of Bruce Springsteen’s songs remind me of old, withered faces that I can hardly remember—friends of my parents and grandparents who died somewhere in time and are rarely mentioned anymore. Because they are the ones whose passions live on in Bruce’s music.

So, in case I turn out to be one of them, I’d like to say: thank you, Bruce Springsteen.


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