Backstreets: Is this somewhat forgotten classic actually Bruce Springsteen’s best song?

Rich lyrics with interpretations ranging from a heterosexual high school couple sneaking away from their parents to drink beer, to heroin addicts trapped on the outskirts of town, to gay lovers hiding their affair, combine with a melodic, rocking composition to create an unforgettable song.  It’s part Shakespearean Sonnet, all rock and roll, a true classic with Springsteen’s unique gift of making the highly personal completely universal.

“One soft infested summer me and Terry became friends,” and so begins Bruce Springsteen’s rocking epic, “Backstreets,” the penultimate track on his breakthrough album, Born to Run.  If “Backstreets” was on any other album, or written by any other artist, it’s easy to believe it would be the most recognizable song, but fortunately or unfortunately it’s at the tail end of a collection that includes “Thunder Road,” “Born to Run,” and “Jungleland.”  “Backstreets” is something of a favorite among Springsteen fans, especially in concert, yet has gotten somehow lost in the popular consciousness, overshadowed by the more intimate “Thunder Road,” the straight up power of “Born to Run,” and the quasi-opera of “Jungleland.”

At the same time, it probably shouldn’t have been.  Indeed, there’s an argument I plan to make that it might, in fact, be Bruce Springsteen’s best song, combining the scope of “Jungleland” with a more traditional rock format from “Born to Run,” complete with the lyric depth of “Thunder Road.”  In that regard, “Backstreets” is relatively unique in the early Springsteen songbook with lyrics that support interpretations as diverse as any Shakespeare sonnet.  The story the song tells hinges on a few choice words and a name that can be read several different ways, dramatically changing the meaning of the entire piece.  Is it about high school kids hooking up and having fun drinking beer?  Heroin addicts on the outskirts of society?  A secret homosexual relationships, perhaps with our without heroin addicts?  More on that in a  moment.

In the meantime, “Backstreets” opens with a mournful dirge on the piano all by its lonesome, picking out the main riff before the full band joins in and the song becomes a straight up rocker, driven by a soaring guitar sequence.  Similar to “Thunder Road,” the guts of the story are about a lost love, someone known years earlier, and the possible chance for redemption.  Unlike “Thunder Road,” it focuses largely on their past together, likely in high school, and subsequent separation after what seems to be a betrayal.  Springsteen sets the stage for their relationship and the environment these sequences occupy in the first verse, creating a pathos-filled mise en scene as surely as any filmmaker in the opening shots of a movie, and then gradually reveals different aspects of the past and present from there.

The speaker and his love, Terry, met in this “soft infested summer,” indicating that they didn’t grow up together as perhaps the later couple in “Bobby Jean.”  They both bear the scars of their youth, “trying in vain to breathe the fire” they “were born in” and from there the song moves onto a series of potential double meanings, allowing for a wide range of interpretations.  First, Terry is an androgynous name and could be a male and potential gay lover.  Other than “Backstreets,” the names Springsteen has used as the objects of his affection so far are all clearly female, Wendy, Mary, Janey, Sandy (though that can be male, he specifically calls her the boss’s daughter), and Rosalita, but here he chooses one that could be read either way and provides no specific reference to their gender.  Second, the speaker says in the first verse that they “tie faith between their teeth” in what could well be a reference to shooting up heroin, the rubber strip being held between the teeth to expose the vein for the needle.  Nor are these either-or propositions, Terry could be a female and they could be heroin addicts.  Terry could be a male and they could not be heroin addicts, or any combination.

Either way, they are too young or too destitute to drive, and the pair catch “rides to the outskirts” somewhere around a shore town, the setting of many a Springsteen saga.  On the outskirts, there’s an old abandoned beach house where they sleep and party, heavily apparently.  Precisely what they consume is unclear, however.  In another hinge word, the pair spend their summer “getting wasted in the heat,” which could be read traditionally as drinking or darker as shooting up.  The word also has a bit of a triple meaning considering the language that has come before.  The summer is “infested.”  They were born in “fire.”  They “waste” in the heat, meaning literally and figuratively the speaker and Terry are wasting away in this desolate landscape with little to no chance of escape.

Otherwise, they go “hiding on the backstreets, with a love so hard and filled with defeat, running for our lives at night on them backstreets.”  Backstreets, taken literally, means they drive the less traveled roads, where no one is likely to find them, especially their parents and the police.  Taken figuratively, especially in the world of 1975 New Jersey, they’re also hiding their homosexual affair, only able to be with one another when no one else is watching.  Whatever the case, Springsteen begins setting the stage for a tragic love affair, “hard” as in it’s impenetrable, almost a defense mechanism like a shield, and yet inside it’s “filled with defeat,” believing there’s no way out, no way for them to win or succeed.  The language so far suggests they are trapped there, poor with no prospects, burned out and lost where no one will ever find them. On paper it lacks the defiance typical of Springsteen, no screaming he was born to win, but in the performance, the way he screeches “backstreets,” it’s enough to make you think the couple is on the verge of mounting a revolution.

The next verse expands the world with some additional details on how the pair spends their time back in their youth. They go “slow dancing in the dark on the beach at Stockton’s Wing,” a popular reservoir in NJ.  Nor are they alone in their pursuits, the location is “where desperate lovers park” and they sit with the “last of the Duke Street Kings.”  These are vague, but evocative references, perhaps to something in Springsteen’s own youth, perhaps to nothing at all.  Two points jump out. First, everyone is desperate, there seems to be no peace or security in this world. Second, despite the desperation and the derelict conditions, people still find solace if not redemption in their relationships. Whether gay or straight, or addicts, they are united in waiting for something better, whether or not it ever comes.  “Huddled in our cars, waiting for the bells that ring in the deep heart of the night,” again they could be church bells as that would fit in nicely with Springsteen’s iconography or something else, perhaps ships out at sea, it really doesn’t matter.  The bells are a symbol for the couple to “let loose of everything, to go running on the backstreets.”

The stage for their romance, whether straight or gay, has been set, but nothing can ever last long in Springsteen’s world, as time changes everything.  A promise is made, and then of course broken because it could never be kept in the first place, just the folly of youth.  “Terry you swore we’d live forever, taking it on them backstreets together.”  As such, things start turning sour in the very next verse, beginning with an increasingly depraved and forlorn depiction of this, or maybe a subsequent, infested summer before delving into the details of their break up and betrayal.

Springsteen starts general before getting specific. The beach house and Stockton’s Wing are replaced by “Endless juke joints and Valentino drag,” either a reference to other homosexual lovers or perhaps just a detail for color like “Lost in the Flood,” where “The countryside’s burnin’ with wolfmen fairies dressed in drag for homicide.”  The denizens of this new world are increasingly frantic and desperate, from hard and defeated to just plain beaten and broken.  Dancers scrape the tears off the street “dressed down in rags” and then run “into the darkness, some hurt bad, some really dying.”  The narrator and Terry are aware of this inescapable pain all around them, permeating everything they do. Sometimes, they just listen at night when “it seemed you could hear that whole damn city crying,” or they are simply high on heroin and the world just seems that way.

In the midst of this remembrance, the speaker shifts abruptly to the failure of his own relationship with Terry and, specifically, who’s or what’s to blame.  “Blame it on the lies that killed us, blame it on the truth that ran us down,” both possibly suggesting their relationship was hidden because of its homosexuality or, assuming they’re straight, the common Springsteen theme that secrets exist between couples that can tear them apart, unexpectedly and unwillingly.  At the same time, from the speaker’s perspective in the present the details don’t really matter anymore.  Years later it makes no difference who did what or why, as feelings of hurt, jealousy, and pain fade, yet the loss remains.  He tells his love, “You can blame it all on me Terry, it don’t matter to me now,” and then describes how, in the moment, the love so hard and filled with defeat, turned to hate and rage:

When the breakdown hit at midnight
There was nothing left to say
But I hated him
And I hated you when you went away

The song then breaks into a searing, melodic guitar solo, planting seeds of his later work on Darkness on Edge of Town, before slowing down and moving the story ahead to the present.  The speaker and Terry are back together after an unspecified period, and now he or she is “Laying here in the dark, You’re like an angel on my chest,” but this angel isn’t all that pure.  Nothing can be in this world. “Just another tramp of hearts, crying tears of faithlessness,” the knowledge and weight of the past informs the present, even as their differences have been set aside for now.  They’re obviously older, hopefully more mature, and have found something together despite Terry’s betrayal and departure from the speaker’s life.

The speaker then reminisces about back then, “Remember all the movies, Terry, we’d go see, trying to learn to walk like the heroes we thought we had to be.”  Interestingly, going to the movies wasn’t a part of “getting wasted in the heat” or hanging out at “Stockton’s Wing,” suggesting there was more to the relationship, perhaps more time or just more stuff, than previously indicated.  Also note that both of them wanted to be heroes, subtly suggesting that Terry is a man.  The movies, however, are now not simply fun memories, time has transformed them into something darker, a loss of hope and innocence.  “Well after all this time to find you’re just like all the rest, stranded in the park and forced to confess to hiding on the backstreets.”

Here, we see Springsteen’s penchant for combining the tightly personal with the universal.  The past weighs heavily on the speaker and Terry, but they are not alone in that regard.  All of us have something to confess to, something that we would prefer to remain hidden, some time or place when we were stranded and alone.  The speaker and Terry’s relationship is unique in many ways, but ultimately the same as everyone else.  Things come between couples, people come and go in your life, regrets pile up, nothing is perfect.

We also see a glimpse into Springsteen’s later, more relationship focused work like “Brilliant Disguise” or “Better Days.”  The speaker knows Terry is a “tramp of hearts, crying tears of faithfulness,” but they’ve reconciled anyway because the alternative is being alone and “when you’re alone, you ain’t nothing but alone” to quote the aptly titled “When You’re Alone” from Tunnel of Love.  All relationships have challenges, you can choose to live with them, accept them, and find some measure of peace, or you can let them tear you apart forever.  Thus, the speaker and Terry find redemption in each other in both the past and the present, the only defense against this dark world of fire and pain. In this closing verse, you can also find evidence for the heroin interpretation, stranded in the park and forced to confess, and, of course, the gay lovers, however you prefer to look at it.

From there, the song goes out in a long, building wave of music and defiance, driven by the piano, guitar, and Springsteen’s screams.  “Hiding on the backstreets, hiding on the backstreets, hiding on the backstreets,” repeated over and over again, louder and louder.  In the midst of the screams, is one last promise, one last statement of hope and defiance, “It’s all right, we’ll go hiding on the backstreets tonight,” suggesting that the speaker and Terry have embraced the past to be together in the future, even if the world is rough and scary, they still have something if they have each other.

What interpretation do I prefer?  As a straight male growing up in Central New Jersey, literally Springsteen’s backyard, my friends and I had a designated route we called the Ultimate Backroad, more or less a revised version of the Scenic Route through Atlantic Highlands if you are familiar with the area.  I didn’t keep count, but we must’ve driven that road hundreds of times between high school and college when there was nothing else to do, which was most of the time.  Trips down that road saw two serious girlfriends and two break ups, plenty of blame, quite a bit of it on me.  From the first time I listened to the song in college, it always struck me as part autobiography for anyone growing up in NJ, “getting wasted in the heat.” In a sense it seems I lived it, along with most of my friends.

The interpretation that you prefer, however, is up to you.  It’s testament to the genius and enduring power of the song that it can be read in so many different ways.  Whether or not it’s Springsteen’s best is impossible to say, but it’s certainly a masterful work either way, combining the personal touch and universal themes the Boss is famous for and an incredible piece of music, one which builds and soars, up and down along with the story.  If you want to take a listen, I prefer the live track on the 1975-1985 compilation myself.

BACKSTREETS LYRICS

One soft infested summer
Me and Terry became friends
Trying in vain to breathe
The fire we was born in
Catching rides to the outskirts
Tying faith between our teeth
Sleeping in that old abandoned beach house
Getting wasted in the heat
And

Hiding on the backstreets
Hiding on the backstreets
With a love so hard and filled with defeat
Running for our lives at night on them backstreets

Slow dancing in the dark
On the beach at Stockton’s Wing
Where desperate lovers park
We sat with the last of the Duke Street Kings
Huddled in our cars
Waiting for the bells that ring
In the deep heart of the night
We let loose of everything
To go

Running on the backstreets
Running on the backstreets
Terry you swore we’d live forever
Taking it on them backstreets together
Yeah

Endless juke joints and Valentino drag
Where dancers scraped the tears
Up off the street dressed down in rags
Running into the darkness
Some hurt bad some really dying
At night sometimes it seemed
You could hear the whole damn city crying
Blame it on the lies that killed us
Blame it on the truth that ran us down
You can blame it all on me Terry
It don’t matter to me now
When the breakdown hit at midnight
There was nothing left to say
But I hated him
And I hated you when you went away
Wa oh, wa oh

Laying here in the dark
You’re like an angel on my chest
Just another tramp of hearts
Crying tears of faithlessness
Remember all the movies, Terry
We’d go see
Trying to learn to walk like the heroes
We thought we had to be
Well after all this time
To find we’re just like all the rest
Stranded in the park
And forced to confess

Hiding on the backstreets
Hiding on the backstreets
Where we swore forever friends
On the backstreets until the end

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