My Hometown: Springsteen’s 1984 classic is the timeless tale of our own era and proof he’s worth every penny

The country is still convulsed with racial tension, frequently culminating in riots.  The riots and unrest have claimed countless businesses on countless streets, and the manufacturing industry that once was the heartbeat of America remains largely in decline.  Springsteen could release the song next week and it would remain as powerful as it was 40 years ago.

“My Hometown” is the somber, somewhat austere track that closes the otherwise bombastic, glockenspiel driven Born in the U.S.A., the 1984 juggernaut that transformed Bruce Springsteen from rock and roll star to household name.  The Boss had already been on the cover of Time and Newsweek 8 years earlier after the breakthrough success of Born to Run and had established himself as one of the premiere songwriters and performers of his era, but hadn’t really broken through on the pop music charts or cemented himself as a true pop-culture icon.  Born in the U.S.A., his seventh studio album, would change all that, selling some 30 million copies and featuring seven top ten hit singles, the last of which was “My Hometown.”  To date, the album remains Mr. Springsteen’s most commercially successful effort, complete with some of his most recognizable, radio-friendly songs and perennial concert crowd-pleasers.

At the same time, it also remains quintessentially a Springsteen album, unafraid to confront dark themes, replete with exceptional character driven story telling.  This isn’t a collection of throw away radio hits or dance songs powered by sampled beats by any means.  If anything, the radio-friendly sound is used as a vehicle for some of his most poignant work, concealing a dark, lonely heart that underpins the entire effort, marking a transition of sorts between storytelling centered on the desperate dreams of the young to the intensely personal broken dreams of the middle-aged.   “My Hometown” itself follows the more rollicking “Glory Days” and synthesizer driven “Dancing in the Dark,” serving both as a coda that reminds listeners all is not necessarily well and a reprise of the title track.  Putting it another way, “Born in the U.S.A.” opens the album with Bruce screaming behind an unmistakable beat, “Born down in a dead man’s town, the first kick I took was when I hit the ground.”  “My Hometown” closes with a softer, somber, personal journey through that very town, centering the character’s stories in the broader context of late 20th century America itself.

In that sense, “My Hometown” tells the story of all of us, how we become aware of who we are and where we live, how places we often take for granted change over time, and how our lives are buffeted by personal and impersonal forces, many of which we cannot control, even as we all seek a place in the world.  The song begins with the speaker at eight years old, telling a story about his father that harkens back to a time and location that will be stripped away all too soon.  For a Springsteen song, the set up is almost idyllic.

I was eight year old and running with a dime in my hand
Into the bus stop to pick up a paper for my old man

A single, simple sentence conveys a quiet sense of peace and security, both personal and economic.  The music echoes the theme with a lilting melody, backed by softened drums, pushing the song forward, slowly and surely.  The overall sound itself gives the impression things will not end well, but in the meantime, the town is so safe and sleepy that an eight year old runs errands without adult supervision, and the paper itself costs only a dime, tucked into a boy’s hand.  One can imagine that the shopkeeper selling the paper knows the boy and his father, perhaps has the paper ready to hand off, and that the ritual was repeated many times over.  This idyllic sense continues throughout the first verse as the boy returns to his father, who we learn is waiting in the car:

I’d sit on his lap in that big old Buick
And steer as we drove through town
He’d tousle my hair and say ‘Son, take a good look around,
This is your hometown.’”

Cleverly, Springsteen provides no details about the location except that there’s a bus stop where they sell newspapers.  It could be any small or mid-size town in America, some suburban or rural enclave tucked away off some interstate somewhere.  The scene is specific yet open enough that the listener is free to imagine a scene from their own childhood, substituting their own stores, car, and parents.  The one thing we really know at the time:  The memory itself is locked in the past, frozen in time for the speaker and the world at large.  Papers certainly don’t cost a dime anymore, and at least in the world of 2021 kids don’t sit on their parent’s laps and steer.

There is also the impression that the true power of these moments was only revealed to the speaker long after.  At eight years old, he likely took these experiences for granted, just something he did with his father on a Saturday or Sunday morning when he was off from school.  The world itself seems immutable and unchanging at that age, as if time barely moves forward and a morning with your father could last forever.  It’s only in hindsight that you realize how formative certain moments truly were, when you understand the memory is about more than the details.  The town is his home, both a physical location and an idea passed down through the generations, but it doesn’t become truly meaningful until much later.  In retrospect, the memory takes on its greater meaning, revealing something about the world and the speaker’s place in it, yet it is only through the change that comes with the passing of time that such things become real to us.

Alas, change is coming and it arrives in the very next verse when the song takes a dramatic turn, musically and lyrically:

In ‘65 tension was running high at my high school
There was a lot of fights ‘tween the black and white
There was nothing you could do
Two cars at a light on a Saturday night
In the back seat there was a gun
Words were passed, then a shotgun blast
Troubled times had come to my hometown

The general details about the town and the time period become both more specific and somehow more universal as the speaker himself fully embraces the town as his own.  The underlying rhythm kicks it up a notch, as if time is moving a little faster and everyone is older.  The setting is now the racially charged 1960’s, making the speaker about Springsteen’s own age, when the rise of the civil rights movement was accompanied by waves of unrest and sometimes riots across the country.  No town was spared, and the speaker’s idyllic childhood home is no exception when an incident between two groups of teenagers turns tragic and the town itself is never the same.  Interestingly, especially from the vantage point of our increasingly woke era, the speaker largely views the racial unrest and resentment as an impersonal force sweeping his community, something that happened to them rather than something they did to themselves.

Rather than moralizing about who’s at fault, he says simply “there was nothing you could do” as the town was seized by broader trends shaping America itself.  The tragic incident is also described without anyone personally being blamed, almost as if the cars themselves were the perpetrators.  It began as one of those moments that probably happened all the time:  Two groups of teenagers, jockeying for position on the high school social ladder, meet on a darkened street at night and taunt one another, only this time there was a gun and someone, we don’t know who, went too far.  The specter of racism is invoked at the start of the verse, but Springsteen makes it unclear if the incident itself was racially motivated, or just a stupid argument that got out of control, only to be seen later in a racial context. 

The only thing we know for sure is that the speaker views the shooting as an irrevocable turning point for the town. There is the time before, when he ran carefree with a dime in his hand, and there is now the time after when “troubled times had come.”  The moment itself, whatever the cause or however contingent on other events, is all that matters.

Now Main Street’s whitewashed windows and vacant stores
Seems like there ain’t nobody wants to come down here no more
They’re closing down the textile mill across the railroad tracks
Foreman says “These jobs are going, boys
And they ain’t coming back
To your hometown.”

The speaker takes us to the present, some unspecified period after the tragic shooting incident during which his hometown has been completely transformed.  The Main Street he once took for granted, steering the big old Buick from his father’s lap, is unrecognizable, boarded up and empty, business shuttered for good.  The racial violence of the 60’s has led to a broader collapse, rippling outward, destroying everything in its path.  The music itself seems to pick up on this theme, heavier and somehow faster than anything in the song so far.  The closed shops are only the more outward signs that the economic heart of the town has been ripped out, irrevocably.  The foreman says so in a single line that encapsulates the scope of the problem with complete finality:  These jobs are going, boys, and they ain’t coming back.   “Your hometown,” on the foreman’s lips comes across as pejorative, suggesting the boss himself isn’t actually from there and the town itself, such as it is at the moment, is officially dead.  Contrasted with the previous incarnations, the affectionate father introducing his son to his home, and the possessive use of “my hometown” before the damage was irrevocably done, this “your hometown” sounds almost like a curse.

The next and final verse reveals that the speaker himself is a father now as the song continues in the present while reaching full circle into the past.

Last night me and Kate, we laid in bed
Talking about getting out
Packing up our bags maybe heading south
I’m thirty-five, we got a boy of our own now
Last night I sat him up behind the wheel, and said
“Son take a good look around
This is your hometown.”

The present time period is revealed as the mid-1980’s, some 20 years after the tragic shooting, around the time of Born in the U.S.A.’s release.  The boy is a father himself now, easy to imagine he is the same age as his own father was in the first verse.  The world, however, is a far cry from that of his own parents.  The town they were once proud of is no more and never will be the same again.  Now, it’s just a thing to either forget or escape, and you’re likely to be haunted either way.  The speaker and his wife, Kate, know this and a part of them believes it’s better to leave it all behind, but the offhand nature of the phrasing, merely “talking” and considering a “maybe,” suggest they’ve had this same conversation countless times.

Why they choose to remain is left unsaid, but a couple of explanations are hinted at.  First, it seems unclear to the speaker that another town will be any better.  Vaguely, they consider going “south,” but nothing suggests the story that played out in this song hasn’t been the same in countless other towns across the country.  In fact, we know from history itself that it has to a large extent.  The exodus of factory jobs has occurred time and time again, practically from coast to coast.  Second, and perhaps more importantly to the sentimentality of the speaker:  However radically changed for the worse, the town is where he and his son were born.  It might have fallen on hard times forever, but it remains his home and he has no choice except to carry on the tradition of letting his son steer the car.

There’s a quiet stoicism hidden there, you can imagine millions of these couples having the same conversation before soldiering on somehow.  Springsteen would expand upon the idea 20 year later in “Long Walk Home” from 2007’s Magic, which can be seen as sort of a sequel:

My father said, “Son, we’re lucky in this town, it’s a beautiful place to be born
It just wraps its arms around you, nobody crowds you and nobody goes it alone
You know that flag flying over the courthouse means certain things are set in stone
Who we are, what we’ll do and what we won’t”

It’s easy to picture the father from “My Hometown” saying the same thing to his son on one of their car rides together while never dreaming of the changes that would come.  Back in 1984, the closing lines of “My Hometown” also served as an inverted bookend to “Born in the U.S.A.” in another sense. On the title track, the speaker talks of the loss of his brother in Vietnam, claiming “they’re still there, he’s all gone.”  The album, however, closes with the idea that the town is all gone, but the speaker and his family are still there and will be forevermore.

Fast forward almost 40 years, and things remain almost eerily identical.  Springsteen could release it today in the present, merely by updating a few minor details.  The country is still convulsed with racial tension, frequently culminating in riots.  The riots and unrest have claimed countless businesses on countless streets, boarded up stores, many of which have closed for good, and the manufacturing industry that once was the heartbeat of America remains largely in decline.  Today, we moralize and personalize the forces eroding our Main Streets, talking of white privilege, supply chain crises, and inflation, but the song ultimately remains the same.  The world many of us took for granted when we were young is gone and, unless something drastically changes for the better, it ain’t coming back.

Somehow, “My Hometown” captures the entire sorry continuum in a few highly personal verses, beginning and ending with a father and son, and containing 50 plus years of American history in between.  Recently, it was reported that Mr. Springsteen sold the rights to his works for some $550 million.  “My Hometown,” simple, understated, and yet timeless and powerful, is yet another example of why he’s worth every penny.

MY HOMETOWN

I was eight year old and running with a dime in my hand
Into the bus stop to pick up a paper for my old man
I’d sit on his lap in that big old Buick
And steer as we drove through town
He’d tousle my hair and say ‘Son, take a good look around,
This is your hometown.’”

This is your hometown
This is your hometown
This is your hometown

In ‘65 tension was running high at my high school
There was a lot of fights ‘tween the black and white
There was nothing you could do
Two cars at a light on a Saturday night
In the back seat there was a gun
Words were passed, then a shotgun blast
Troubled times had come to my hometown

To my hometown
To my hometown
To my hometown

Now Main Street’s whitewashed windows and vacant stores
Seems like there ain’t nobody wants to come down here no more
They’re closing down the textile mill across the railroad tracks
Foreman says “These jobs are going, boys
And they ain’t coming back
To your hometown.”

To your hometown
To your hometown
To your hometown


Last night me and Kate, we laid in bed
Talking about getting out
Packing up our bags maybe heading south
I’m thirty-five, we got a boy of our own now
Last night I sat him up behind the wheel, and said
“Son take a good look around
This is your hometown.”

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