My father’s favorite Springsteen song

My father was a car guy and “Racing in the Street” was a natural choice for him in many ways, but the darkness underlying the song hints at unexplained emotional depths, mirroring some of his own demons, and how he wished something better for his own children.

My father passed away a year ago this week.  He wasn’t a big Bruce Springsteen fan.  He saw him once at Giant Stadium on the Born in the U.S.A. tour way back in 1985, and I believe he had developed a grudging sort of acceptance for his genius and talent as Mr. Springsteen produced album after album since then.  I do know that he had a favorite Springsteen song, one he never hesitated to praise or ever seemed to tire of, “Racing in the Street.”  On one level, this choice makes perfect sense.  My father was a car guy.  He was in the business for over twenty years, selling cars and managing dealerships throughout New Jersey.  At one point, he owned at least five old junkers in various states of repair, some quite close to classics like a 1978 Pontiac Trans Am with a big block V8 or a close to mint condition early 1970s Dodge Charger, others we would just call “The Behemoth” for how ghastly it was.  He even did a couple of drag races at Raceway Park in Englishtown in the late 1980s in his Grand National, a car he would remember fondly for the rest of his life.

Therefore, it was only natural that anyone singing about a “sixty-nine Chevy with a three-ninety-six, Fuelie heads and a Hurst on the floor” would catch his attention.  “Racing in the Street” is, after all, a song about cars and racing, or at least it begins that way.  The opening verse is practically a love letter to the speaker’s machine and his pride in it, as the car waits for him “tonight down in the parking lot” like a significant other:

Me and my partner Sonny built her straight out of scratch
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

Cars are about as American as apple pie and barbeque.  Combined with the lure of the open road, they figure deeply into the American dream of freedom and independence.  There’s little more in the world free and independent than driving your drag car around the country with just your partner and no strings attached, earning your living behind the wheel and stomping the competition into dust.  No doubt, my father imagined his own glory days behind the wheel as there was little outside my mother that he enjoyed more than driving, barreling down the highway with the music blasting on a summer night.  He didn’t race more than a couple of times, but I am sure he imagined he did, and like most who listen to the song itself, found that lure of the road captured in the chorus compelling, a song all its own:

Tonight, tonight the strip’s just right
I want to blow ‘em off in my first heat
Summer’s here and the time is right
For racin’ in the street

On another level, however, the song has a much darker side, one that likely appealed to my father as well, for in some ways it was a mirror of his own demons.  After describing how the speaker and his partner “take all the action” they “can meet” and “cover all the northeast states,” running in the street after the drag strips close, Mr. Springsteen lays down a metaphorical challenge, a simple, direct either-or for the kind of person you are and will be, applicable to almost everyone in this less-than-perfect world:

Some guys they just give up living
And start dying little by little, piece by piece
Some guys come home from work and wash up
And go racin’ in the street

For a time, I think my father tried to be one of those guys that came home from work, washed up, and went racing in the street.  For him, it was softball and touch tackle football in multiple leagues on Staten Island, but as he got into his forties something changed, though no one has ever been sure precisely what.  The passion for life and hence life itself started to leak out of him somehow.  This wasn’t a transformation that happened over night, nor was it something those who didn’t know him well would have noticed.  Instead of softball and football, he spent more time in front of the television.  Cigarettes and diner coffee with a newspaper became his primary interests, back when you could smoke indoors anyway.  Otherwise, not much moved him except for perhaps my mother.  Looking back, it’s hard for me to imagine that he wasn’t aware of this particular verse in the song and how it was a reflection of his own life and choices, even if he wasn’t fully aware of them.

At the same time, these choices and their impact on our lives are never so simple or immediately apparent.  At that point in the song, the speaker believes he’s one of the guys that goes racing in the street, not one of them that is dying a slow emotional death, the same as I am sure my father wouldn’t have recognized his own transformation until after it occurred.  The chorus repeats, but this time around, the promise of racing in the street seems far more sad and beyond our grasp, even as the speaker is “Calling out around the world, we’re going racing in the street,” echoing The Rolling Stone’s more jubilant “Dancing in the Streets.”  From there, the song then takes us back to an earlier point in the speaker’s story, and we learn that his claim of having no strings attached isn’t exactly true, far from it.  There is a woman in his life, and what once began as a moment of triumph has devolved into darkness:

I met her on the strip three years ago
In a Camaro with this dude from L.A.
I blew that Camaro off my back
And drove that little girl away
But now there’s wrinkles around my baby’s eyes
And she cries herself to sleep at night

This is a striking change of affairs for a man that declared he cruised the northeast, racing for money, and doing what he pleased with his partner.  Nor do I think this should be read as the speaker intentionally distancing himself from his love or emotionally abusing her in any intentional way.  Rather, the tone of Mr. Springsteen’s voice while he sings it, the way he captures her suffering and emotional dislocation, suggest the speaker would like nothing more to return to the power of the moment when they first met.  Life, unfortunately, doesn’t work that way and there is a weight of days, responsibility, and the ever present threat of unexpected emotional fracture and distance that can wear you down, intentionally or otherwise.  For what’s worth, from what we can glean, there is intentionality and commitment on both sides of this relationship:

When I come home the house is dark
She sighs, “baby did you make it all right”
She sits on the porch of her daddy’s house
But all her pretty dreams are torn
She stares off alone into the night
With the eyes of one who hates for just being born

The speaker returns to his love every night, and there is no indication of another.  The love herself waits for him, though she seems a shadow of what she once was.  Still, the root cause of her deep melancholy is unclear.  The song establishes her loneliness and that she worries about her lover, but then leaps to another level of sadness, one so deep she wishes she was never even born.  Where this sadness comes from is left unsaid, hinted at in the earlier assertion that some just start “dying little by little, piece by piece,” and yet never completely explained, nor can we ever expect it to be.  Here, it’s also hard not to see my father seeing something of himself in the lover as well as the speaker.  He was never able to truly explain his own melancholy, except that it was just there throughout his entire life, as I imagine it is for many people.

I’ve long maintained that one of the secrets to Mr. Springsteen’s enduring songwriting power is the theme of defiance against the emotional and physical vicissitudes of the world.  “Racing in the Street” is no exception, and though we cannot truly believe it given the verses that came before, the speaker ends his story with the promise that he and his lover can someday be redeemed:

For all the shut down strangers and hot rod angels
Rumbling through this promised land
Tonight my baby and me, we’re gonna ride to the sea
And wash these sins off our hands

The fact remains that as long as we have breath, we have the chance to become a better version of ourselves, to cast off the pain and suffering, the loneliness and frustration, and emerge on the other side.  It’s not certain the speaker truly believes this, nor do I think my father ever did for that matter, but the idea is out there, the sense that somewhere over the horizon there is a better place, where you are that better, more-whole person.  As the song ends, it repeats a different version of the chorus.  This time it’s not a call to arms or an ode to the freedom of the road.  Instead, it’s a lonely, heartfelt cry, one last desperate burst of defiance:

Tonight, tonight the highway’s bright
Out of our way, mister, you best keep
‘Cause summer’s here and the time is right
For racin’ in the street

Ultimately, the emotional journey of the speaker and his love lies somewhere beyond direct description in the song, hinted at, but never explicitly explained.  This, however, seems as it should be, for years later when I would talk to my father about his own life and demons, he couldn’t really explain it either.  The best he could muster in his waning years was a simple statement that his children seemed to have turned out alright regardless, a statement he took pride in, but not responsibility for, knowing my mother was the pivotal figure in that regard.  This reminds me of another Springsteen song, though one I am not sure he ever heard, or was aware he was hearing.  The song is “Long Time Comin’” and, fittingly, it’s about the relationship between a man, his father, and his own young children.  The man reflects on his own father and has one wish for his kids:

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

By that standard, my father led a successful life whatever ups and downs were in his personal or emotional journey.  Today, his children live out his dreams of cars and racing, returning to Raceway Park itself as instructors, teaching others the basics of performance driving, and competing in a semi-professional series.  No, we don’t go racing in the street, but that isn’t really the point of the song or the limits of life itself.


RACING IN THE STREET

I got a sixty-nine Chevy with a three-ninety-six
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
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

Tonight, tonight the strip’s just right
I want to blow ’em off in my first heat
Summer’s here and the time is right
For racin’ in the street

We take all the action we can meet
And we cover all the northeast state
When the strip shuts down we run ’em in the street
From the fire roads to the interstate
Some guys they just give up living
And start dying little by little, piece by piece
Some guys come home from work and wash up
And go racin’ in the street

Tonight, tonight the strip’s just right
I want to blow ’em all out of their seats
Calling out around the world, we’re going racin’ in the street

I met her on the strip three years ago
In a Camaro with this dude from L.A.
I blew that Camaro off my back
And drove that little girl away
But now there’s wrinkles around my baby’s eyes
And she cries herself to sleep at night
When I come home the house is dark
She sighs, “baby did you make it all right”
She sits on the porch of her daddy’s house
But all her pretty dreams are torn
She stares off alone into the night
With the eyes of one who hates for just being born

For all the shut down strangers and hot rod angels
Rumbling through this promised land
Tonight my baby and me, we’re gonna ride to the sea
And wash these sins off our hands

Tonight, tonight the highway’s bright
Out of our way, mister, you best keep
‘Cause summer’s here and the time is right
For racin’ in the street

2 thoughts on “My father’s favorite Springsteen song”

  1. As you probably remember, this is my favorite Bruce song as well. But I’ve never thought it had much to do with cars and racing. I see it as metaphorical genius describing the growing pains of being a young man full of testosterone and energy and that “Racing in the Streets” is him being out and about, taking on life to the fullest with summer being a time that called him more than other seasons. And of course, as the song progresses, the years pass and he experiences highs and lows and loves but naturally slows down. But he, like many of us, is still driven by the Racin’ in the Streets spirit. I see his “partner Sonny” as his his alter ego, his inner being that drove with him through life’s journey.

    Liked by 1 person

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