Livin’ in the Future: The first Springsteen song for me and my wife

Poets may claim that love conquers all, but back in the real world there are forces beyond your control that can easily tear a relationship apart.  Many people fear the future, fueled by jealousy and doubt, but sometimes things simply work out if you’re only hopeful enough to see it.

My wife and I didn’t meet under conditions ideal for romance.  She was a little older, had four kids, and was at the tail end of a marriage.  I was living in a wannabe frat house with three other overgrown children modeled after Old School, except less fun, more desperate, and likely more pathetic.  My most recent achievement outside of work was playing a drunken, unruly host in a fake beauty pageant, Seeking Madam Mushroom.  Regardless, there was that indefinable “something there” from the very first moment I saw her walk into a private room at the Thai Thani restaurant across from Sea World in Orlando, Florida.  We had never met, but worked for different divisions of the same company and were both there on business.  She was a journalist and I was helping the company enter the then budding world of multimedia by filming sequences at the National Hardware Show.  She was to be one of my subjects.  We were meeting as a team before the event the following day, but she’d arrived late, after dinner was already served.  I was in the opposite corner of the room, and in walked a literal bolt of lightning, charging the very air.  Who was this woman and where did she come from?

I couldn’t know it at the time, much less that she would be the love of my life and we would be married about a decade later, but apparently, she had the same reaction and took it upon herself to start up an email conversation after the trip. The rest, as they say, is history, but that didn’t make the conclusion obvious in the early years of our relationship.  Whatever our feelings for each other, there were unavoidable circumstances working against us that could easily have broken a less strong relationship.  Poets may claim that love conquers all, but back in the real world there are forces beyond your control that can easily tear a relationship apart.  This was something I believe both of us were well aware of at the time, but as the years passed by none of the potential calamities came to pass and our relationship only grew stronger, a phenomenon Bruce Springsteen perfectly captured in an underappreciated track from an underappreciated album, 2007’s Magic.  The song is “Livin’ in the Future,” a rollicking, energetic number, where the upbeat music belies a depressing opening stanza:

A letter come blowin’ in
On an ill wind
Somethin’ ‘bout me and you
Never seein’ one another again

This is not the letter anyone who’s ever been in love or even a strong crush has ever wanted to receive.  Springsteen also captures the vicissitudes of the moment and those aforementioned forces beyond our control.  The letter itself comes “blowin’ in” as if it was carried randomly by fate and just happened to arrive one day.  The wind itself is ill, suggesting the speaker had some foreshadowing or at least foreboding.  The details of the breakup and the reasons for it are immaterial, all the speaker really needs to know is “something’ ‘bout” the fact that he or she will never see their lover again. Springsteen builds on this sense of ill ease in the next stanza, noting “what I knew had come” and figuratively capturing the moment in some prior kiss that came with the “taste of blood on your tongue.” From this dark opening, the song completely changes direction in the chorus when we learn that no such letter has ever come “blowin’ in” and the couple is still together:

Don’t worry, darlin’
No baby, don’t you fret
We’re livin’ in the future
And none of this has happened yet

Here, Springsteen deftly turns our fears about what may happen at some indefinite point in the future completely upside down.  Rather than obsessing over events that may come and merely being relieved that they have not, the speaker take a far more affirmative, forward-thinking position.  We’re already in the future, and the various calamities that might have happened, haven’t.  The future, therefore, should be looked upon as one full of hope and promise instead of despair.  At the same time, Springsteen is not naïve about how the human mind works, and the speaker quickly moves onto pondering other potential disasters before returning to the positive chorus, a process that repeats itself throughout the song, getting darker and darker each time, and yet always returning to the idea that these undesirable things never actually happened.

Magic, in general, is widely seen as a rebuke to the policies of the second George W. Bush administration. “Livin’ in the Future” is far more personal than obvious criticisms such as “Last to Die,” but echoes of events in the broader world trickle in throughout, dark and desolate in many cases.  Thus, the second verse sees the speaker waking up on “election day” to a sky of “gunpowder and shades of grey,” yet he has nothing else to do except “whistle [his] time away” beneath “the dirty sun.”  The use of the world election day is interesting on its own, as if the couple may take a vote on the future of their relationship.  Regardless, the speaker cannot continue thinking of the outside world for long before images of his lover intercede, not many of which are pleasant facing an uncertain future.  “Then just about sun down, You come walkin’ through town, Your boot heels clickin’ like The barrel of a pistol spinnin’ round.”  One can’t help but picture some sort of old-fashioned duel about to unfold, as if the two were meeting in a dusty street to settle everything once and for all, but once again, there’s no reason to worry because the couple is living in the future and “none of this has happened yet.

As the pattern of increasingly dark imagery repeats itself, a borderline happy, almost whistle of a main riff keeps the song from veering into depressive territory.   At points, it sounds like a carnival beneath lyrics more fit for an apocalypse.  “The earth it gave away, the sea rose towards the sun,” but even the end of the world cannot compare to love lost when “I opened up my heart to you, It got all damaged and undone.”  The choice of the word “undone” comes with the connotation of the separation between past and future.  On Springsteen’s next album, Working on a Dream, he wrote “we cannot undo the things we’ve done.”  This time he uses the word in the context of undoing things that were never done, and yet the images of what might be done keep coming fast, furious, and dark, the speaker’s role in it equally unclear, as if he’s been completely overtaken by events he can’t control.  His “ship Liberty sailed away, On a bloody red horizon,” the “groundskeeper opened the gates And let the wild dogs run,” while he’s “alone,” limping through town, a lost “cowboy” in an echo of the earlier duel imagery.

The best he can do is keep his “monkey on a leash” and his “ear tuned to the ground” because his “faith’s been torn asunder” and he can no longer tell if he hears thunder in the distance or the “sinkin’ sound Of something righteous going’ under.” These final few lines go full apocalypse, as if the entire world might truly be ending around the couple and there’s no hope for future.  Prior to the rise of Donald Trump, George W. Bush was loathed by progressives as a threat to the entire planet.  Many any article was written about how dangerous the world at large had become and how little moral capital the US had under his leadership, but still Springsteen insists “None of this has happened yet, None of this has happened yet,” a refrain he repeats as the song winds down to a tumultuous conclusion, completed with a repeated refrain of “Na, na, na, na!  Na, na, na, na!”  It’s a party at the end of the world, one that is based on Springsteen’s unique penchant for combining the universal and the personal. Through one lens, the speaker’s relationship is all that matters. Through another, the world around them might be falling apart. Which is worse remains an open question to the listener, though it seems pretty clear that the speaker cares first and foremost about his lover.

“Livin’ in the Future” isn’t quite wedding song material.  It’s too dark, too loud, too brash, too musically full of life for that.  My wife and I chose the more fitting “If I Should Fall Behind,” but back in the early, more uncertain days of our relationship, “Livin’ in the Future” was the clear choice — at least to me.  Ironically, my wife, who as an extremely intelligent woman with a penchant for taking things to literally sometimes, still insists that she’s unclear what the song means.  What’s this living in the future business anyway?


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