It’s the 4th of July, Independence Day, and that’s reason enough for today’s choice of song. Springsteen’s “Independence Day” was released in December, 1980, on The River, but he’d been singing it for a while before that. I first heard him perform it in May of 1978 on the tour for Darkness on the Edge of Town, and, indeed, it’s one of the few songs on The River that seems like it belongs on Darkness, though Darkness didn’t need it and The River does (the song comes at the end of Side One, after a whole side of lightweight tracks, but for the side’s opener “Ties That Bind”).
I used to have a tape of Springsteen live in 1978 with today’s song on it and it was so much better than the album version. The video here is Springsteen playing it live, and it’s still better than the LP. Something about the LP’s over-earnest vocal detracts from what is essentially a painful missive to “the old man” about the differences they can’t overcome. The last verse is Springsteen overplaying it a bit, trying for a tone of regret rather than any kind of revenge, but if it’s too “pure” (as he tries to make it on the album) he sounds more like a sanctimonious little shit than a guy who regrets that what they were to each other—man and boy—can’t possibly last. It’s the pain of growing up that has to come across and not a “look at me, papa, I’m all grown up.” Though, of course, the “independence day” of the title plays on the notion of a secession from another's authority; it's about getting out on one's own, saying goodbye, and coming to terms with “all the things you wanted that you could not say.”
When I first knew the song, back in 1978, it—like several of the songs on Darkness—could be bent a bit to reflect on my own situation. Springsteen was singing for me, in a sense. I still remember how that album, in the spring and summer of 1978, was a part of a realization that I wouldn’t continue to live at home, in my father’s house. My dissatisfaction began with the Catholicism I no longer wanted to pay even polite lip service to, but it extended to not wanting to work for DuPont and not wanting to remain in Delaware. In other words, it was a rejection of the way of life that had sustained me and brought me up. Maybe it’s common to come to such realizations while away at college. But I wasn’t in college; I was working a dead-end job on the DuPont (yeah) Highway. And I wanted to get the hell out of there.
It took me a little while, and I left by my own method, I suppose, but much of what Springsteen’s speaker addresses to his father in this song felt at least a bit right—in a somewhat grandiose way. Beginning with the “papa go to bed now, it’s getting late”—a great start since it’s that point at which the grown son sends the old man to bed (he’s been sleeping on the couch in front of the set) that we can see that the house is too small. Any house, perhaps, is too small for two grown men, when the house belongs to only one of them. So that’s where all that “all boys must run away” and “all men must make their way” stuff comes in. The fact of leaving home is just a normal development, sure, but it can take a certain agonistic tinge, and that’s what Springsteen plays up. The point is that, whatever the kid is going off to do, it doesn’t have the blessing of the old man. I definitely felt that since I was indeed going off, as they say, half-cocked. But that’s as it was.
What I wanted to avoid was any of that “biting the hand that feeds you” stuff. So long as you’re taking their money (as for your studies) you’re dealing a weak hand when it comes to “rebellion.” Part of my rebellion, such as it was, was, as we used to say, in “going out clean, cowboy.” Win or lose, I wasn’t wasting anyone’s investment. “Now they can’t touch me now / And you can’t touch me now / They ain’t gonna do to me what I watched them do to you.” That’s not hyperbole, really. If your old man was a real workingman, as mine was in his youth, then the “they” there is palpable. Asbestosis played it’s part in my dad’s death, short of 70, and that’s some of what “they” did to him. In fact, my other possible choice for today’s song was “Born on the Bayou” by CCR, because it remembers “the 4th of July, runnin’ through the backwoods bare,” and it also feeds into the theme of Springsteen’s song (maybe he remembered it too): “My poppa said 'son, don’t let the man getcha / And do what he done to me.'” That part always makes me think of the Bossman, not just the Policeman.
The part of Springsteen’s lyric that didn’t sit true to me—though I saw it as applying to my older brother—was “there was just no way this house could hold the two of us / Maybe we were just too much of the same kind.” That had the truth of what sent Tom away from home to make his way and start a family much as my dad had done. That was the repetition in it all that’s common to most families and I think is what Springsteen means to get at. It's not a complete break with one's progenitors, rather there's the effort to be like them in a new time.
But I wasn't “the same kind,” and there’s nothing much in all that to make me think the speaker of Springsteen’s song “is” Bruce—in the sense of a songwriter, an artist. Conceiving of myself as the latter c. 1978 is what gave me some of the wherewithal to depart from home and from that proffered job and to see where my road would take me. Springsteen’s “there’s a lot of people leaving town now / Leaving their friends, their homes / At night they walk that dark and dusty highway all alone” seemed from another time—the time when Bruce was my age (10 years earlier). In 1968, sure, there were lots of people hitting the road, seeking communes and new ways of life—“there’s different people coming down here now / And they see things in different ways / And soon everything we’ve known will just be swept away.” That’s sure what it felt like then. But not in 1978.
And that’s the part of the song that sticks in my craw. On an album in 1980, an album of mostly feel-good rockers and lively, brash boy romps, released when the album of that year was The Clash’s reggae-tinged, dub-mixed, revolutionist, sprawling, uneven and unwieldy Sandinista!, and the year following Pink Floyd’s masterpiece of utterly jaundiced humanity, The Wall, Springsteen sounds like he’s in some kind of time warp, a vacuum most of the record sustains—it feels like pre-Beatles and certainly pre-mid-Sixties Beatles. The night I saw Bruce and Company in 1980 at the Spectrum was the night after John Lennon was killed. One of those great symbolic moments, or a way of saying not only “The Dream is Over,” but the dream is dead and gone. What song did Bruce play by way of tribute? “Twist and Shout,” not even a Beatles composition.
Playing The River now (as I just did) is to exult in how much fun it is to play rock’n’roll, and the Brucer had himself a mighty good band. Springsteen had to table The Promise (which maybe I’ll go listen to now) and by the time he recorded The River he seemed to see that being “the future of rock’n’roll” meant keeping the faith.
And that’s when—1980—it became harder to do that, to me. Till then my heroes were the musical artists who provided the soundtrack for those people leaving home in the late Sixties. In Philly, in 1980, the Springsteen fans were the local whites who looked normal, lived normal lives, worked normal jobs, had kids. My friends were post-Beats, black poets, queer poets, art students, hipsters, maybe even an acid casualty or two. Many others were living in the dream of some kind of post-punk apocalypse—something that Springsteen may be alluding to with his “all the things we’ve known will just be swept away,” but I doubt it. This isn’t an album about doing away with the very notion of the American Dream; it’s an album about scraping along in whatever grim version of it working stiffs can still feel entitled to. That’s the part of the “getting out” that isn’t looked at, here, but which Springsteen would later articulate as “these jobs are goin’ boys and they ain't comin' back / to your hometown.” The grinding under of the working-class was well underway by 1980, the grinding under of the middle class would take a bit longer.
“I swear I never meant to take those things away”? Those things were going anyway, by degrees. Still, whenever I go back to where I’m from, not much has changed. The kind of life I knew, growing up there, is still there. What takes you to that dark and dusty highway (which recalls to me what I was just saying about “King of the Road”) is the hope of “different people.” But I don’t see much of that. They’ve changed color, maybe, but they still want to live a version of that same old Dream. And they want to live it in matrimony even if some of their “difference” makes them have to fight for that right. Everybody, you see, desperately wants to be “normal.” Accepted. Comfortable. Content.
It amuses me that, in the song, the speaker says “I’ll be leaving in the morning from St. Mary’s Gate.” Oh, yeah, “St. Mary, she’s my friend, yes I do believe I’ll go see her again . . .” Which, in a manner of speaking, is what got me out of there, then. But it also got me back there again, 4 years later, with a kid in tow.
Nothing we can say can change anything now