Friday, September 23, 2016

Songs in the Key of Life: Stolen Car

"Stolen Car" by Bruce Springsteen and from his album The River is a song that haunts you, in my case for years now. I'm pasting in the lyrics in their entirety because they're so strong they can be read independently of the song and still be moving. But within the context of the song, they're extremely powerful because of the despair in Springsteen's vocals. He imbues the song with what feels like years of baggage that's accumulated inside the narrator's head to the point of making him sag and practically collapse under its weight.

I met a little girl and I settled down
In a little house out on the edge of town
We got married, and swore we'd never part
Then little by little we drifted from each other's hearts

At first I thought it was just restlessness
That would fade as time went by and our love grew deep
In the end it was something more I guess
That tore us apart and made us weep

And I'm driving a stolen car
Down on Eldridge Avenue
Each night I wait to get caught
But I never do

She asked if I remembered the letters I wrote
When our love was young and bold
She said last night she read those letters
And they made her feel one hundred years old

And I'm driving a stolen car
On a pitch black night
And I'm telling myself I'm gonna be alright
But I ride by night and I travel in fear
That in this darkness I will disappear

Depressing, isn't it? Lou Reed's notoriously bleak album Berlin was once described as an effort to make the most depressing album of all time, and that Reed and producer Bob Ezrin succeeded at it. As a fan of that record, this sounds right on the money to me. "Stolen Car" is definitely in that vein; it's a downer of a song. So why would anyone be attracted to it? Because we're all attracted to songs that bring us down, at times—some more often than others—because they make us feel something, and just like with watching horror films, human beings like to feel, to experience a variety of emotions when they engage with art. We like to deny this need, or question it, but it's as old as time and there's no use fighting it. "Stolen Car" is one of Springsteen's saddest story songs, and he has a list of those a mile long. But in a number of them there's a catharsis to be had at some juncture in the songs. This isn't one of those songs. It presents an unvarnished look at things like anxiety and depression and how they compound the narrator's miserableness over how his life has turned out. There is no sign of redemption or righting the sinking ship in this song. In the last stanza, he sings "I'm telling myself I'm gonna be alright" but follows this with "But I ride by night and I travel in fear / That in this darkness I will disappear." That's bleak. And that's the end of the song! No happy ending in sight. 

In portraying the decay of a relationship in the span of such a short song, Springsteen manages to pack in an incredible amount of detail. Every line of the song is heavy.

She asked if I remembered the letters I wrote
When our love was young and bold
She said last night she read those letters
And they made her feel one hundred years old

Heavy, right? Sometimes when looking back on our younger selves we can feel exponentially older now than we really are. Springsteen captures that here. Thankfully we might not relate to the dissolution of a marriage or the need to steal a car just to feel something, but each one of us can relate to feeling like we've let someone we love down, or to ignoring pain and conflict only to see it grow and spread, or to being devastated by not recognizing our former selves. The song taps into universal fears for all of us. 

I haven't even talked about the music yet, which is as haunting as the lyrics. It's sparsely arranged, simple and beautiful in equal measure. Soft piano, some subtle keyboards, and very minimal drumming provide a quiet backing sound, allowing Springsteen's story to stand front and center. I found this quote on Wikipedia, from Springsteen's biographer Dave Marsh talking about how the song fades out at the end "without a nuance of reluctance. There is nothing more here—just a waste of life and a man brave or stupid enough to watch it trickle away." I can't say it any better than that.

Whenever people who don't know much of Springsteen's music's beyond his big songs talk to me about him, I recommend certain deep cuts as good introductions to his work. "Stolen Car" is usually one of those, and on at least one occasion a friend listened to it intently after we talked and he reported feeling as moved and awestruck by the song as I've been for years. There's a lot more to his music than what the masses know from Born in the USA or Born to Run or even the big hits from The River. "Stolen Car", like "Atlantic City" and "Wreck on the Highway" are memorable for being stark and powerful story songs that leave you thinking about their shared themes of uncertainty, fear, and anxiety. He has plenty of rocking songs that I suggest to people, too—like the celebratory and raucous "Crush on You" and the rollicking epic non-album cut "Thundercrack". There are several of Springsteen's songs I can claim as personal favorites. Choosing one to write about wasn't easy, which means I'll probably be compelled to write about the others someday too. "Stolen Car" stands shoulder to shoulder with any of his best work. 

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