I told a friend the other day that I think Bruce Springsteen’s Racing in the Street may well be my favorite song. Then I had to figure out why. ’Cause it ain’t the cars or the racing. Of course, the song isn’t really about those things at all…
For 40 years, I’ve been haunted by theses lines:
Some guys just give up living
Start dying little by little, piece by piece
Some guys come home from work and wash up
And go racing in the street
I’ve known instinctively for a long, long time that as soon as you lose passion and purpose — regardless of what form it might take — you are a dead man walking. Men must risk and they must strive. We long for meaning and purpose beyond the realm of mere Economic Man. We crave a taste of the heroic.
The outlaw street racers of the song are not merely pursuing a hobby — they are striving to live heroically, even though nobody outside their obscure subculture will ever sing of their deeds.
The Racer is a warrior; he lives to “blow ’em all out of their seats.” And in so doing he wins his woman.
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 I drove that little girl away
The Racer didn’t steal her; she chose him, because in every heroic culture from the dark forests of Gaul and Germania to the Plains of America to the streets of New Jersey, women gravitate to men who prove themselves in trial by combat, who count coup and steal ponies.
But the quest for the heroic life carries a cost — one that is often paid by those the hero purports to love. What is exhilarating is also destructive. Turns out that being the consort of this Backstreet Beowulf isn’t so rewarding…
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 alright?’
She just sits on the porch of her daddy’s house
And all her pretty dreams are torn
She stares off alone into the night
With they eyes of one who hates for just being born
For the Racer, there’s only one act that can quell that pain — a long-shot run for redemption. For him. For her. For all of us.
For all you shutdown strangers and hot rod angels
Rumblin’ through this promised land
Tonight my baby and me, we’re going to ride to the sea
And wash these sins from our hands
It’s a desperate move, the stakes made plain in a warning:
Tonight, tonight, the highway’s bright
Out of our way, mister, you’d best keep
The musical setting reinforces the sense that there is more tragedy — or pathos — than triumph in this story. The tone is wistful, mournful.
Something about that determination to be fully alive, whatever the cost, resonates powerfully — not despite but because of its inherent tragedy. Because we all end up having to pay the cost of wanting things that can only be found in the darkness on the edge of town. But that’s another song…
This is a mesmerizing version of Racing in the Street. As my friend Dennis McGregor said, “he made it as big as the audience.”