Bruce Springsteen, at the photo shoot for the Born to Run cover.


Columbia 1975
Bruce Springsteen, Jon Landau and Mike Appel
From the album Born to Run



Love and passion on the Backstreets


Where I dive headfirst into a song I can’t stop listening to...

“Backstreets” is a beast of a song, telling the story of the intersection of two lives in an arc that stops long short of its deserved conclusion, at least in the opinion of the narrator. It’s a tale of love, dedication and, most of all, passion, all of which come together to inspire a feeling of invincibility. Here, finally, two souls have found each other to discover a love so pure and true that nothing could ever successfully derail it. And when it falls apart, the anguish felt is somehow even more powerful.

All in the span of six minutes and 35 seconds. Writers have spent lifetimes trying to tell the same story with the same conviction. Bruce Springsteen did it to close the first side of his most famous record.

Musically, “Backstreets” is stunning. It’s long piano introduction, like many of the songs on Born to Run, works to set up the next few minutes like an overture. The chords build and crash, returning to Earth with force and presence. It commands attention, and Springsteen’s words carry authority on the subject: love and loss. From beginning to end, the song is nothing if not passionate.

The singer and his love, Terry, forge a bond in their shared isolation. They walk like the motion picture heroes they strive to be. They run up and down the Jersey shore in search of adventure and shared joy. They listen to each other. They cause trouble together. Most importantly, they understand each other. They believe in each other.

“Slow dancing in the dark on the beach at Stockton's Wing
Where desperate lovers park we sat with the last of the Duke Street Kings
Huddled in our cars waiting for the bells that ring
In the deep heart of the night to set us loose from everything”

But this is all sung in the past tense. At some point, Terry leaves, and the protagonist is left reeling. For this bond to be broken goes beyond disappointment. It makes the singer question every feeling that has ever come to him. If he could be wrong about this, then what’s left? He’s not just crushed, he’s angry. He’s bewildered. He’s betrayed. Mostly, he’s shattered.

“Blame it on the lies that killed us
Blame it on the truth that ran us down
You can blame it all on me, Terry,
It don't matter to me now
When the breakdown hit at midnight
There was nothing left to say,
But I hated him, and I hated you when you went away”

To be wrong about this was not just childlike naiveté, or to misjudge another’s true feelings. For this to be wrong, the singer has to admit that he cannot rise above his parents, his neighbors, his friends. Love doesn’t always conquer all. Love can be wrong. The first feeling he was completely and utterly sure of has turned out to be a farce. There’s no preparation for that. To believe in something so wholly and to be proven wrong can destroy a man. To admit being wrong to that degree goes beyond merely feeling humbled.

“And after all this time to find we're just like all the rest
Stranded in the park and forced to confess
To hiding on the backstreets.”

45 marker

I’m not sure it’s the prevailing thought, but there is a wide belief that “Backstreets” chronicles a homosexual fling, hidden from plain view, where the singer and Terry run out, abandoning their previous life or obligations, to be together. But to view it that way is a bit limiting, to become hung up on a detail that isn’t as central to the story as the feeling itself; it’s a bit like telling a story of a cross-country trip and arguing which kind of tires the driver used. It’s important, to a small degree, but in the end it doesn’t matter all that much.

The height of passion goes beyond gender roles and social norms. Passion works to fight against anything resembling a preconceived notion, carrying with it the feeling that anything can be overcome in the name of love. Here, our hero and Terry form a bond and promise a commitment to each other that will live beyond each other. In their love, they’ll become immortal.

“With a love so hard and filled with defeat
Running for our lives at night on them backstreets”

Personally, I’ve always heard Terry as a girl. It could be because when I think of running off with a true love, simply, I imagine running off with a beautiful girl. It also seems strange to me that on an album so focused on female characters — Mary, Wendy — that Springsteen would toss in a male character. Or, perhaps he’s using a male character explicitly to show that desperation and love rise above beyond traditional relationships.

In the end, it’s irrelevant. To try to parse this as a homosexual or heterosexual escapade is to lose sight of the true beauty of this song, which lies in the notion of throwing everything to the wind in pursuit of a life together, in bond and true passion, in the face of common sense or rational thought.

Honestly, what could be more beautiful?

Sept. 11, 2010

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