Song 22: Bruce Springsteen, “Downbound Train” (1984)

born+in+the+usa

The late, great magazine Musician once ran a humor piece featuring supposed Rorschach test interpretations by various rock stars. I don’t remember much about it, except that some artists had flowery, descriptive responses (and that Pete Townshend’s answer was something like “You weren’t fucking there! I was fucking there!”). Bruce Springsteen’s analysis was, “It’s a bus.”

How perfect is that? Springsteen tends to keep things as simple as possible without sacrificing emotional complexity, and to that end, “Downbound Train” may be the most Springsteenesque Bruce Springsteen song in existence. There are no buses, but there’s a car wash, a guy named Joe and, of course, a train.

My dad bought Born In The U.S.A. shortly after its 1984 release, which means I was four or five when I first heard it. I’m sure it was another few years until I began to realize that I liked it, but still, six or seven years old is pretty young to enjoy songs like this. I’m not saying that I was a musical prodigy (I also loved a record featuring Mickey Mouse singing “Don’t Fence Me In”). I’m saying that, in many ways, Bruce Springsteen writes songs that even a six-year-old can understand.

For example, the verse in “Downbound Train” about the narrator running to his lover’s house in the middle of the night was terrifying when I was little. I would picture him running through the woods (the scary woods!), the moonlight providing just enough light for him to see where he was going, and effectively breaking in (like a criminal!) to his lover’s house before sobbing like a baby on the floor (in the dark!). The song then snaps back in to focus with “Now I swing a sledgehammer on a railroad gang,” as if the narrator is working off an endless prison sentence. (At least the car wash, “where all it ever does is rain,” provided something to help wash away one’s sins.) “Downbound Train” is an uncomfortably bleak song, made bleaker by its repeating chord structure. It’s claustrophobic and its darkness is suffocating, and why I liked it as a child, I’ll never know. Actually, this explains a lot.

Anyway, Born In The U.S.A. is my favorite Bruce Springsteen album. It’s about the pressure of encroaching adulthood, but it makes me think of being a kid, riding in the backseat of my family’s Honda Civic (made the same year as Born In The U.S.A.) in Cape Cod humidity. My long relationship with the record makes it hard to hear it objectively, but that’s okay with me.

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