Boss Songs Part IV: Springsteen Vignettes

Image Credit: David Michael Kennedy
Image Credit: David Michael Kennedy

Song – “Johnny 99” on Nebraska

This is yet another Boss song in which the central character’s hand is forced by his grim economic reality. The tempo of the song is rather fastpaced, especially in contrast with the majority of the Nebraska album, which can be unnervingly slow. In this case a blue collar man dubbed Johnny 99 loses his factory job, resorts to the bottle, gets his gun, and ironically shoots one of his blue collar brethren, a store clerk. The loss of a low-to-middle wage job is a common circumstance in numerous Springsteen songs, yet it continues to resonate because it’s still such a reality in America, where one economic injustice can lead inevitably to a string of others. There’s the legal injustice that is invoked by telling us that Johnny gets a “public defender,” a moniker that instantly connotes inadequacy, if not downright incompetence, and the drawing of “Mean John Brown,” who attempts to intimidate Johnny with his stare and gives him a life sentence. Johnny’s analytical response is that “it was more than all this that put that gun in my hand.” In his final act of defiance and hopelessness, Johnny requests a death sentence rather than the life sentence the judge gives. The “thoughts in his head,” he says, are deserving of such a sentence. It’s a classic Springsteen song conundrum where the blame game is complicated. For a lighter take, note that the Boss alludes to Tanqueray gin long before Snoop Dogg ever mentions it in his 1995 hit “Gin and Juice”.

Song – “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” on Born to Run

While no one, including the Boss himself, quite knows what a “tenth avenue freeze-out” is, the song is a favorite of many fans and often finds itself on Springsteen’s set lists. It’s one of my favorites for two reasons. First, I love the upbeat tempo created by the piano and horn interplay. I also like the “here I come” attitude of the song’s narrator. Bad Scooter (Bruce alias) had swagger before “swag” was a thing. “Well everybody better move over,” he croons, an artist on the verge of breakout, much like Springsteen himself, whose superstardom begins with Born to Run. “And kid you better get the picture / And I’m on my own, I’m on my own / And I can’t go home.” Success is a must because there’s nothing else left. Blessed with nothing but the naïve dreams of glory, he’s got his “back to the wall,” which we all know is the perfect motivation to “make it.” Throw in a little help from friends like “the big man” (Clarence Clemons), and he’s confident that he’s about to “bust this city in half.” The freeze-out, whatever it is, is in full effect.

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