Bruce Springsteen Is America’s Greatest Conservative Songwriter, Part VI: The Hearts That’ve Been Broken Stand As The Price You Pay

In the world of Rock and Roll, in the words of Neil Young, “it’s better to burn out than fade away”.

In the world of Bruce Springsteen’s music, when characters screw up, they flame out big-time – and usually take other people down with ’em.

In “Johnny 99”, from Nebraska, the protagonist – “Ralph” – gets laid off from a job at a car plant. He gets “too drunk from mixing Tangueray and Wine” – itself a major botch – and shoots a night clerk. It instantly changes his life; he goes from being a regular guy to a lifer overnight. His life is completely screwed, he declares as he’s sentenced.

Now judge I had debts no honest man could pay

The bank was holdin’ my mortgage and they were gonna take my house away

Now I ain’t sayin’ that makes me an innocent man

But it was more `n all this that put that gun in my hand


Well your honor I do believe I’d be better off dead

So if you can take a man’s life for the thoughts that’s in his head

Then sit back in that chair and think it over judge one more time

And let `em shave off my hair and put me on that killin’ line

Clearly, the character of Ralph/Johnny didn’t preconsider his actions according to the long-term consequences one might expect from them – but then if Mr. 99 had merely thrown up and gone to bed, the song would be a pretty mundane commentary on the human condition. People do act in ways that ignore their actions’ long-term consequences, in ways big and small, all the time.

And there’s the point.

Another of conservatism’s key tenets is the idea of prudence; a conservative measures actions against their likely long-term consequences, and tries to decide and act accordingly.

They also recognize – as Johnny 99 did not, until the end of the song – the consequences of failing at this.

And among the many reasons Springsteen’s music resonates with conservatives is that the characters, for decades, illustrated the princple, in ways positive and negative, in a way that sounds like…

…well, real life.

 “Breakaway” is a song written for Darkness on the Edge of Town, but not released until it was exhumed for the documentary “The Promise”.  Amid a song that sounds like it came from a Roy Orbison outtake, the characters make all sorts of choices – most of them lousy ones:

Sonny abandoned his car last night

Had a meeting on the docks with a light blue Monterey

To break away


Sonny was playing all his cards last night

In a hotel room he dealt his life away

To break away


Now the promises and the lies they demand it

Let the hearts that have been broken stand as the price you pay

To breakaway, oh, breakaway, oh Ronde, Ronde, Ronde, Ronde Ray

To breakaway

A shot at a big score with some skeevy players goes…

…well, we’ll get back to that.

Janie slipped from behind the bar last night

Cashed out and walked onto streets rainy and grey

To break away

Janie slid into a car last night

In a parking lot she gave her soul away

To break away

Ideally, people act with prudence – soberly measuring the probable consequences of their actions.  But they have the free will to botch it all up terribly:

Bobby lay ‘neath a sheet of stars last night

His back on blacktop still warm from the heat of the day

From breakaway

Bobby went down hard last night

Saw a shooting star as the evening light slipped away

From breakaway

Now, the word “prudence” doesn’t pop up in the great rock and roll tradition.  There, the goal is to live fast, die  young, and leave a pretty corpse.  Pete Townsend hoped he’d die before he got old – 47 years ago.  Sid Vicious, Kurt Cobain, Johnny Ace, Pete Ham, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Keith Moon and many others fulfilled the great post-romantic nihilistic goal of flaming out before they faded away.  And in the world of the romantic nihilist – the world of the solipsistic dreamer – it’s only the person doing the flaming out that gets hurt.

Which is something The Doors never talked about.

But there’s a reason the rest of the world observes the notion of prudence; nobody is an island.  We’re not self-referential little islands; we’re parts of relationships, families, a society.

Of course, we have free will; we can make the self-absorbed choice, just as did Johnny, Sonny, Janie and Bobby.  It’s the possibility that we have the possibility to make the wrong decision that makes the right decision meaningful.

No, it’s few world in rock and roll that actually have long-term consequences to be prudent about.

Which brings us “Racing In The Street”, from Darkness On The Edge Of Town:

I got a sixty-nine Chevy with a 396

Fuelie heads and a Hurst on the floor

She’s waiting tonight down in the parking lot

Outside the Seven-Eleven store

Me and my partner Sonny built her straight out of scratch

And he rides with me from town to town

We only run for the money, got no strings attached

We shut ’em up and then we shut ’em down

Tonight, tonight the strip’s just right

I wanna blow ’em off in my first heat

Summer’s here and the time is right

For racin’ in the street

We take all the action we can meet

And we cover all the northeast state

When the strip shuts down we run ’em in the street

From the fire roads to the interstate

Some guys they just give up living

And start dying little by little, piece by piece,

Some guys come home from work and wash up,

And go racin’ in the street.

Tonight, tonight the strip’s just right

I wanna blow ’em all out of their seats

Calling out around the world, we’re going racin’ in the street.

It reads like Johnny Ace, or James Dean; you race, you win, you crash and go out in a blaze of glory…

…until it’s not just about you anymore;

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 drove that little girl away,

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 all right,”

She sits on the porch of her Daddy’s house

But all her pretty dreams are torn,

She stares off alone into the night

With the eyes of one who hates for just being born

For all the shut down strangers and hot rod angels,

Rumbling through this promised land

Tonight my baby and me, we’re gonna ride to the sea

And wash these sins off our hands.

Tonight, tonight the highway’s bright

Out of our way, mister, you best keep

‘Cause summer’s here and the time is right

Living fast, dying young and leaving a pretty corpse is classic vainglorious self-centered romanticism – things that conservatism philosophically rejects.  But in the real world – the world we all inhabit – failure to act prudently, to exercise one’s free will in a way that is self-centered, self-destructive and just-plain-stupid, harms more than just you.  And it’s time you, whoever you were, figured that out.

So that’s another reason Springsteen’s music resonates with conservatives; not just because the free will choice exists – as it does, for almost all of us – but because the choices you make, like the choices Bruce’s characters make, right or wrong, mean something.

Next week:  equality, and human nature.

8 thoughts on “Bruce Springsteen Is America’s Greatest Conservative Songwriter, Part VI: The Hearts That’ve Been Broken Stand As The Price You Pay

  1. Well, this was inevitable right from the start.

    All of these songs celebrate failure, losers and the easy way out.

    “Laying me off? Well someone is coming with me.” How is that not the marching song of every scumbag union thug worthy of his black friday?

    “Life teh suks. You failed to provide me with a plan to make it peaches and kombucha, so I’ll kill myself….then you’ll feel teh guilty” A tear stained page right out of the diary of every self-centered, empty headed moonbat that ever lived in MacGroveland.

    Moonbat Bruce wrote about these things from a worldview that sees value in them, not as well deserved mockery. Ya had ‘er goin’ strong for a while Merg, but like the Vikings, you ran out of steam at the 2 yard line.

    Conservatives live life like the ’85 Bears…we got places to go; things to do, so just get your sorry asses the f*ck out of our way.

  2. “it’s better to burn out than fade away”.

    I prefer Def Leppard’s utterance of same, if only because Neil Young makes me want to punch, er, Neil Young.

  3. Careful there, foot. You wanna 10 part series on why Neil Young is America’s 2nd most conservative song writer?

  4. All of these songs celebrate failure, losers and the easy way out.

    Swiftee, if I may be so bold, these songs do not celebrate failure, they show the consequences of poor decisions.

    Life teh suks. You failed to provide me with a plan to make it peaches and kombucha, so I’ll kill myself….then you’ll feel teh guilty

    You won’t find this sentiment in Springsteen’s songs. You find sadness, realization of consequences for stupid decisions, often too late, but you won’t find characters searching for others to blame, except for those portrayed as loathsome. And what the hell is “kombuch”?

    Conservatives live life like the ’85 Bears Doesn’t seem to have worked out so well for Jim McMahon these days. Bankrupt and brain damaged. I’m hoping conservatives do better than that.

  5. Which brings us ”Racing In The Street”, from Darkness On The Edge Of Town:

    First time I heard that song: July 12, 1984, Alpine Valley Music amphitheater. I’d bought 4 tickets to see Springsteen the day before, for $12.50 apiece (had to go to an actual records store (remember those?) to do it). The only Springsteen album I had was The River. The next day, I went back to the record store and blew all of my paper route money on “Darkness” and “Born in the USA.”

    As coincidence would have it, my wife’s birthday is July 12 (not in 1984, though she looks like it!)

    When I saw him the next year at Soldier Field, I was appalled that I had to pay $23.00 to see the show ( but did so, and was quite happy with the decision).

  6. First time I heard that song: July 12, 1984, Alpine Valley Music amphitheater.

    I was there, too. Only time I’ve seen him, and it was a hell of a show. Funny to think you could see Bruce for only $12.50 in those days, which was the same price I paid for my ticket. The album itself on vinyl probably didn’t cost much less than that.

  7. Ticket to the tour at the Saint Paul Civic Center (second night of the 1984 tour): $15, plus a $1.50 fee of some kind or another. That was for row 59 on the floor.

    I think I paid $6,99 for my vinyl copy of Born in the USA.

  8. I think I paid $6,99 for my vinyl copy of Born in the USA.

    You got a deal — I seem to remember that records cost about $10-11 in those days. CDs started showing up the next year at $15-16.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.