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Last week, I started off the current version of an undergraduate course I’m teaching on song lyrics and popular culture with a four-class unit about Bruce Springsteen. I have tried to use his music as an introductory case study in how popular music works, and in what it can do. One of the things we began to think through was the way in which his songs consistently thematize their own reception, representing both textually and musically a set of relationships between singer and audience. Specifically, I tried to read his songs as invitations not only into an erotic reciprocity – to touch and be touched, to feel each other’s presence – but also into a form of shared community: the nascent and loving democracy his “America” promises to be, even if maybe it can never realize that dream. These songs want to communicate, hopefully.
In what’s really the first essay in 31 Songs(2002), Nick Hornby asserts that his all-time favourite song is Springsteen’s “Thunder Road.” That song both addresses and enacts, for him, a durable and enduring moment of love, and it describes the living arc of his own long-term fandom:
I can remember listening to this song and loving it in 1975; I can remember listening to this song and loving it almost as much quite recently, a few months ago.
[. . .] So I’ve loved this song for a quarter of a century now, and I’ve heard it more than anything else, with the possible exception of . . . Who am I kidding? There are no other contenders.
This one song manages, whenever he hears it, to speak to him, for him and about him. I have to say, too, that I know exactly the feeling and exactly the identification that Nick Hornby maps out here, exactly what it is that “Thunder Road,” even despite itself sometimes, makes happen for listeners and for fans every time it plays. Hornby describes his experience of the song as a kind of mimesis, in its perennial capacity to “express who you are, perfectly”: who he is, he must mean, although the second person – in which the bulk of the song is written – is significant. The song itself begins – after a brief descriptive intro – with a series of apostrophes, of interpellations that present themselves as urgent invitations, open doors:
The screen door slams. Mary’s dress waves.
Like a vision she dances across the porch
as the radio plays.
Roy Orbison singing for the lonely,
Hey that’s me, and I want you only.
Don’t turn me home again. I just can’t face
myself alone again.
Don’t run back inside, darlin’ – you know
just what I’m here for.
So you’re scared and you’re thinking that
maybe we ain’t that young anymore.
Show a little faith there’s magic in the night.
You ain’t a beauty but yeah you’re alright.
The shift from the distance of romantic spectacle to something like discursive proximity – close enough to make yourself heard – hinges on another inset moment of audibility, and of interpellation: Roy Orbison’s “Only the Lonely” (echoed in the end rhymes) not only mimes the persona’s desire for Mary, but also hails him into existence, into audible range, as both a listening and a speaking-singing subject: “Hey, that’s me . . . .” Hearing Roy Orbison’s song on Mary’s radio gives him voice, and lets him talk, and also offers him a vocabulary and an idiom through which the rest of his own song can play out.
Professing desire beyond what he’s able or willing to say means for him returning to a literacy, to a kind of “talk,” a cultural field that the soundscape of rock’n’roll provides him with: “Now I got this guitar, and I learned how to make it talk.” Springsteen positions himself both as ventriloquizing fan and as nascent legend to produce a kind of proactive audience, a practice of listening that means trying to learn how to attend to others while still managing to talk for yourself, and to talk yourself up. The song offers an extended invitation to a feminized, idealized other; Springsteen, from somewhere within the heteronormative city limits of an imaginary Freehold, New Jersey, asks his own listeners – on this the opening track of Born to Run – to be like Mary and to get in the front seat of his car and pull out of the deadened space of here with him, to win. That idealization is also both fractured and resisted, even as it’s declaimed as an article of faith, by insistent disavowals and negations (“ain’t . . . ain’t . . .”), and by Mary’s coy but very real refusals. If she seems to be framed merely as an object of his desire, existing “only” for him to overcome his loneliness and affirm his masculine agency, his long cascade of pleas and poetic flattery, of goading and passive aggressive come-ons, also tends to undermine itself from the outset; after all, who in their right mind would accept a date from a man who tells you you’re not beautiful, but just alright? Sure, he’s just being honest, I guess, but the conventional hyperbole inherent in love song lyrics, diffused into something plain and mundane, also loses most of its persuasive tug, its “magic.”
What’s worth noting is that, even if we end up choosing not to go with him somewhere else (and as “Born to Run” puts it, to “get out while we’re young”), or if on the other hand we turn out to be willing to trade in our angelic wings for some very earthbound wheels, what we experience for the five minutes of “Thunder Road” is still a sustained and open invitation, a seemingly one-sided conversation that nonetheless keeps asking us to respond, and that leaves its requests unanswered, those imaginary responses as-yet and always unheard, either from Mary or from us: they’re all potential, all unfulfilled promise. “The door’s open,” we’re told, “but the ride ain’t free.” And the return, that cost, is a commitment to reciprocity. So when Nick Hornby says the song expresses “who you are, perfectly,” what he must mean, what he can only mean, is actually opposite to perfection or to closure; the song’s conversant subject, the “me” who both listens for and sings to Mary, never coheres, but remains unfinished, a figuration of desire.
When I was sixteen, I finished my grade eleven economics exam early, and I couldn’t leave the exam room, so I copied out from memory the lyrics to “Thunder Road” on the back of the exam booklet. It was a young fan’s act of mimicry, though I’m not sure what those lyrics might even have meant to me then, if I understood them or identified myself through them the way I might now, or might not. But what I do recognize in retrospect is that re-writing, transcribing, Springsteen’s words by hand was an initial gesture at that reciprocity. In those few free minutes, I started to write myself into a dialogue – a little like fourteen-year-old Terry Blanchard in Kevin Major’s YA novel Dear Bruce Springsteen – a conversation with whoever it was I’d always want to become. “My love, love, love,” he sings later and elsewhere, “will not let you down.” That’s not to say Springsteen’s songs will tell us who we are, but that they will always keep that reciprocal Eros, that mutuality, live and open, that invitation to join him heading down the road.