Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Racin' in the streets

When I was 15, I met a group of guys at my friend P.J.'s house one day to play basketball and hang out. When I walked in, I saw John, a guy who would become one of my closest friends, but who I only knew that day by reputation. He was 17, and I knew him as the guy who had been delivering our papers for as long as I could remember. You'd see him zipping down the roads of my neighborhood, steering with his knees while he fired papers with both hands, cigarette dangling from his mouth, rock and roll blaring from the radio. Being a bike rider, it was especially necessary to watch out for John's battered green maverick, cause he damn sure wasn't watching out for you.

Yeah, John was dangerous, and it was whispered by some that he smoked dope (which was true) and had blown up the Junior High School Gym (which was not true—he did, though, blow out a bunch of the gym's windows during a pep rally, which was pretty damn cool, because the fire department had to be called, and everyone thought the school was under attack by student radicals or something). I had also heard that a few months before, John had been skateboarding down 19th Avenue one Saturday afternoon, and, being hungry, had run over and stolen someone's barbeque right off the pit, while they lounged in anticipation across the lawn.

Obviously, he was no one to be trifled with, and I got off entirely on the wrong foot with him. When we were playing ball on the driveway, he thought I was playing too physical, kept saying, "Foul, motherfucker," and glaring at me. When we went inside to raid the refrigerator later, and P.J. put The Beach Boys on the turntable, I started laughing. "That's for teeny-boppers and old ladies," I said. John got right in my face—he already didn't like me, and now he knew why. I was a dumb ass. "You're a dumb ass," he said. "The Beach Boys are great. Brian Wilson is a genius." I don't remember what my response was, but I didn't go there to fight. I do remember being kind of amused by the idea, and later on, when we all piled into John's maverick to go and play at the high school gym, I remember that John guarded me the whole afternoon, trailing me furiously across the floor, muttering and glowering.

Of course, John was right. I was a dumb ass. In future times I would discover Brian Wilson's greatness, and cringe at the callowness of my earlier ideas. I try and remember this, when I'm in a social setting, and some twenty-something inevitably says something about Elvis being unimportant, the Beatles being overrated ("dude, the stones are better, dude"), or Springsteen being trite, or pop, or precious, or whatever the fuck the dumb ass idea-worm in their head tells em to say (hey, I know him well, he's lived in my head for years and years. He says to tell y'all hello). We all believe lots of dumb stuff before we learn the most important lesson we'll ever learn—how little we know, and how little we're ever gonna know. And then we're ready to learn at least a little something.

Two versions of Racing in the Street, for your enjoyment, recorded almost 30 years apart. The first, recorded in '76, three years before he'd laid it down on vinyl, is like performance art. The second, fron just a few years ago, is more reflective and even sadder, I think (and Bruce plays piano, unaccompanied). The opening music to this song just breaks my heart—Springsteen's good at that. And lyrically, this is as good as anything he (or anyone) has done (if the worm in your head is telling you this is just a dumb song about racing, realize that he knows nothing about metaphor, and tell him to shut. the. fuck. up.). I love the Lyric:

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
Then go racin' in the street

You come from a blue-collar town like I do, you know that when a guy comes home from work, he doesn't loosen his tie and mix himself a drink. He washes up. Because he labors, and his work is sweaty. And if you come from where I do, you know guys like these, and maybe you've even experienced what he alludes to, soft summer nights that unfold operatically, events that gather momentum until they crescendo—although that moment itself, when it finally happens, is often softer, more like the blossoming of a night blooming orchid, around some remarkable thing or a gush of feeling. It can be haphazard, like a chance meeting, or a woman's smile, or it can be as simple as feeling your heart pounding inside the roar of a perfectly tuned muscle car finding its rhythm—but the nights are not troubled by sameness. Every opera plays out differently, and every orchid has a subtly different fragrance.


For all the shut-down strangers and hot rod angels
Rumbling through this promised land

—here's the great Bruce Springsteen—twice—doing Racing in the Streets:

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