A Savior, Risen from the Mean, Masculine Streets of Philadelphia: Bruce Springsteen’s Empathy and Its Cinematically Allusive, Filmic Form

“This guy, call him Bruce – no he’s not a queer, thank God, sir – will be a national hero.”
                                                                            ~ Jefferson Morely, Rolling Stone, Oct. 1985.

“…My soon-to-be-iconic bandana and pumped muscles. Looking back on these photos now, I look simply… gay.
I probably would have fit right in down on Christopher Street in any one of the leather bars.”
                                                                        ~Bruce Springsteen, Born to Run (book), 2016.

            A screen door slams. Mary’s dress sways. Like a vision, she dances across a porch to the tune of Bruce Springsteen’s cacophonous guitar chords and Clarence Clemons’ scintillating saxophone. This, the cinematic opening image of Springsteen’s “Thunder Road”(title pulled from the Robert Mitchum film) – a romanticized, catholicized, mythicized anthem for the doomed New Jersey youth, desperate to escape their “death trap” town down the two-lane freeway to freedom. Typical Springsteen, “Thunder Road” cars, streets, angst, romance – wheels and wings – his oeuvre’s 1950’s rock-fueled American engine, never more revved than on his defining album Born to Run. He describes the song’s opening chords as “morning…an invitation” into his world, a world he crafts in the studio, but realizes on stage. Known as perhaps the greatest of all live performers, Springsteen ‘LIVE’ is the Springsteen to know, to love, to analyze – his three-hour sets contain monologues, dances, solos, screams, tears. And no E Street Band set is complete without a performance of “Thunder Road” its accompanying theatrics. The track, as previously discussed, is, along with “Born to Run”, a solid narrative gauge for the rest of Springsteen’s work – emotionally cathartic, love-driven, romantic and escapist, exalting masculinity and a savior-complex that promises “Mary” (one of Springsteen’s recurrent characters) “Heaven’s waiting down on the tracks” – so… Springsteen’s staging of the track is a curious one. At the song’s cathartic climax (“It’s a town full of losers // We’re pulling out here to win”) Springsteen and his ever-present stage partner, “king of the world, master of the universe, weighing in at 260 lbs., the ‘Big Man Clarence Clemons” move onto opposite corners of the stage, and, as Clemons’ sax solo rips a romanticized hole into the fabric of the world, Springsteen sprints across stage, slides on his knees, slips under the Big Man’s towering frame, and PLANTS a kiss on his lips so passionate that somebody, somewhere in the building must ask: “Wait… whatever happened to Mary?”.

This somebody, wherever they are, clearly isn’t familiar with the homoeroticism that undergirds Bruce Springsteen and his E Street Band’s music, their performance – a common mistake with Springsteen, whose work has been appropriated, misread, and misunderstood by everyone from jingoists to anarchists, Ronald Reagan to Chris Christie. Somehow, lost in the E Street Shuffling and crowd-pleasing bombast of Springsteen’s work, is a particular strain of queer representation ignored by even the most progressive fans, the most left analysts – a strain revealed through close examinations of The Boss’s eclectic characters, lyrics, and, particularly, tracing a trajectory of his performance-centric, often dismissed music video catalogue.

To start: that “Thunder Road” video. This pre-superstardom Springsteen, razor-thin and suited up like a ‘Fab Four’ era Beatle was hardly the picture of masculinity, but he’d come a long way. His two-years-prior, beat-poet, street-know-it-all get-up included slim fitting tees, hooped earrings, scraggly beards, crotch-grabbing skinnies, and a ragged-tagged beanie atop his mop of a haircut. Not exactly Rambo. His lyrics – half-slurred words, mumbled and tumbled into rhythms and rhymes – reflected his eclectic aesthetic and charted everything musically noteworthy in his imagined alleyway’s from Jersey to New York. Both the lyrics and the playful music itself express a loving affection for – and deep identification with – the “Wild and Innocent” misfit bad boys of the boardwalk – dressed “like Brando”, dancing “like Casanova”. Springsteen’s cast of characters is rife with rebels, troubadours, biker, nuns, priests, mission-men, “mad-men, bummers, drummers, and Indians in the summer”.[1] Staggeringly, smack dab in the mumbled middle of this vainglorious lot, almost half of the tracks off Springsteen’s first two LP’s (Greetings from Asbury Park, and The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle) contain suggestively queer characters – the least discussed troupe of his storied history. On Greetings: “wolfmen fairies, dressed in drag for homicide” get “Lost in the Flood”; Billy and Davey, two of six boys and girl in “Spirit of the Night,” “[dance] in the moonlight…to a soul fairy band…down near the water in a stone mud fight”; “Mary Queen of Arkansas” sees Springsteen’s poet-speaker profess his love for a cross-dressing, ‘queen’, whose “soft-hulk is reviving”, and isn’t “man enough for me to hate / or woman enough for kissing”. On Wild and Innocent: “boys in their high-heels…their skins so white” walk the “Fourth of July, Asbury Park” boardwalk; an “Incident on 57th Street” causes Spanish Johnny to fall in love with Puerto Rican Jane, ditching his street band of brothers – “romantic young boys” who “kiss each other goodbye” – in favor of a paradise populated with “golden-heeled fairies”; “Behind the tent,” of “Wild Billy’s Circus Story,” “…the hired hand tightens his legs on the sword swallower’s blade”. And so, Springsteen’s early ethos is a scattered, street-side vision that almost always frames his heroes in group settings – circuses, floods, bands, and boardwalks.

Even when the songs are about the first-person poet-speaker, the narrator is out among the eclectic, yet inclusive crowd. In Born in the U.S.A.: Bruce Springsteen and the American Tradition, Jim Cullen writes, “Perhaps the most striking characteristic of Springsteen’s first three albums is the intensely social quality of his settings: his characters are almost always in groups, a kind of pack mentality characteristic of young males … Indeed, there’s an almost erotic subtext animating many of these encounters” (Cullen, 125–6). An overarching atmosphere of male-to-male intimacy remains potent even when a heterosexual coupling dominates the song’s central narrative, as is the case with “Spirit in the Night” and “Incident on 57th Street”. Springsteen’s inclusion of gay and gender transgressive characters as part of the street scene seems casual; he thus, in his first batch of LPs, normalizes queerness, to whatever extent his glorified bunch of misfits can be considered normal. As Springsteen writes in “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)” – the spiritual precursor to “Thunder Road” – “Closets are for hangers, winners use the door / So use it, Rosie, that’s what it’s there for”; nothing – not sexuality, not love, not loneliness, not romance – should remain trapped in Springsteen’s “Wild and Innocent” world, nothing should remain closeted.

“Born to Run,” Springsteen’s breakthrough album, famously landed him on the cover of Time and Newsweek, and saw him hone his narrative focus – themes of closeted love and hometown oppression continued, but with fewer characters, fewer names, fewer digressions. As a result, the disparate characters of his first two albums are given more centralized narratives. Chief among them, for our purposes, the broken friendship of “Backstreets” between Springsteen’s narrator and “Terry” – the gender-ambiguous lover and friend the song chronicles. Martha Nell Smith observes: “[Springsteen] relies heavily on ‘nam[ing] his beloveds in a most ambiguous fashion… so that we hear of Rickys, Sandys, Bobbys, Terrys, Frankies, and practically an entire host of Angels… To whom are Springsteen’s poetically professed passions directed anyway? What gender are all those beloveds who he christens so indeterminately?’ (Nell Smith, 838-9). Nowhere has this debate raged more than on “Backstreets”, one of the most discussed, and deliberated tracks in his discography.

“One soft, infested summer, me and Terry became friends / trying in vain to breathe the fires we was born in,” Springsteen croons, after Backstreets’ piano intro – an intro extended in the music video’s depicted live rendition into a sensual, swirling of cymbals, organ, piano and Springsteen’s pained, impassioned moans; the song is, after all, about a once-ripe youthful romance turned sour – but, unlike Thunder Road’s Mary, or Born to Run’s Wendy, Backstreets’ Terry is, like so many characters off of his Springsteen’s first two albums, gender-ambiguous, and debated constantly by Springsteen’s devout following. The fans who argue that Bruce Springsteen’s music must be heterosexual at all costs (‘because he isn’t gay; he’s married with kids, right?’) insist that Terry is a woman, or maybe a man but only if the song is merely about friends and not lovers. Others venture to push the gay voice. In Beyond Blood Brothers: Queer Bruce Springsteen, Rosalie Zdzienicka Fanshel points towards Springsteen’s overtly masculine lyrical landscape as support for the latter reading, pointing towards the pairs’ love-affiar with the theater“‘Remember all the movies, Terry, we’d go to see / Trying to learn how to walk like the heroes we thought we had to be’ … reflects a common Springsteen theme of self-conscious manhood… [and] conjures up wild screen heroes of the likes of Marlon Brando or Robert DeNiro. The overall scenery of ‘Backstreets’ scans like the youthful, stereotypically masculine world of The Wild One or Meanstreets” (Fanshel, 364). These masculinized images buttress the reading of a friendship between two male friends, a friendship eroticized by lines like “Catching rides to the outskirts / tying faith between our teeth… Laying here in the dark, you’re like an angel on my chest / Just another tramp of hearts crying tears of faithlessness” –  a friendship whose queer undertones are amplified by the duo’s soujourns through “Endless juke joints and Valentino drag / where dancers scraped the tears up off the street dressed down in rags”.[2]  But just what is the nature of this friendship? What makes their lives together so forbidden that they must “hide on the backstreets”? Lines like ‘Sleeping in that old abandoned beach house’ and ‘With a love so hard and filled with defeat’ suggest a romantic liminality in the characters’ relationship. Springsteen’s own refusal to clarify the character’s gender itself queers the narrative. Ignoring an opportunity to declare the both the gender and relationship of the characters, in “Songs” he simply states it’s about ‘broken friendships’ (Springsteen 1998, p. 46), and in Wings for Wheels: The Making of Born to Run documentary, he expounds interestingly:

“One of the most significant things about [Born to Run] is the cover, where I’m not on the cover by myself. I’m on the cover with Clarence. That was enormously significant I think as a message to send to our fans … That it was a record about friendship. ‘Backstreets’, that’s what the entire song is about. [Sings through the song.] That is the whole deal.”

Springsteen here essentially connects the album’s cover – a photo of himself gazing lovingly at his male friend – with the romantically-tinged lyrics of “Backstreets”. For a brief period in the late 1970s Springsteen regularly performed the song with the addition of what is called the ‘Sad Eyes Interlude’, an ever-changing spoken bridge that usually referred to a female ‘baby’, and sometimes included a trio of characters – two men and a woman. Many years later Springsteen offset Sad Eyes’s implied heterosexuality by resurrecting the song on his 2007 Magic tour in support of the album Magic – dedicating the track, and the album to his long-time friend Terry Magovern. Furthermore, in the first concert after E Street organist Danny Federici died in 2008 he sang the song specifically aimed at his deceased friend, with the emphasis on the line, ‘We swore we’d live forever on the backstreets we take it together’. (It is worth noting that in this same concert, Bruce Springsteen kissed pianist Roy Bittan on stage at the end of ‘Fourth of July, Asbury Park’.)

In ‘Backstreets’, “Terry” seems to shift meaning depending on media and mode, allowing the exploration of a deeper love between men – whether it’s a romantic friendship, a homosocial relationship, and even a homosexual one. It seems that, like with the early characters that peppered his work, Springsteen’s world, while not explicitly detailing homosexuality, certainly allows for sexual tension, love, romance, and emotion between men – a facet that, implied in his early work, is concretized visually in his music video videography.

During Born to Run recording sessions, Springsteen’s relationship with now career-long producer and mentor Jon Landau was solidified; with it, the previously ‘un-schooled’ Rock n’ Roller was introduced to a plethora of creative wellsprings. Chief among the cinematic lot: the unabashedly, quintessentially American genre of film noir. These films, perhaps the very movies that contained the heroes referred to by Backstreets’ narrator and lover, would serve Springsteen’s work well for years and, in regards to the ambiguous sexual identity, questioning masculinity, and skeptical worldview of Springsteen’s lyrical realm, there’s hardly a better fit. In “Queer Noir,” Richard Dyer excavates the chiaroscuro closets of the American movement, framing its uncertain, questioning masculinity and sexuality in a way that suits Springsteen’s own noir-ish creations:

“In noir…some straight guy friendships could just be that while other nominations are hard to swallow…such uncertainty is… very much part of the mood, the noirness, of these films’…general uncertainty about how to decipher the world… These are films about finding out.”

~Richard Dyer, “Queer Noir”, 1-2

After Born to Run’s no-holds-barred romanticism, Springsteen cashed in his youthful exuberance for adult-angst, moving from “Backstreets” to “Badlands”, from the seemingly inescapable heart of town to the darkness on the edge of it. His 1978-1982 trio of albums, Darkness on the Edge of Town, The River, and Nebraska, get perceptively bleaker, darker, cynical, hard-boiled (despite the River’s pop reveries). The cumulative piece of the trio, 1982’s low-fi Nebraska, recorded by Springsteen solo, on a 4-track boom-box, is Springsteen at his sparsest – a series of 10 Mid-West vignettes chronicling outlaws, criminals, murders, men-on-the-run, abandoned by their homes, their families, their communities, their governments. Sam Spade would fit right in among the rag-tag lot. The album opener, “Nebraska”, pulls directly from Terrance Malick’s Badlands, a neo-noir of sorts; it’s most notorious track “Atlantic City” (covered famously by The Band) served as the framework Springsteen’s first artistically cinematic exploration – his first music video that wasn’t centered around his live performances, his first that doesn’t prominently feature himself. Directed by Arnold Levine, “Atlantic City” is given typical noir treatment in its music video. Shot in high-contrast black and white, depicting roadside visions from the front seat of a car, the video’s opening moments recall Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless car ride jump-cuts and the dilapidated cityscapes of film noir –neon signage and dark alleyways prove the point. With this video, Springsteen renders his videography as grounds for analysis and concretizes film noir as one of his American wellsprings of influence. One can only wonder the video treatment the particularly noir-influenced tracks off of Darkness on the Edge of Town would have received, had the MTV bubble burst a few years earlier.

Instead, the only visual component to Darkness on the Edge of Town is the front and back covers, and its inner sleeve – all go far to underscore the minimalist, noir-ish facet of the album.

 On Darkness, Springsteen seemingly disassembles his own Born to Run mythology – the cars, love, romanticism, girls, Wall-of-Sound, Bo-diddley influenced amalgamation of 1950s Rock is swapped for minimalist production, searing guitar solos, screaming vocals, shredding – not welcoming – harmonicas. Album opener, and thematic tone-setter “Badlands” – whose title foreshadows Springsteen’s full-on rewriting of Malick’s film on Nebraska – opens with a riff pulled half from The Animals’ “We’ve Gotta Get Out of the Place”, half from Once Upon a Time in the West’s theme: two melodic allusions that signify the movement away from the communities and couples of Greetings and Born to Run. Springsteen delves into his own psyche by ways of Steinbeck and Elia Kazan via the visceral, violently punk “Adam Raised a Cain”: “In the Bible, Cain slew Abel / and East of Eden, Mama, he was cast / We’re born into this life paying for the sins of somebody else’s past”. These cinematic allusions are pertinent, if not essential to understanding Darkness, particularly in regards to the album’s queer characters… none in number in the official track list – a decision that, given the individual focus of Darkness (deemed by Springsteen as his “samurai record”), makes sense, particularly given the slew of outtakes and characters Springsteen cut in “favor of the narrative”. Most notable (generally, and from this paper’s perspective) among the outtakes is “The Promise” – a track that thematically perfectly suits Darkness’s dismantling of Born to Run’s ethos, but Springsteen couldn’t finish before the final release. Everything “The Promise” does lyrically and thematically can be found elsewhere on the record ­– perhaps why Springsteen excluded it – but his 2010 release “The Promise,” a collection of Darkness outtakes refined into a cohesive piece, places it at the center of the narrative, and it is no doubt in keeping with the albums original cynical, de-romanticized conception – while also subtly furthering the undergirding queer narrative of Springsteen’s discography.[3]

“The Promise” directly cites – and rewrites in the context of Darkness’s cynical worldview – tracks off of Born to Run.[4] Thunder Road, an image once full of promise and escapism, is broken and maligned: “Thunder Road, oh baby you were so right / Thunder Road, there’s something dying on the highway tonight /… Thunder Road, for the lost lovers and all the fixed games”. Sounds like Mary and her savior didn’t make it very far. More importantly, for us, “Backstreets” and its potentially queer “Terry” are referenced in the songs opening stanza:

 

“Johnny works in a factory and Billy works downtown.

Terry works in a rock and roll band looking for that million-dollar sound.

I got a little job down in Darlington but some nights I don’t go,

Some nights I go to the drive-in, some nights I stay home.

I followed that dream just like those guys do way up on the screen

And I drove a Challenger down Route 9 through the dead ends and all the bad scenes

And when the promise was broken, I cashed in a few of my own dreams”

            ~Springsteen, “The Promise”, l. 1-7.

 

Terry, pulled from the backstreets of Born to Run, is rendered here as part of a trio of broken characters and is seemingly confirmed as a male homoerotic figure in Springsteen’s work. With the noir-ish narration, rehashed allusions to “those guys…up on the screen”, Terry and the narrator’s own ambiguous sexuality recalls Dyer’s observations about noir’s uncertainty – an uncertainty that haunts the narrator of “The Promise” to the point of hopelessness, as he cashes in his dreams: “Well now I built that Challenger by myself, but needed money and so I sold it / I lived a secret I shoulda kept to myself but I got drunk one night and I told it”. Springsteen’s car-ride mythology is literally disassembled here, and the poet-speaker’s ambiguous “secret”, in the context of “Backstreets,” points towards closeted homosexuality. Either way, Dyer’s claims about noir seem relevant to Springsteen’s own characters, their broken promises, their broken worlds, their uncertain futures, their lost loves. It’s not difficult to image James Dean or Marlon Brando – masculine, American, gay icons in their own rights – riding Springsteen’s “Backstreets”, breaking his promises. At the very least, they’re likely the very “heroes” Springsteen’s narrator and Terry thought they had to walk like, the guys “way up on the screen” his characters try to emulate.

Springsteen himself would become iconized two years after Nebraska, with his chart-topping smash Born in the U.S.A. – but this “Boss” was a different beast, a bulkier one. Springsteen the ‘rock icon’ is, superficially, anything but queer. In the video for his biggest hit, “Dancing in the Dark”, Springsteen debuted his new look – a buffed-up, clean-shaven, masculine version of his Darkness on the Edge of Town James Dean-esque get-up: blue jeans, a white tee, and a soon-to-be trademark bandana. In this video, strutting campily to his “Dancing” beat, “the Boss” appears as the prototypical, and stereotypical, picture of mainstream masculinity: muscular, hard-working, down-to-earth, a little bit sexual, a little bit dangerous, but respectable—a “man’s man.” This manifestation of Springsteen’s image is, unsurprisingly, the one with the most scholarship.

Ann Bliss, on the rock star’s 1984 ‘makeover’, notes: “Springsteen’s own public image has consistently been that of the blue-collar worker, the working-man’s rocker, while simultaneously projecting a kind of hypermasculinity … To some extent, Springsteen himself (or at least the iconic Springsteen of the 1980s) embodies white masculinity” (Bliss, 135). As Jim Cullen asserts, Springsteen was an anomaly at the height of his popularity: “At a time when Michael Jackson’s sexual identity was unclear, Prince’s eroticism boldly crossed gender boundaries, and Madonna turned femininity into a series of disposable images, Springsteen represented the vital center: short hair, blue jeans, work shirt, and an occasional bandana or baseball cap to absorb the sweat of his brow” (Cullen, 126). Put one last way, Bryan Garman comments that the “Dancing in the Dark” video in particular “evokes the American values of cars and girls, of heterosexual coupling and, perhaps most important, masculine authority” (Garman, 220). Clean-shaven and almost campy, Springsteen wears short hair, a white shirt, jeans, and black boots. His shirt is loosely unbuttoned to reveal his chest, and his sleeves are hiked up to divulge his biceps. Brian DePalma, the director of the video, fetishizes these facets of Springsteen’s body – cutting between his crotch and his face, his biceps and his buttocks. This precise fetishization, paired with the now-iconic ‘ass-shot’ featured prominently on Born in the U.S.A.’s cover, prompted Rosalie Zdzienicka Fanshel to note that: “…viewed through a queer lens, Springsteen’s later hypermasculine image also looks awfully gay…the cover of Born in the U.S.A. and the close-up of Springsteen’s crotch in the ‘Dancing in the Dark’ video mimic queer iconography enough to make one question if Springsteen intended them to be for women’s eyes only” (Fanshel, 375). On this potentially queer BITUSA reading, Ian Biddle writes:

“…the codes of gay subcultural identification can be surreptitiously recuperated here: certainly, the hanky (of gay ‘hanky codes’) has been replaced by a cap, and yet the fixation on the back pocket and the perfectly curved male arse would seem to suggest that the potentiality of a queer reading has not been fully eschewed.”

~ Biddle, 126–7

 

Springsteen’s manly image of the 1980s, touted as heterosexual, can just as likely be seen as springing from concurrent gay subcultural code. His work boots, cropped hair and tight, bicep-emphasizing sleeveless t-shirts, and Levi denim parallels the idealized butch masculinity of the popular ‘Castro Clone’ look (named after San Francisco’s gay neighbourhood, the Castro). Martha Nell Smith comments, ‘On the Amnesty International Human Rights tour [in 1988], the husky-voiced hunk looked fit for a leather bar’ (Smith, 839). Springsteen himself acknowledges this – and the campiness of the “Dancing in the Dark” music video – in his 2016 memoir Born to Run: “We would make many videos in the future – I’d even come to enjoy them – but none would ever elicit the same knee-slapping guffaws and righteous, rolling laught from my kids as me doing my Jesey James Brown in [that video]. (“Dad… you look ridiculous!”)…looking back on these photos now, I look simply… gay. I probably would have fit right in down on Christopher Street in any one of the leather bars” (Springsteen, p. 325-6). Springsteen’s apparent nod to queer culture did not go unnoticed. A humorous 1987 article in popular gay magazine The Advocate, entitled “Springsteen’s Ass – and Why You Can’t Tell the Straights from the Gays”, asks: “Who exactly is he trying to attract with a shot of his ass?” And so: concretized, mythicized, and sexualized forever, Springsteen’s “Ass” stands as a peculiar, if confusing, moment in his queer trajectory – one that stands, despite all the testosterone-fueled, apparent masculinity of the BITUSA tour, and music videos. It’s this bombastic, patriotic, iconoclastic version of Springsteen that he would spend the next phase of his career distancing himself from – a phase that would reveal, in its fame-distant intimacy, Springsteen’s true allegiance and allyship with the queer community.

First: through the intimate and personal videos of Tunnel of Love ­– Springsteen’s Blood on the Tracks, his break-up album – which again channel film-noir in their compositional aesthetic. The video for “Brilliant Disguise” is shot in a live-performed long-take, located in a kitchen, in black-and-white; the visual accompaniment for “One Step Up” depicts a lonely, weathered Springsteen wandering, Philip Marlowe-like, for a late-night shot or two into a neon–lit bar, exchanging glances with woman and men alike – disillusioned by all of them. One of the album’s many love-worn characters has, like Robert Mitchum in The Night of the Hunter, a matching pair of knuckle tats: “on his right hand he had tattooed the word love, and on his left hand was the word fear / in which hand he held his fate was never clear”.

About Tunnel of Love’s deeply private, intimately curated tracks, Springsteen said: “I wanted to make a record about what I felt, about really letting another person in your life and trying to be a part of someone else’s life. That’s a frightening thing, something that’s always filled with shadows and doubts and also wonderful things and beautiful things” (Springsteen, int. by Steve Pond, Rolling Stone, 1988). For Springsteen, this feeling of falling in and out of love is clearly not limited to heterosexuality – his music video for Top-Ten hit “Tougher than the Rest” depicts an inclusive romantic worldview. Moving between two narratives – one on stage, between Springsteen and his sexual dynamic with back-up vocalist and future wife Patti Scialfa, the other a carnival where the ‘Tunnel of Love’ ride assumedly lies – the video culminates in a series of intimate, sexually charged glances between Springsteen and Scialfa, punctuated by photo-booth-like images of couples, both homo- and heterosexual, posing before a camera. This democratized presentation, paired with the shared promises and non-gendered country croons of Springsteen and Scialfa (“If you’re rough and ready for love / Honey, I’m tougher than the rest”), depicts homosexuality as equal to heterosexuality – in this photomontage of American lovers, all are as tough, as rough, as ready (or unready) for love as the rest. Martha Nell Smith notes the boldness of such an inclusion: “Since erasure of homosexual unions from representations of America’s quotidian experience have been so pervasive, the gay and lesbian couples could easily have been omitted and no one would have noticed. But by refusing conventional silences and calling attention to the homoerotic facts of life many would just as soon forget or disregard, Springsteen protests the agenda of the narrow-minded…’ (Smith, 847). These images, in their understatement, serve as a stark contrast to the (already rare) queer representation of the 70s and 80s – as with his oft-forgotten, but almost ritualistic kissing of Clarence Clemons, Springsteen’s inclusivity and homosexual depictions differ from Jagger’s decadent play, Prince and David Bowie’s lascivious, obvious sexuality. Springsteen deployed a similar understated resolve in his grandest, most politically charged queer statement: 1993’s “Streets of Philadelphia”, perhaps the culmination, and seemingly long-awaited surfacing of his queer allyship.

In the early nineties, no major cause was apparently safe from Springsteen’s wallet. It was logical, based on his lyrical adulation for and support of them, that he’d take up cudgels for minorities and affirmative action. Post-Tunnel of Love Springsteen spoke out on quotas, migrants, immigrants, blacks, Hispanics, women…and he discovered Aids. Sometime in 1993, Springsteen took a call from director Jonathan Demme. Demme’s opening line was stark: “I made this movie, and I want it to play the malls”.  In a bid to cater the film’s potentially ‘unwelcome’ plot-line – gay lawyer dies of AIDS – for middle-America, Demme first rang Neil Young, then Springsteen: “Bruce was so disarming and confident,” says Demme, “his thing was, “Well, I’m interested, so I’d like to come up with a song for you. If you give me some time, I’ll see, but I can’t promise.”’ (Goodman, 347-9). Demme couldn’t have been happier with the results:

“My wife and I sat down and listened to it and we were literally weeping by the end. It wasn’t the call to action, anthem rock, blazing guitar, out-on-the-highway kind of thing. It was this extraordinarily personal song. We laid it in and it was exquisite.”

~Jonathan Demme (quoted in Goodman, 348)

 

Loud, but only loud enough, “Streets of Philadelphia” is a suitably spare, somber jump for Demme’s film. Soundtrack raised to high art, draped over the film’s opening sequence: a montage of the City of Brotherly Love. With melancholic synths, and a heart-beat drum-beat, Springsteen’s elegy has a tangible poetic prowess, pairing powerfully with Demme’s street-side montage of Philadelphia which spans everything from “bruised and battered” homeless, to smiling, brotherly friends whose “voices”, as Springsteen’s AIDS-stricken “Streets” character suggests, are “vanished and gone” (Springsteen, 7). The montage, aided by its non-diegetic soundtrack, is able to simultaneously convey the loneliness and community created by the AIDS epidemic – something the rest of the film struggles to do, all through the compelling hermetic intimacy of Springsteen’s track.

In December of ‘93, Springsteen starred in the song’s music video (also shot by Demme). Wandering around Philadelphia, clad in ragged-tagged clothes that only vaguely resemble his usual attire, Springsteen, shot in a long-take similar to that in “Brilliant Disguise”, is portrayed intimately, empathetically – his blue jeans and usual white-tee are barely visible beneath brown jackets, grey shirts, ruffled hair and a goatee. Here, he’s the genuine article – his live-performed vocals in the video only add to the transparency – walking in and among the Philadelphia community, for once, not up on a stage, on a pedestal. It’s a staggering video, moving between Demme’s carefully curated cinematography and Springsteen’s stride, that somehow manages to make the viewer forget who it is we’re looking at: this is the same Bruce Springsteen from “Dancing in the Dark”? What happened to his muscles? His “ass”?

“I was bruised and battered / I couldn’t tell what I felt / I was unrecognizable to myself,” mutters Springsteen, assumedly from the perspective of a pained gay man. Like all of Springsteen’s work, however, he’s always visible through the characters – isolated, hermetic lyrics like these point towards the bouts of depression he’s expounded upon in his memoirs, and the identity crisis he had after his herculean rise to stardom. But it’s this very crisis, this transparency that serves “Streets of Philadelphia” so well – and Springsteen’s ability to empathize with the working class, veterans (“BITUSA”; “Brothers Under the Bridge”; “Devils and Dust”), blacks (“My Hometown”; “41 Shots (American Skin”; “Souls of the Departed”; “Black Cowboys”), Latinx immigrants (all of The Ghost of Tom Joad), and queers (“Backstreets”, “Streets of Philadelphia”) shines through yet again.

“Streets of Philadelphia” serves as sort of ‘spiritual coming’ out for Springsteen – an overt elucidation of his previously embedded and masked allusions to sexuality and gender-bending that pervaded his work. Surprisingly, nowhere in the song’s lyrics does Springsteen actually mention Aids, HIV, or death. Springsteen invites – almost a morbid need – the broadest identification: “I tried to… make it more general,’ he said. ‘It could be about a lot of things…the spiritual, how your soul feels, how everybody’s felt, hopefully, like Philadelphia’s characters…I wanted it to be read in different ways.” Like Terry, like Wild Billy, like Springsteen and his homoerotic kisses, there’s an overwhelming initial power to Springsteen’s characters, his performances, but also something embedded, something closeted, perhaps, that can be ‘read in different ways’, interpreted person to person. Something that runs from the streets and alleys of New Jersey, through the “Badlands of Wyoming”, the noir-ish cityscapes of “Atlantic City”, through the Darkness on the Edge of Town, and through the heart of Springsteen’s America: an inclusivity, an unbridled, hopeful romanticism – gay, straight, or otherwise, at the core of Springsteen’s work. If, as “Thunder Road” suggests, “Roy Orbison’s singing for the lonely,” than surely, Springsteen ­­must be too: singing for the lonely, for the closeted, for the forgotten, the lost, the madmen, the drummers, the bummers, rebels, priests, nuns and rock n’ rollers – his “town full of losers…pulling out here to win”.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Works Cited

 

Biddle, Ian. “The singsong of undead labor”: gender nostalgia and the vocal fantasy of intimacy in the “new” male’” in Oh Boy! Masculinities and Popular Music, ed. F. Jarman-Ivens. London and New York, Routledge, 2007.

Bliss, Ann V. “Growin’ Up to Be a Nothing Man: Masculinity, Community, and the Outsider in Bruce Springsteen’s Songs.” Reading the Boss: Interdisciplinary Approaches to the Works of Bruce Springsteen. Ed. Roxanne Harde and Irwin Streight. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2010. 133–149.

Cullen, Jim. Born in the U.S.A.: Bruce Springsteen and the American Tradition. New York: Harper Collins, 1997. Print.

Fanshel, Rosalie Zdzienicka. “Beyond blood brothers: queer Bruce Springsteen,” in Popular Music Popular Music 32(3):359. Cambridge University Press, 2013.

Garman, Bryan K. A Race of Singers: Whitman’s Working-Class Hero from Guthrie to Springsteen. Ed. Alan Trachtenberg. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 2000. Print.

Goodman, Fred. The Mansion on the Hill: Dylan, Young, Geffen, Springsteen, and the Head-on Collision of Rock and Commerce. First Vintage Books, New York, NY, 1998.

Marsh, Dave. Bruce Springsteen Two Hearts: The Definitive Biography, 1972 –2003. London: Routledge, 2003. Print.

Sandford, Christopher. Springsteen Point Blank. New York, NY: De Capo Press, 1999.

Smith, Martha Nell. “Sexual Mobilities in Bruce Springsteen: Performance as Commentary.” Present Tense: Rock & Roll and Culture. Ed. Anthony DeCurtis. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 1992. 197–218. Print.

Springsteen, Bruce. Born to Run. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2016. Print.

“Badlands.” Darkness on the Edge of Town, 1978. Songs, 1998. New York: Harper Collins, 2003.

“Born to Run.” Born to Run, 1974. Songs, 1998. New York: Harper Collins, 2003.

“Backstreets.” Born to Run, 1974. Songs, 1998. New York: Harper Collins, 2003.

“The Promise.” The Promise: The Darkness on the Edge of Town Story, Columbia, 2010.

“Tougher than the Rest.” Tunnel of Love, 1987. Songs, 1998. New York: Harper Collins, 2003.

Womack, Kenneth. “‘Who’s That Girl?’ Nostalgia, Gender, and Springsteen.” Reading the Boss: Interdisciplinary Approaches to the Works of Bruce Springsteen. Ed. Roxanne Harde and Irwin Streight. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2010. 121–132. Print.

Wieder, Judy. “Bruce Springsteen: The Advocate Interview.” Racing in the Street: The Bruce Springsteen Reader. Ed. June Skinner Sawyers. New York: Penguin, 2004. 211 –220. Print.

[1] Springsteen, Bruce. “Blinded by the Light,” l.1.

The opening line of The Boss’s discography already presents an eclectic coterie of characters.

[2] All lines are quoted from the album version of ‘Backstreets’ on Born to Run.
Alternate lines in an early version of the song complicate any and all readings:
“In the basement at St. Johns well I found her where she fell / Just another busted sister of Heartbreak hotel”… “Endless juke joints and Valentino drag / Watching the heroes in the funhouse ripping off the fags” … “But I hated him and his fancy ways / I hated you when you went away” (emphasis mine)
[3] Despite its exclusion from an official release for years, Rolling Stone still placed it at No. 19 on their “100 Greatest Bruce Springsteen Songs of All Time” list – no small feat given his oeuvre and their adoration for it.

[4] Another of the many reasons cited for its exclusion from Darkness, Springsteen called the song “too self-referential”

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