Bruce Springsteen is the common man’s champion. He sings about things the common man can understand. By that I don’t mean all his songs are about trucks and beer and your girlfriend leaving you – that’s the domain of country music. No, I mean that Bruce’s music is devoid of philosophizing, pretension or high-minded vocabulary. Those things do have their place, but it’s not in a Springsteen song. He’s a rock star, no doubt, but with Bruce, you get the feeling that you could be a rock star, too. That’s something that no artist had been able to do since the Beatles came to America in ’64.

One of those very common things Bruce sings about is the car. Cars are things which at one point or another enter all of our lives. Most American kids have very vivid memories of when they were 16 or 17 and getting their driver’s license.  It’s a mile marker in a person’s life, but it’s also a rite of passage. It’s one of the biggest times that parents say to their children “you have grown up, or at least grown up enough for this.”

I am McLovin

I am McLovin

My own driver’s license experience was not like that, though. I got my learner’s permit like a normal kid at 15, and progressed through the normal learning process, my mother as my primary teacher. When I went to the DMV in Northampton a year and a half later, I was a bundle of nerves. Back then, road tests were given by Massachusetts state troopers, and the one I got was as clichéd as they come. He was old, had a little bit of paunch and a face that only a mother could love if she was bombed out of her gourd. He had steely grey hair and a gravely, unpleasant voice. He set me on edge even more than I already was.

He got in the passenger seat, checked a few things like my knowledge of the rear-view and side-view mirrors. He then purposely confused me about my hand signals, and then told me I better get out on the road to start the test. The lanes in the parking lot were one way, and when I backed out of my parking space I was pointed the wrong way. I didn’t even get all the way out of my space when I realized my error. I was going to pull back in and back out the right way when he spoke.

“You’re going the wrong way on a one-way. That’s a violation of law, son. I can’t give you a license if you’re violating laws.”

He then proceeded to give a lecture about how driving is a privilege that I need to take seriously. He wrote FAIL on my permit, and got out of the car. I was flabbergasted, and so was my mom in the backseat. It still burns a little when I think about it… Not even out of the parking space!

I tried again about 6 months later, and got a different cop. She was energetic and pleasant, but tightly wound, so I was on edge again. It went alright for a while (I got out on the road this time), but a bunch of little things I was doing wrong started stacking up. When I came to a rolling stop at a stop sign, it was more than my state trooper could take. She came down on me pretty hard for that. She failed me again, but I failed on my own merits that time.

I went for a third time when I was 19, home from college for the summer. It was in my grandpa’s car, which I had never driven before – strike one. The DMV was in Hadley this time, which is an easier route, but I got the same freakin’ state trooper as the first time! Strike two – that’s two before the test even starts. Strike three came when I failed to yield right-of-way at an intersection. Needless to say, I got another lecture, in addition to a third FAIL on my permit.

I was resigned to live the rest of my life without a driver’s license, and went through college scorning the license as an unnecessary decoration. My self-worth didn’t derive from a rectangular piece of plastic in my wallet – or that’s how my snooty philosophy went, anyway. Years passed, I got cancer, I graduated from college, and I got married. My wife encouraged me again to get my license, but she took a different tack than the rest of the people who tried to push me in that direction in the past. Her angle was “I wanna see you prosper and flourish, and a licensed you is a better you.” I bought that. So I went to a driving school, had a perfect lesson, and had a perfect road test. It was in the driving school’s car, and the state trooper (a new one) spent most of the test chatting with the owner of the school that was in the backseat.

And that’s how I got my license at 28 – fourth time’s the charm.

My wife was right – if I never got my license, like I was planning to in college, I wouldn’t be as good a me as I am. I wouldn’t be as good a husband (I take the car to do grocery shopping and laundry), and I wouldn’t understand a very important part of rock and roll music.

Bruce Springsteen uses cars and driving as a metaphor for freedom, and it’s a very easy leap to make – more like a puddlejump. Since I actually drive now, I get the freedom and exhilaration of having nothing in front of you except miles and miles of blacktop. In “Night,” a young man finds triumph over his surly boss and dead-end job in racing his car against other young guys, a la American Graffiti. And it’s not just the racing – it’s the whole environment. It gives a glimpse of this world being a whole lot bigger than a crappy day job.

In the same way, the song “Born to Run” takes a youthful environment and transforms it into a metaphor for escape, optimism and creating something beautiful out of a bad situation. “Born to Run” primarily uses motorcycles, but the sentiment is the same – a machine, be it car or bike, is the key to unlimited freedom. More than that, even, is this: he’s saying to someone, “We can make it out if we just stick together.”

“Born to Run” evokes images from a time passed. This was 1975, and dudes driving their custom cars down to the burger joint where roller-skated waitresses would bring food on trays was an antiquated notion even then. But it sparks nostalgia in the listener’s ears, even if it’s just nostalgia for stuff we’ve seen in movies like it is for my generation. And that’s part of what makes Bruce so great. Nostalgia is myopic; when it’s really working, you believe that the past was better than the present, and Bruce makes it work better than anyone else.

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