Diary

Danny Karlin

The Boss paused twice for reflection in the course of his last Wembley concert, on 6 July – twice in three and a half hours of an otherwise relentless exuberance. We all fell silent, gazing at the tiny figure holding the microphone, or at his huge video doubles, projected onto screens standing to either side of the forty-foot-high speakers. The sound, travelling across the arena, lagged fractionally behind the image, whose lips moved out of synch with the words we heard. The single, central figure, necessarily remote, could not quite sustain the illusion of intimate speech. But it was there if you listened with eyes closed. Personal sincerity, electronically amplified and directed at seventy thousand other persons, is hard to pull off, and hard to take whether pulled off or not. Bruce Springsteen, however, managed not to sound nauseatingly heartfelt. His voice lacks pretension, disclaims rhetoric and self-regard; he is, apparently, without design.

The first of these moments of booming meditation was an introduction to ‘My Hometown’ (from his latest album Born in the USA), and Springsteen made it both personal and typical: he spoke of his sadness at the economic and industrial decline, his shame at the racial conflict, which had marked and marred his place of origin. He ended: ‘So this is from my hometown to your hometown.’ The applause that followed was a collective recognition: the local, specifically American resonance of ‘hometown’ touched on everyone’s sense of place.

In the song, as in many others by Springsteen, this sense of place is bound up with a sense of loss; home is not where the heart is, but where it once was. In the opening verse, an eight-year-old boy runs with a dime in his hand to pick up a paper for his ‘old man’. Then he stands in his father’s lap, steering the ‘big old Buick’; his father tousles his hair and says:

Son, take a good look around,
This is your hometown.

And the chorus says so:

This is your hometown.
This is your hometown.
This is your hometown.

It’s beautifully judged: the pleasure of repetition is a child’s pleasure, marking time with a sign of security. The child is in control, in the driving seat of his life, his future guaranteed by his protective father. And indeed, at the end of the song, the child, now grown up, has a boy of his own; like his father before him, he places the child at the wheel and tells him:

Son, take a good look around,
This is your hometown.

But the song ends there, on that line, with no reassuring chorus, because, in the intervening years, ‘troubled times’ have come – blacks and whites fighting in the street (the year is 1965), the closure of the textile mill, the bankruptcy of local businesses (the recession of the late Seventies). On Main Street the stores are vacant and the windows whitewashed; the parents lie in bed, talking about

                              getting out,
Packing up our bags, maybe heading South.

The father’s gesture to his son is the same gesture, but empty of content: or rather, the content is what was once there, the social and economic stability which have gone for ever. ‘Take a good look around’ has passed from a ritual of possession to one of valediction.

The myth of home and family is treasured in small-town America, and within that myth the relation between males (fathers and sons, or brothers) has a special force. Springsteen’s song is deceptively plangent in tone. The story is inexorable and its irony unsparing; nothing is shirked, there is no soft focus in the words.

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