Yes, this is supposedly a sports blog. Or a sports card blog. Heck at one time I was even posting photos from Chicago. However, it’s that time of year when hockey is at its most uneventful, football is more about fantasy drafts (All Day Purple Jesus!) and baseball is just ramping up for the drive to the playoffs. So we’re veering into dangerous territory today – music.
It’s kind of funny how certain songs seem to have been around for your entire life, you’ve heard them probably hundreds of times and pretty much think you know the words. However, it turns out that you have never really listened to the lyrics.
The bus is great for some serious music listening. You can zone out completely, let the brain go into neutral and not worry about running into anything or falling over. So I tend to pay a little more attention to what I’m listening to. And tonight, riding home from work (two hours later than I had planned), the ol’ iPod kicked on a couple of tunes back to back that put me into a bit of a funk. Nine minutes and fifty-eight seconds of pure 1980s musical Debbie Downering.
Which brings us to tonight’s question.
Which chart topping song is more depressing:
Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car”
Bruce Springsteen’s “The River”
I’m going to break down my opinion and then let y’all decide in the comments. And if you want to get technical, yes “The River” was actually produced in 1979, but it wasn’t released as a single until 1981. So there.
I’m a sucker for songs that tell a story. Especially a sad story with a guitar in the back ground (why yes my iTunes is filled with a lot of Blues songs. Why do you ask?)I’m one of the few people who think The Last DJ is one of Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers best albums (love, love, love the image of burned out fans watching in horror as “John lip-synced his latest light beer commercial” in “Money Becomes King”).
Back to the topic on hand.
At first you’re thinking, “What a nice song about a girl and a guy whose car is fast enough to drive them away from all of their problems”.
Well yeah it starts out that way. She paints a pretty bleak picture of life – shitty job at a convenience store, dropped out of school, mom has left town and dad is a broken down alcoholic. But her boyfriend has a fast car (In case you are wondering, yes I picture “The City” as Chicago and the couple as coming from some farm town in Indiana and the car being a 1986 IROC-Z.) and when they’re bombing down the road she thinks a better future is right around the corner. Since she’s starting from nothing so she has nothing to lose. Maybe with his ride and her plans for the future they can make a change in their lives. But it has to be now. After all if they don’t leave tonight they are going “live and die this way”.
In the next verse some time has passed and things haven’t quite panned out as she had thought. The boyfriend/husband doesn’t have a job and she traded a shitty convenience store job for a shitty checkout girl job. But she still has hope. She’s going to get promoted and he’s going to find a job. Chapman sneaks in the “we’ll move out of the shelter” line so quietly you almost missed it. Our protagonist is no longer looking for salvation in the big city, but in the suburbs, with the big houses and white picket fences. Ironically, probably the same suburbs she fled in her man’s fast car all those years ago.
Final verse and now there is a kid involved. Husband/boyfriend still has a fast car, but no job. He spends most of his time hanging out in the bar with his buddies. Now she’s “got no plans, ain’t going anywhere” and maybe it’s time for him to keep on driving. If they stay together there is no happy ending, just year after year of struggling, living and dying this way. History repeats itself as she becomes her mother and he transforms into her shiftless father.
What a lyrical take on the ravages the cycle of poverty takes on generations. And what makes it even more depressing is that the hook is so infectious and full of hope. Who hasn’t experienced moments of escapism? Whether it’s running away on vacation or barreling down a road so fast that all of your problems can be left behind and someone’s arm, “wrapped ‘round my shoulder” made you feel safe and in a world where you belonged.
The stripped down sound of just Chapman’s voice and simple guitar add to the wistfulness of the song.
Springsteen might just be the best singer/storyteller that emerged from the turbulent times of the 70’s and 80s, which was a great time to write songs about sad stories. His magnum opus being “Born In The USA” aka the most depressing song used for patriotic purposes in the history of song-dom. But for these purposes we’re going with “The River”, not the studio version, but the one off of his Live: 1975-85 album that includes the long story about how much his father hated his long hair and Bruce failed his military physical and his dad was glad that he wasn’t shipped off to Vietnam.
Then the searing harmonica kicks in and Bruce talks about him and Mary and their dashed history. It starts off nicely, high school sweethearts hanging out at the river. Then things swerve a bit. He knocks Mary up and they proceed to have the most depressing marriage in the history of matrimony. “No wedding day smiles, no walk down the aisles, no flowers, no wedding dress”. Was there cake? I bet there wasn’t even cake.
Bruce gets a job for a bit, but hey man it’s the 70s so the economy ain’t that great. With them struggling it’s kind of hard to talk about those heady, teenage years. Mary acts like she doesn’t care while Bruce tries to tell himself to just forget about it. He can’t let it go, he can’t shake those warm summer nights lying next to her dreaming of the future (trying to get laid). Now later in life, looking back on those days he ponder ones of the great questions ever put into verse*, “Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true, or is it something worse?”
Like Chapman’s car, the river is always there to taunt him about his lost future. While she lost herself in the lights of the city zipping by, he escaped reality diving into the depths.
While the lyrics themselves aren’t quite as depressing as Chapman’s, after all, Bruce and Mary are still together and it sounds like they are going to ride it out together, the harmonica (world’s saddest instrument) and the father/son story at the beginning put it over the top for me. So my vote goes to Bruce.
By the way, Mom, I’m sorry I took your copy of Bruce Springsteen and E Street Band Live 1975-85 when I went to college. Maybe, just maybe I’ll get you a new copy for Christmas one of these days. Oh and I think I took your CCR greatest hits as well. Sorry ‘bout that.
Your turn to vote down in the comments. I’m popping on some Beach Boys to feel better about things…….
* Eddie Vedder’s plaintive wail of, “I know some day you’ll have a beautiful life, I know you’ll be a star in somebody else’s sky, but why, why, whhhhhhyyyy can’t it be, can’t it be mine” is also in the running.
As you say, "fast car" lulls you into a false sense of hope. but sometimes that's all one has. in that way it touches an emotional button i recognize.
And because its got a groovier pop than the river...i gotta go with fast car for listening pleasure.
I vote for Pearl Jam Black!
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