In early 2011, VH-1 Classic broadcast a program, Bruce Springsteen: a Conversation with his Fans. The program — which promoted Bruce Springsteen’s release of the Darkness on the Edge of Town box set, including the new album, The Promise — featured fans asking Springsteen questions. The fans were chosen in advance based on their questions, and many of the questions were very good.
My favorite question was quite thoughtful. One woman asked Springsteen which character from the songs on the set would he “most want his children to understand.” It was a great question, requiring him to reflect about his life and the meaning behind his songs. He responded that “‘Racing in the Street’ sums up a lot for me.” He explained that he would like his children to be “untouched by that particular sadness, but that’s not the way the world works.”
Noting that the song “Racing in the Street” is still very emotional for him, Springsteen added that he would want for them to “have that understanding [conveyed in the song] without the pain, but that is not possible.” So, he would like for his kids to “have the resilience . . . to be able to navigate their way through that kind of pain because that is what we all have to do.”
It was an insightful statement about a beautiful song. “Racing in the Street” is one of the saddest songs written by someone who writes a lot of sad songs. If you go back through his catalog during the first fifteen years of his career, it would be impossible to find more than a few songs that are not touched by some type of sadness.
What is “that particular sadness” in “Racing in the Street”? The song is narrated by a young man who makes money by racing his ’69 Chevy for money by riding from town-to-town with his friend Sonny (“We only run for the money, got no strings attached/We shut ’em up and then we shut ’em down”). The guy does not die in a crash, and he even gets the girl in the end. So why is the song sad?
There are two reasons the song is sad. First, the lyrics reveal that the song is not a James Dean fantasy. They recognize the pain of real life and the existential struggle to just survive in the face of so much bleakness in the world.
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,
And go racing in the street.
Although the hero won the girl by blowing away a Camaro driven by “some dude from L.A.,” that one happy moment happened three years ago. You do not get such heroic moments every day of your life. So, in the present, the man and the woman both live with the pain and consequences of day-to-day life.
But now there’s wrinkles around my baby’s eyes
And she cries herself to sleep at night
. . .
She sits on the porch of her Daddy’s house
But all her pretty dreams are torn,
She stares off alone into the night
With the eyes of one who hates for just being born
The other big reason the song is so sad is Roy Bittan’s piano. Even if the song had no lyrics, Bittan’s piano playing on “Racing in the Street” would still convey that “particular real world sadness” that Springsteen mentioned in response to the fan’s question. Throughout the song, the piano’s relentless rhythm, sometimes accompanied by a metronome drum sound, echoes the continuous steps the hero must take to just live through each day in a world where there are not victorious car races every moment.
The lyrics end with a little hope, as Springsteen sings, “Tonight my baby and me, we’re gonna ride to the sea/And wash these sins off our hands.” After his voice fades, Bittan’s piano continues its rhythm, also offering some hope by echoing existential angry defiance in the face of hopelessness.
As the Boss wished for his children, in your life too, may you have the resilience to find your way through that kind of pain.
Bonus “Racing in the Street”: “Racing in the Street” appeared on the original Darkness on the Edge of Town album, but Springsteen included an alternate version of the song, entitled “Racing in the Street (78),” on the new The Promise album. This Promise version, which had been around on Bootlegs through the years, features a full band sound throughout most of the song. The music focuses on the anger and resistance part of the song, and for much of the song the rock sound is inconsistent with the lyrics. The band sounds great, but the band version lacks the focus of Roy Bittan’s piano in the original. Although I enjoy this other version, Springsteen made the correct choice in the 1970s to put the quieter piano version Darkness on the Edge of Town.