A long, long time ago, when I graduated from university, I wrote a thesis about American popular music and American identity. I worked on lyrics by Robert Johnson, Woody Guthrie, Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan and, of course, Bruce. My focus was the uses of imagery of the road, trains and just the idea of travelling .
The funny thing about this is, when one thinks about it, places like roads, railways and we can even include airports and shopping malls, are pretty special places. They’re places that usually have no identity, they have no history. They’re purpose is not to be places where one is but through which one passes. They’re lonely and impersonal. They have universal signs that will tell you where to go and from the moment you walk in until the moment you walk out, your journey is pretty much predetermined. The sense of loneliness and and disconnection felt by many who spend most of their lives living in these places instead of going through them is a reflection of this.
Anyway, American popular music has been trying to turn this on its head for a long time. There is a clear sense that American identity is attached to this idea of movement, of ever expanding frontiers, of loneliness (often glorified and individual freedom) and Bruce has been a master at doing that. There’s no shortage of example where Bruce uses this kind of imagery attached to ideas of identity, communion and belonging.
Wester Stars seems to be a new take on this. Of course, the romantic notions are still there (see Hitchhiking) but on songs like Hello Sunshine, there’s something different there. Bruce has been hinting at this since he started introducing the acoustic version of Born to Run saying it’s not about “running and keep on running” but it was about going out there searching “for a connection”. Now, maybe for the first time (?), Bruce speaks of the road as a siren whose call can be very alluring but no less dangerous.
”You know I always like that empty road
Nowhere to be and miles to go
But miles to go is miles away”
”Hello Sunshine” is full of “buts” that warm the listener of the dangers of these romantic notions. This might very well be an old man’s take on it, someone who just needs a bit of sunshine and a place he can call home. But I think there’s a lot more truth here than there is on “these two lanes will take us anywhere”. Or maybe that’s just me also growing old...
TL:DR Bruce is a fucking genius!