During the worst of my anxiety this spring, I had a panic attack at every red light. There are seven stoplights between my house and my work, and one of them I go through twice due to daycare dropoff, so there were sixteen times a day when I might start to hyperventilate in my car and wonder if I was going to hit the gas and ram into the car in front of me. The only way I could get through was to count the seconds of each stoplight. I learned that the longest one was a minute; most were only 30 or 45 seconds. Knowing how long I had to stay there made it bearable.
After I got out of the hospital I no longer had that panic at stoplights, but I still had panic in the car, and the only thing that got me through was listening to “Thunder Road” on repeat. As a friend of mine said, there are worse coping mechanisms. In a future essay I’ll talk about why that in particular is such a brilliant song, but for now I want to talk about Springsteen more generally, because his music has helped me out so much in the past few months.
I moved from “Thunder Road” on repeat to Born to Run in its entirety, and then to Darkness on the Edge of Town, and, of late, Tunnel of Love.
I didn’t like Bruce Springsteen when I was a kid, because all I knew about him was that Ronald Reagan used “Born in the USA,” and, like Reagan, I hadn’t actually listened to the lyrics of that song. So I was a Springsteen late bloomer, coming to him only in graduate school, acquiring albums as they showed up at the public library or as I found them as cassettes at Goodwill.
In the summer of 2002, my friend Meg, dead now these five years, spent a month on the psych ward, where I’d visit her every day and bring her coffee (in those years the psych ward wouldn’t serve you caffeinated coffee from the cafeteria, though they’d let you buy Coke and Mountain Dew at 8 pm, but people could bring it in for you). One day she got a pass and we went out to a movie — Minority Report, I think. I had a tape in my car that was Darkness on the Edge of Town on one side and Born in the USA on the other. “This is the all Springsteen all the time car,” I said to her, and she approved, though the Boss himself once gave her a Heineken backstage when she was fourteen, which isn’t the sort of thing a recovering addict normally approves of.
I used to play “Tougher Than the Rest” for my grandmother and tell her it was the most romantic song I’d ever heard. “Well,” she said, “it certainly says I have flaws and you might too.” I think she was still a fan of the songs of her youth, which were a little realistic, to my mind, but we all prefer the music of our youth.
At my tenth high school reunion someone handed my friend Tim a stack of quarters and told him to pick music from the jukebox. “Come with me,” he said, and we started flipping through the albums. I was going to vote for “No Surrender” when we got to Born in the USA (“We learned more from a three minute record, baby, than we ever learned in school”), but he said “I suppose we have to play “Glory Days.” We agreed we had to, even though it was so corny. Thirteen years later I find it less corny, perhaps because I am now a single mother like the one in the song, and my social life consists of a beer now and then after my kid is in bed.
I used to think there was something wrong with loving things that so many other people loved, but I’ve gotten past that as I’ve gotten older, and thus I feel free to love Springsteen with abandon. I’ve listened to “Promised Land” while driving through the Utah desert and argued about the lyrics to “Racing in the Streets” with someone from Pennsylvania/New Jersey. I’ve come to understand that Reagan was as wrong about Springsteen as he was about everything else. I’ve used the phrase brilliant disguise in an essay and made someone think it was mine (I ‘fessed up). I’ve listened to the more recent albums and loved them, too, which is a rarity — most artists don’t have that much staying power.
I measure my love for my son against Janey’s love for hers. I measure the men I meet against the narrator of “Tougher Than the Rest.” I measure patriotism against “Born in the USA” and defiance against “No Surrender.” Whenever I drive fast I hope that the two lanes can take me anywhere, and I’m ready to take that long walk, even if the ride ain’t free.