David Fleming
It's All Academic   www.davidflemingsite.com   
Day 217: Bruce Springsteen* (Downbound Train)

January 13, 2023

Born In The U.S.A., the album as much as the song, sure made it difficult to see Bruce Springsteen as anything other than superstar. Bruce deserved it at the time, so it was impossible to all of a sudden become anti-Bruce. The hits from the album were so pop/AM radio friendly, starting with "Dancing In The Dark," that the 22-year old me couldn't help but remember longingly the 13-year old me staring at my friend's older brother's copy of "Born To Run, Springsteen lounging on Clemens, wondering what the fuss was, as if something profound was lost. The 22-year old me buckled at accepting that "Glory Days" really was a great dance tune.

Despite hearing the half dozen hits a thousand times and the album itself hundreds of times, the song that kept occupying my interests was "Downbound Train." It seemed as slick as "Glory Days" or "Bobby Jean," but somehow holding deeper secrets.

One of Springsteen's greatest "story songs," which is like trying to identify the greatest starry night of all-time, "Downbound Train" depicted the most depressing narrative for a song with an uplifting guitar riff and soaring organ. Yes, the plight of the working class man is well-tilled soil in the Springsteen field. One can't help but note the brilliance of the line "now I work down at the car wash where all it does is rain." However, I have always been more partial to the later line, "I ran 'til I thought my chest would explode/there in the clearing, beyond the highway, there in the moonlight, our wedding house shone." That reference to a house just beyond the highway is no mansion on the hill, bearing no Candy's room full of fancy clothes and diamond rings. It takes all of me not to picture a trailer park, frankly.

The long, sedated instrumental fade out for "Downbound Train" allows the pathos of that narrator to linger like a lone rider on a train going nowhere. Tucked between the more anthemic working song, "Working On The Highway," and the obsessive love song, "I'm On Fire," "Downbound Train" is the highlight of Side One of Born In The U.S.A., although it still doesn't feel like it was borne with the rest of the album.

Turns out that "Downbound Train" (as were "Born In The U.S.A." and "Working On The Highway") was first written with the songs that represented Springsteen's previous album, the desolate Nebraska. With that knowledge, one wants to slap our own head at a "duh!" moment. Listen to the acoustic version I link below (as well as the final version if you don't know it) to hear it as a much different song. The adrenaline of the acoustic guitar in the demo resembles Nebraska's "Johnny 99." However, lyrically it shares much with that album's "My Father's House."

In "My Father's House," the narrator, like our "rider on a downbound train," also lives out an ill-fitting dream. Bruce might want to ask his analyst why all his dreams involve so much running: "I ran with my heart pounding down that broken path/With the devil snappin' at my heels/I broke through the trees and there in the night/my father's house stood shining hard." These confrontations with houses of horror seem a prelude to the "haunted house" Springsteen endures in the "Tunnel of Love" a few years later.

Springsteen's working man ethic is what he is known for, but it is these depths of emotional chasms that make him remembered. That bravado of the man "born to run" becomes a crippling disease, running to and from all of these structures that represent middle-class success. This running down a middle-class dream starts with the first track on The River, "The Ties That Bind," where Bruce and girl are "running now, but . . . we will stand that test of time/to face the ties that bind." If Bruce never makes Born In The U.S.A., assuming nothing else changes, he has a dynamite trilogy to the anxieties of becoming middle-class: The River, Nebraska, and Tunnel Of Love, three cars clearly on a downbound train in the misty rain. All the more reason to get "Downbound Train" on one of those albums.

Somewhere not long after Tunnel of Love Springsteen got off the train. He may be all the better for it, but I sure miss him there.

*Purposefully not including the E Street Band since the song's origins in Nebraska are absent Bruce's dynamite band.

Springsteen, Bruce. "Downbound Train." Born In The U.S.A. Columbia, 1984. Acoustic demo version here.  Album version here.

Day 216: Genesis "Follow You Follow Me"

Day 218: The Mamas and the Papas "Monday Monday"

See complete list here.