Hope for a Self-Loathing Kid

I’ve always loved music, but I can pinpoint exactly when music became “more” for me. In 1984, when I was 13, my Aunt Pat was visiting my family in Columbus, GA and she and my Mom were going out shopping. Aunt Pat knew I liked music and offered to purchase me a 45. I told her I wanted either Love Somebody by Rick Springfield or Dancing in the Dark by Bruce Springsteen. She got me both.

Love Somebody, from the ridiculous Springfield movie Hard to Hold, was the kind of earnest, big hearted power pop on which Springfield had built his stardom. The entire song was basically a huge hook. From the memorable riff, the booming drums, the sing-along chorus, the oh so 80’s guitar solo, the strummed bridge, it was a perfect pop confection. 🎵

When I received the singles, I would have told you that Rick Springfield was my favorite singer. From the moment I heard Working Class Dog, I was hooked. To this day, I’m unashamed to say I love guitar-based power pop. That said, I recognize now that the song and the music as performed by Springfield was slight. There was nothing artistic. There was nothing under the surface. If you didn’t see it, if Rick didn’t sing it, it wasn’t there. That’s fine as it goes. There’s nothing wrong with pure entertainment.

At first, I was probably playing both singles equally, but Dancing in the Dark kept calling to me. When I got it, I wasn’t overly familiar with Springsteen. I knew that Born to Run had been a big deal. I saw the black and white video for Atlantic City a number of times on MTV and liked it, but not enough for it to really make a play for my attention. Dancing in the Dark, on the other hand, grabbed me hard and didn’t let go.

It was, on the surface, also a great pop song. The song is upbeat, driven by an undeniably catchy synth riff. The first time you hear the chorus, you have it remembered. Like all popular music from 1984, it’s also hard to separate the song from the video. The most memorable moment is the moment where Springsteen pulls the young woman out of the crowd (that’s Courtney Cox of course) to dance with him on stage. I remember it more for the goofily energetic performance by the E Street Band and Bruce’s awful dancing. (As the rehearsal footage shows, it could have been much, much worse.)

When I liked a song, I would sit at my turntable or cassette deck with a notepad and attempt to transcribe the lyrics. It wasn’t that I was looking for meaning necessarily. I just wanted an easier method of memorizing the lyrics. (My wife? She hears a song once and has it memorized.) With Dancing in the Dark, I made a discovery. It wasn’t just a shiny pop song. It was about self-loathing.

I may have only been 13 years old, but I already hated myself. When I looked in the mirror, I saw someone who was awkward, shy, and funny looking. I saw someone who had no clue about how to better himself. I saw someone who could only imagine being better, but could not find a way to actually make things better. It was a powerful thing to find that Bruce freaking Springsteen could look in the mirror and not like what he sees. This discovery would lead me to a life time of fandom for the Boss.

As I went back through his catalogue to catch up on everything I had missed, I found myself consistently thrilled. The sheer rush of words in Blinded by the Light would give me goose bumps. Badlands would make me want to pound my fist in the air. Streets of Fire made me want to howl at the top of my lungs. State Trooper scared the shit out of me. Backstreets made me want to fall in love, specifically with someone who would love me back. Best of all were the songs about escape: Racing in the Street, Born to Run, and Thunder Road. There’s nothing I wanted more than to escape my life and my hometown. That line at the end of Thunder Road, “It’s a town full of losers and I’m pulling out of here to win”, has state with me ever since. I wanted that to be me. It wasn’t, but it gave me hope that it could be.

It was my discovery of Springsteen that led to a broadening of my musical horizons. My favorite music was no longer the songs I’d record on cassettes during Casey Kasem’s America’s Top 40 every week on the radio. Instead, I was spinning my Dad’s old copy of Bob Dylan’s John Wesley Harding. I got beat up used tapes of Never Mind the Bollocks and London Calling. I found R.E.M., the Smiths, Husker Dü and the Replacements. That love of music, and specifically the music of Springsteen, has stayed with me today. When times are tough, it’s still the thing that gives me hope.