Legends of Springsteen is delighted to present a guest post from James Layman – lawyer in training, friend of the blog, and North Jersey native. Here, James reflects on a defining experience with Born in the U.S.A.
Anyone familiar with the 1990 Dodge Dynasty can share with its hallmark characteristic: the engine was too powerful for the chassis, the handling, and indeed, the entire car. Any significant pressure on the gas would produce a vibrato so commanding that the steering wheel would shake. By the time you hit 80, the entire frame was trembling, threatening to self-destruct into a thousand smoldering pieces on the freeway.
I drove one in the spring of 2004, delivering pizza in North Jersey. I was seventeen.
While iTunes and digital downloads revolutionized music in the latter part of the last decade, something was lost in the subversion. Single hits now exist on their own, outside the context of an album, like single chapters in a book. Digital downloads may have ushered in the death of the narrative, so I feel privileged to have been part of the last generation of listeners to appreciate an album as a story. And “back then,” we all had a story - something encapsulating an age, a season, a mood, or a place. A freeze frame of a halcyon era we could never return to, but never really escape.
In the spring of 2004, my story was Born in the U.S.A. The album was a 12-track epic about making peace with the love, loss, disillusionment, and despair of a stark American era. I’ll admit I couldn’t relate to all of Springsteen’s characters - the plight of a Vietnam Veteran returning home or the deterioration of a young man’s hometown were foreign to me, especially at seventeen. But beneath Springsteen’s earnest and painfully wrought portrait of American life was the constant need to escape. Characters stayed awake at night talking about “getting out.” They drank too much, chased old flames, and raised hell in Darlington County - always dreaming of an open highway to greener pastures somewhere far beyond. The theme wasn’t just definitive of Born in the U.S.A., but of Springsteen’s entire catalogue.
I used to get out of work sometime around midnight, and drive the Dynasty down my block to where it met Route 17, a highway that ran from East Rutherford up through New York State. I traced the road back to where it met the horizon, clinging to a romantic notion of where it might lead. I had four wheels beneath my feet, nowhere specific to go, and all the time in the world to get there.
Come graduation I left, like most of us did. Many to college, some to the military, and others to God knows where. At long last, honoring the relentless pursuit of our own stories and our own endless roads. It’s a natural part of growing up I suppose - rumbling forward with a purpose too big for your hometown and a heart too powerful for your body, into the great and wonderful beyond.