Huckleberry Finn meets Bruce Springsteen

Whither Huck? He’s alive and well in Western Stars…

It must be the summer. This post looks at the links between Huckleberry Finn and the many first person narrators in Bruce Springsteen’s new album: Western Stars.  It is intended seriously, but let’s face it: it’s also a bit of fun.

 

I know this is a bit self indulgent, but indulge me, please.

 

When we read Huck in class we often discuss the possible fate of the picaresque young man who ‘lights out for the territories’ at the close of the book. Huck embodies one facet of the American society – not so much the pioneer with a focus to his journey, but a solitary frontiersman, at ease in the wilderness and allowing fate to carry him where it will. This voice is at the centre of Springsteen’s album and the characters who speak to us through the lyrics.

This is important – they confide their secret fears and hopes to the listener much as Huck is allowed to do by Twain. We don’t feel the pull of conscience in the album to the degree we do in the book, but the loneliness and, contrastingly, the essential confidence of the characters is utterly compelling.

I want to talk about a few of the songs in particular:

Hitch Hikin’

Thumb stuck out as I go
I’m just travelin’ up the road
Maps don’t do much for me, friend
I follow the weather and the wind

I’m hitch hikin’ all day long
Got what I can carry and my song
I’m a rolling stone just rolling on
Catch me now ’cause tomorrow I’ll be gone

Family man gives me a ride
Got his pregnant Sally at his side
Yes indeed, sir, children are a gift
Thank you kindly for the lift

I’m hitch hikin’ all day long

Trucker gears his engine down
Says, “Climb on up, son, I’m highway bound”
Dashboard picture of a pretty girl
I’m ridin’ high on top of the world

I’m hitch hikin’ all day long

Gearhead in a souped-up ’72
Wants to show a kid just what this thing’ll do
Telephone poles and trees go whizzin’ by
Thank you pal, she sure can fly

I’m hitch hikin’ all day long
I’m hitch hikin’ all day long
I’m hitch hikin’ all day long

source: https://www.lyricsondemand.com/b/brucespringsteenlyrics/westernstarsalbumlyrics.html

 

The opening song sets the tone. Huck does not hitchhike for obvious reason, but in this song the sense of travel wherever fate takes me is evident throughout. There is no clear purpose in the journey – the journey is enough in itself. In the opening stanza, there is a neat double entendre in the opening ‘thumb stuck up’ suggesting both the act of hitching and the eternal confidence of the traveller who engages briefly with his rides but who is not drawn into joining their ‘sivilised’ lives: thus he agrees politely that ‘children are a gift ‘ before climbing down and moving on as the ‘rolling stone’ he claims to be. Equally, he seems unimpressed by the man-made speed of the trucks he rides. He is an impressionable ‘kid’ in the eyes of the drivers. His persona suggests a much deeper sensitivity to the world around him.

His sensitivity is further revealed in the second song:

The Wayfarer   https://open.spotify.com/track/06OV3qRCboo6THc73Vy2l5

It’s the same sad story
Love and glory goin’ ’round and ’round
It’s the same old cliché
A wanderer on his way, slippin’ from town to town
Some find peace here on the sweet streets
The sweet streets of home
Where kindness falls and your heart calls
For a permanent place of your own

I’m a wayfarer, baby
I drift from town to town
When everyone’s asleep and the midnight bells sound
My wheels are hissin’ up the highway
Spinning ’round and ’round

You start out slow in a sweet little bungalow
Something two can call home
Then rain comes fallin’
The blues come calling, and you’re left with a heart of stone

Some folks are inspired sitting by the fire
Slippers tucked under the bed
But when I go to sleep I can’t count sheep
For the white lines in my head

I’m a wayfarer, baby
I roam from town to town
When everyone’s asleep and the midnight bells sound
My wheels are hissin’ up the highway
Spinning ’round and ’round

Where are you now? Where are you now?
Where are you now?

I’m a wayfarer, baby
I roam from town to town
When everyone’s asleep and the midnight bells sound
My wheels are hissin’ up the highway
Spinning ’round and ’round

I’m a wayfarer, baby, I’m a wayfarer, baby
I’m a wayfarer, baby, I’m a wayfarer, baby
I’m a wayfarer, baby, I’m a wayfarer, baby
I’m a wayfarer, baby, I’m a wayfarer, baby

source: https://www.lyricsondemand.com/b/brucespringsteenlyrics/westernstarsalbumlyrics.html

Here the joy of the hitch hiker has been left behind. This is a man who cannot settle and who looks at those who can and sees the life of ‘inspired sitting by the fire/Slippers tucked under the bed’ a typically stereotypical vision of suburban quiet, reminiscent of the opening of the novel as Huck feels increasingly claustrophobic in the Widow’s house and makes his escape. He is driven by the call of the wide open spaces and the river in particular. Springsteen’s persona is equally clear: ‘But when I go to sleep I can’t count sheep/For the white lines in my head’. The pull of the road is as strong in 2019 as it was in 1830 and also as it was in 1922 for a character like Nick Carraway. The fundamental need for the journey seems never to have been lost.

At the start of this song, Springsteen may as well be paraphrasing Twain’s novel as the false glory and honour of the South which Twain satirises can be seen in the opening lines ‘The same old story of love and glory’ against which the picaro wanders, arriving via the pull of the current, or in this case of the highway, before tasting something of the pleasure of ‘home’. Huck has this from time to time – at the Grangerfords, at the Phelps’ farm, yet his heart remains tied to the raft and to the idea of the journey.

There is a sadness in this song too. Dropping into the 2nd person, the narrator speaks of ‘Something two can call home’ before the rains come and he is left with a heart of stone. For him joy is brief and transitory. He follows a different path and travels on, whilst all around him sleep comfortable in their beds – the idea of day and night is only really relevant if one is tied into society.

Interestingly this song has a broadly upbeat instrumental section before the repeat of the refrain. It is not a sad song, despite the uneasy rhythmic opening. The voice is utterly at one with its role – a wayfarer – a pioneer and frontiersman – a ‘pathfinder’ to quote Nick Carraway again.

The traveller is not without companionship, yet all is unfulfilled. Even in Tucson train, we hear of the relationship marked by fighting and friction. We hear of a man at a low ebb hanging on to the idea of an arrival, on the Tuscon train – and arrival which never manifests itself. This story could be written of any period in the late 19th century as the trains replaced the boats as the prime means of long distance travel. The music suggests optimism, yet the song is left hanging. A she cries ‘here she comes, the music simply runs out of steam. Presumably he is once again disappointed.

It is in this mood that we arrive at the title song:

Western Stars  https://open.spotify.com/track/58YZTutWhYcglUHl3Udnlj

I wake up in the morning, just glad my boots are on
Instead of empty in the whispering grasses
Down the Five at Forest Lawn
On the set, the makeup girl brings me two raw eggs and a shot of gin
Then I give it all up for that little blue pill
That promises to bring it all back to you again

Ride me down easy, ride me down easy, friend
Tonight the western stars are shining bright again

Here in the canyons above Sunset, the desert don’t give up the fight
A coyote with someone’s Chihuahua in its teeth skitters ‘cross my veranda in the night
Some lost sheep from Oklahoma sips her Mojito down at the Whiskey Bar
Smiles and says she thinks she remembers me from that commercial with the credit card

Hell, these days there ain’t no more, now there’s just again
Tonight the western stars are shining bright again

Sundays I take my El Camino, throw my saddle in and go
East to the desert where the charros, they still ride and rope
Our American brothers cross the wire and bring the old ways with them
Tonight the western stars are shining bright again

Once I was shot by John Wayne, yeah, it was towards the end
That one scene’s bought me a thousand drinks
Set me up and I’ll tell it for you, friend

Here’s to the cowboys, and the riders in the whirlwind
Tonight the western stars are shining bright again
And the western stars are shining bright again

Tonight the riders on Sunset are smothered in the Santa Ana winds
And the western stars are shining bright again
C’mon and ride me down easy, ride me down easy, friend
‘Cause tonight the western stars are shining bright again

I woke up this morning just glad my boots were on

source: https://www.lyricsondemand.com/b/brucespringsteenlyrics/westernstarsalbumlyrics.html

Here the voice embodies the sadness at the heart of such a fractured life whilst also hinting at the never ending need to follow those Western Stars – the lights in the sky which guide the pioneers across the vast continent, the lights of hope and the lights which herald a tainted dream -that of stardom in the ‘west’. Our persona is older now and working for a pittance to buy Viagra in order to re-establish his manhood with on eof the ‘lost sheep’ who cross his path. We know he is ‘all man’ -he drinks gin for breakfast and once worked with John Wayne – the most archetypal Western character it is possible to imagine. Yet this life is transitory: he rides in the deserts evoking the spirit of Cormac McCarthy’s border trilogy in his references to the Latino/Mexican ‘charros’ – above all he seeks a freedom denied by national or state boundaries. This country is vast and wild. It is not tamed whilst characters such as this a roaming the frontier.

Possibly the nearest relation to this speaker is the persona who is a stuntman in the song Drive fast, fall hard. A man who, ‘never mind the scars’, makes a living by taking the risks of the stuntman driving fast cars and leaping off buildings in movies. Again, despite this apparently free-style life, we are reminded that the stuntman is inherently a fake – a man who takes risks for others who are paid vastly more than he his, and yet who is expected to put his life on the line for the entertainment of faceless millions. Despite this, it is here that our persona finds some form of happiness – he may be below the paygrade of the girl with whom he ‘makes his stand’ in the desert, but albeit briefly, there is an acceptance of the life being offered.

In the last song I want to consider, Wild Horses, possibly we see the outcome of the brief relationship described above:

Chasin’ Wild Horses

Guess it was somethin’ I shouldn’t have done
Guess I regret it now
Ever since I was a kid
Tryin’ to keep my temper down is like
Chasin’ wild horses, chasin’ wild horses
Chasin’ wild horses

Left my home, left my friends
I didn’t say goodbye
I contract out to the BLM
Up on the Montana line
Chasin’ wild horses, chasin’ wild horses

We’re out before sunup
In after sundown
There’s two men in the chopper
Two under saddle on the ground
In the evenings we’d hop in the pickup
Head into town for a drink
I make sure I work ’til I’m so damn tired
Way too tired to think

You lose track of time
It’s all just storms blowin’ through
You come rollin’ ‘cross my mind
Your hair flashin’ in the blue
Like wild horses, just like wild horses
Just like wild horses

A fingernail moon in a twilight sky
I’m ridin’ in the high grass of the switchback
I shout your name into the canyon
The echo throws it back

The winter snow whites out the plains
‘Til it can turn you blind
The only thing up here I’ve found
Is tryin’ to get you off mind
Is like chasin’ wild horses, chasin’ wild horses
Chasin’ wild horses, chasin’ wild horse

source: https://www.lyricsondemand.com/b/brucespringsteenlyrics/westernstarsalbumlyrics.html

In a reflective song, again with a calmly reflective instrumental section suggesting at least acceptance of the status quo, we hear the persona reflect on his anger – the futility he feels suggested by the idea that keeping his ‘temper down’ is like ‘chasin’ wild horses’ – a quintessential element of life in the old West and something, if not futile, that is fraught with danger and also excitement. The horses embody the whole continent brought under the control of the pioneers who suffer and inflict suffering as they pass West. Once again, re hear of a young man who has ‘left home’ and left his friends, much as Huck will, in the search for a free life. Again, the life revolves around horses, despite the helicopters and vehicles, and the link is established with an altogether older life. ‘Working on the county line’ reflects the idea of being pressed hard against the frontier in the 19th Century sense – a liminal location in which freedom is possible within the confines of society. By the end of the song, as he recalls his love from an earlier song, it is not the temper which is like the wild horses, but rather the free spirit of the unnamed girl and the futility of trying to forget her and all she represents.

I am not trying to establish this album as Springsteen’s Winterreise, probing the psyche of the traveller bereft and lost in love, but I feel it is an avenue worth pursuing. For many students, the ingrained motifs of American literature are often no more than words we tell them. In these songs we touch on the self-sufficiency of the traveller; the wandering of the wayfarers; the broken dreams (usually romantic); the lost ways which still count for so much and possibly the indefatigable strength of mind of the American Pioneer seeking no more than to make their way in the world by their hard work and effort.

Go on, buy the album:

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Western-Stars-Bruce-Springsteen/dp/B07QRYG51N/ref=sr_1_1?keywords=western+stars&qid=1566225315&s=gateway&sr=8-1