Backstreets is the fourth track from the Born To Run album, considered by many to be one of the most important in rock history. Despite the coexistence of masterpieces such as the title track, Thunder Road and Jungleland, Backstreets has such a relevance as to rise to one of the most solid milestones of Bruce Springsteen‘s full discography. Rolling Stone magazine ranked the song as the fifth best absolute by Springsteen. Rock ballad by no means trivial in the musical arrangements that Springsteen and the E Street Band have sewn on it, Backstreets is also the first song about friendship, a topic that will be taken up again years later in other songs such as No Surrender, Bobby Jean, Brothers Under The Bridges, Blood Brothers, just to mention the most explicit ones on the subject. The nature of this friendship has been discussed for a long time as the gender belonging of the co-protagonist to whom the narrator is addressing remains mysterious.
TWO FRIENDS IN ASBURY PARK, NEW JERSEY
Mid-1970s, we are in Asbury Park on the Atlantic coast of New Jersey. While the town lives its darkest period, set on fire by racial clashes and abandoned by tourism from New York and from the hinterland, the local kids try to survive in the rubble of a place that lived glorious times years before . In this situation a new friendship is formed between Terry and the narrator of the song. A friendship that is born under the worst auspices, considering “one soft infested summer“, in which the protagonists “are getting wasted in the heat” and are “trying in vain to breathe the fire we was born in“. But just for this reason that friendship becomes visceral, intense, of strong sharing. They spend the nights together sleeping on the beach and listen to the songs of their music legends, staying huddled in the cars in the parking lots. Their friendship evidently tends to become physical, almost promiscuous.
HER OR HIM?
Thanks to the ambiguity of a name, Terry, which can be both masculine and feminine, and the neutrality of the English language in most of the adjectives and nouns, there has been a long discussion about Terry’s gender belonging and, consequently, about the nature of the relationship between the two protagonists. Reading the first two verses, the cliché would suggest the strong friendship between two men. Also the first refrain, even if speaking of love, could suggest a wider meaning of deep affection. There are two guys who share an intense friendship and hang out day and night on the beaches and alleys of a town that doesn’t offer much as an alternative. Then comes an incident in their relationship and many things change.
A PROMISCUOUS FRIENDSHIP
In the third and then in the last verses their friendship assumes the feature of strong intimacy, suggesting that lively friendship has also reached a sort of physical, if not sexual, promiscuity. Already the second verse hints something: the two protagonists are huddled in their cars, listening to music and waiting for something to happen. Then, after verses of fabulous poetry, Bruce tells of a sudden farewell and the narrator shouts that he hated not only Terry, but also a mysterious “him“, evidently someone who took his friend (or girlfriend) away with him. Finally, in the last verse, the two protagonists find themselves again after their sudden separation. Evidently Terry’s escape didn’t have a happy ending. So Terry and the narrator, lying on each other, ruminate on their failures, on what they wanted to be and that they have not become. And, most of all, on the betrayal that had separated them.
A THIN BORDER
If anyone has seen in Backstreets an omosexual love story or, at least, a friendship so strong that it even takes on the character of platonic love, my convinced interpretation leads towards the intricate relationship between a man and a woman. A friendship so vigorous and full of feeling that it runs the risk of resulting in something different: attraction, perhaps even seduction. Something so intense that it brings them back together in the epilogue, as they acknowledge their failures. After all, some bibliographic and biographical clues lead unequivocally towards this lecture. Springsteen himself has often used the terms she and her when referring to Terry during his live speeches; moreover, there are those who argue that Bruce was inspired in composing Backstreets by his relationship with Diane Lozito, his girlfriend a few years earlier.
CAN IT BE?
If we read the song this way, Backstreets considers the possibility of a sanguine but disinterested friendship between a man and a woman: it is fascinating to observe the cases in which a strong, almost symbiotic friendship is generated between two people of the opposite sex. On the one hand the need to preserve the physical distances of a sincere friendship, on the other hand the border, often very thin, towards something more intense that can lead to physical attraction. Again: on the one hand the need for sentimental autonomy, therefore the possibility that other people can step into that relationship, on the other hand that sense of attachment which can turn into possessiveness and jealousy.
A MUSICAL UPROAR
Backstreets is a long rock ride of over 6 minutes, which became even longer in live performances, when Springsteen decided to offer slower and more solemn versions. It all begins with a majestic musical introduction, in which Roy Bittan, who had just joined the E Street Band, immediately showed his class, playing both the Hammond organ and the piano. In that first musical minute, Springsteen‘s electric guitar and Garry Tallent‘s bass also make their appearance (by the way: listen to what Tallent is up to throughout the song). The other newcomer, Max Weinberg, is no less with the drums. One of the peculiar characteristics of Backstreets is precisely the particular rhythm played on toms and timpani in the verses and the classic return on the snare only in the choruses. This way the song has a lot of dynamics. The decision to play and sing the mid part of the song on a higher key also contributes to this. If the whole song is remarkable, undoubtedly the introduction and the third verse represent its most precious moments. From “Endless juke joints…” on, the song combines the great drama of the lyrics with a strong musical intensity. After it and before the last verse Springsteen also records a substantial guitar solo, one of his best. Also engaging is the idea of closing the song with a breathless repetition of the verse “hiding on the backstreets” on a march tempo of increasing intensity, which finally flows into the final theme which is nothing more than the reprise of the opening musical motif.
Terry’s gender debate only marginally affects the beauty and intensity of the message carried by Backstreets. Somehow Springsteen himself, beyond having originally written the song thinking of a couple of friends of different sexes, often dedicated the song to his male friends. It happened on the occasion of the death of trusted assistant Terry McGovern (also due to the coincidence of the name), it also happened when Danny Federici passed away. When his keyboardist died, Bruce dedicated Backstreets to him, in memory of the times when the two friends frequented Asbury Park, cherishing the dream of becoming like their movie heroes. But unlike the protagonists in the song, they actually were able to become like those heroes.
Read Also: Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out, New York City Serenade
Next Review: 20 November 2023 – Born To Run
Please, comment here this article and share it on your Social profile and groups!