It’s hard to find a more misunderstood and abandoned song than The Angel in Bruce Springsteen‘s oceanic discography. The Angel is the sixth track from the debut album of the future Boss, Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. and a song that Springsteen wrote among the first ones, to the point that it was part of the demotape that the manager Mike Appel sent to John Hammond of CBS to get an audition. Although it was certainly not one of Appel’s (nor Hammond’s) favorites, the song was never at risk of being excluded from the album tracklist, because it was much loved by its author himself, who declared two years later: “It’s one of the things most sophisticated that I’ve written.” A song with an enigmatic meaning, The Angel was rejected by critics and not much loved by fans, yet it is an interesting song. Above all because, behind that poor and melancholy melody, there are hidden the roots of something which, only three years later, will become a legend.
BORN TO RUN?
I use an important title provocatively, but with a question mark. The protagonist of The Angel, who has only the nickname of something angelic, behind the appearance of a tough biker seems rather pale and insecure. He is certainly not the brave boy, eager for redemption and victory, in Born To Run and Thunder Road. We don’t have a promised land to reach or a walk towards the sun, his goal is a spare parts store a few steps from home (“hubcap heaven”). He competes with crippled children and himself appears as innocent as a child, to the point that his motorcycle has an engine that makes the noise of baseball cards in a bicycle spoke. Yet, in the background, something that leads to Born To Run is there and it is very evident.
“The Interstate’s choked with nomadic hordes, in Volkswagen vans with full running boards, dragging great anchors, following dead-end signs into the sores.” These lines from The Angel bear a strong resemblance to the following: “The highway’s jammed with broken heroes on a last chance power drive, everybody’s out on the run tonight, but there’s no place left to hide” (Born to Run). The means change (now a motorcycle, then suicide machines) but the human and environmental context remains the same. After three years we still find defeated heroes. People who used to take dead-end streets with big anchors in their carts (the anchor is a metaphor for something that holds back, that blocks), and now they can’t even hide.
THE ANGEL AND JIMMY THE SAINT
However, while the boys of Born To Run and Thunder Road react, the Angel is doomed to defeat. The last verse tells us so, all to be interpreted. In the last scene, the girl who accompanies the motorcyclist caresses the clean chrome of the bike and then lies down next to the Angel’s bones. Therefore, it is plausible (in my opinion it is certain) that the boy dies, the victim of a road accident, for having dared too much, bringing his solid metal bitch to unsustainable engine revs. After all, his destination is the paradise of wheel trims, a place where a motorcyclist would like to die, if that were to happen. Even if Bruce didn’t intend to represent the protagonist’s death, in any case he shows us his bones, a metaphor for someone or something that has no substance. The figure of The Angel joins another character from the same period: Jimmy the Saint is the loser (and dying) hero sung in one of the three episodes of Lost in the Flood. He drives a car rigged with the words “bound for glory”, but dies as James Dean, thrown at full speed into a hurricane.
AMONG THE LOSERS OF THE FIRST ALBUMS
Springsteen may have called the protagonist of the song The Angel to recall the famous Hell’s Angels, motorcyclists riding Harley Davidsons, known for their rebellion against the institutions and the traffic police and for their bravado. Moreover, as incidentally, it should be noted that even the policeman, although annoyed, mocks the Angel as he passes. If indeed the protagonist were an aspiring Hell Angel, an obviously misplaced aspiration, the sarcasm with which Bruce, only 22 years old, would sing this figure, so weak as to inspire tenderness, would be subtle. In fact, Bruce’s decision to sing the original version in a soft and melancholy voice would have the aim of attracting a feeling of affectionate compassion for this boy of almost childlike innocence.
EVEN THE WOMAN IS A LOSER
It also affects the female figure. The little girl that the Angel welcomes on his motorcycle looks like the Kitty/Jane/Jackie of the wonderful episodes sung in The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle. She aspires to the fame of Madison Avenue, historic headquarters of the most famous American advertising agencies in Manhattan, but has a sports bra (therefore not very elegant) and weeping eyes. He asks the Angel his name, but gets no answer, because you don’t ask a biker his real name. She is also an innocent victim of the vain aspiration to glory. She merely notes the failure (and death) of the boy she tried to ride the road with. A very fascinating element could further upset the interpretation of the song. The young Springsteen’s ability not to use pronouns and to hide meanings leads us to ask: is the Angel the biker or is it the bike itself? If this alternative meaning were valid, in the end the Angel’s bones would be nothing more than parts of the destroyed motorcycle.
TWO SAME AND DIFFERENT VERSIONS
The Angel has basically remained in the form in which Springsteen had written it at the beginning of his career: only piano and voice, which was joined by the double bass of Richard Davis (famous double bass player in Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks) in the last verse of the version in the studio. Two recordings of the song remain. The first in chronological order is that of the demotape sent to CBS, in which Bruce accompanies himself on the piano and sings with full Dylan-style wickedness. A version that cannot compete musically with the one subsequently recorded for the album, in which the class of David Sancious on piano and Richard Davis on double bass makes the difference. But there is another element that changes in the official version of the album: Springsteen modifies the tone of his voice, which loses the acidity of the primitive version and acquires, as mentioned, a melancholic sweetness that reveals a greater sympathy of the author towards his unfortunate character. A voice accompanied by a sad, almost touching melody. Nothing to do with the engine roar of a Harley Davidson driven by a Hell’s Angel. And, considering Springsteen‘s interpretive and arranging skills, nothing seems accidental.
Although The Angel had its author as its first admirer (it was also the b-side of the single Blinded By The Light), the song has only been played live three times ever. The first time was in 1973, shortly after the release of Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. Then Springsteen played it after more than twenty years, at the request of a fan, but it remained for one episode. Finally, in 2009, the choice to perform it was forced when Bruce played his entire first album in the original sequence of the songs that compose it. On that occasion it was performed by Roy Bittan on piano and Joyce Hammann on viola. Bruce sang it with great involvement and with a certain emotion, rediscovering an old forgotten passion of his and dedicating it to the old manager Mike Appel, present in the hall. It will be the last time. There are no official covers, as far as we know. Nor repropositions in alternative versions of other genres or full band.
Next review: For You – 24/07/2023
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