Lizzi von Teig dissects a staple of classic rock
Springsteen is known for his pessimistic outlook on working life in his songs, but none exemplify this as thoroughly as “Racing in the Streets.” For all we joke about how “Born in the USA” is bleak and “Born to Run” is grim, nothing is as deeply depressed as “Racing in the Street.” It takes the desperate futility Springsteen alludes to escaping on the Born to Run album, stares them in the face, and breaks down crying as they stare back at it. It’s tempo isn’t as slow as “New York City Serenade” but it’s plodding rhythm give it a more daunting feel. Whereas “Serenade” is a leisurely stroll through the city at midnight, “Racing” is an aggravatingly long commute. At 6:54, “Racing…” is the longest track on Darkness on the Edge of Town, but it doesn’t stand out. While “Something in the Night” feels like a marathon of a song, due to it’s meandering melody and long stretches without much change in structure, “Racing…” is constantly switching up what’s playing and how. The sparse arrangement not only permits Springsteen to add and subtract very little while making a big difference, it also creates an atmosphere of emptiness that simulates the daily emotions of our narrator.
The atmosphere is clear in the piano arrangement. While Roy Bittan almost always plays four note chords, as he does on songs like “Prove it All Night” and “Darkness on the Edge of Town,” on this track he emphasizes the space by only using three notes. The fourth note he usually plays is an octave of the root note. This gives a more powerful sound, emphasizing that this Csus4 is a Csus4. But this track shouldn’t have that powerful tone. This is a song about having no power over yourself, so that four note chord would damage the effectiveness of that motif. While he plays that in treble, Bittan uses single notes in the bass to emphasize the chords. The bass line is exceptionally simple. For instance, everything is exactly on eighth notes. There is no swing in “Racing in the Street.” Swinging rhythms are generally energetic, which is the last thing Springsteen wants on this track.
The mood is also established through contrast from the last song. Exiting the fast paced, major scale, high octane “Candy’s Room” that must have given Max Weinberg blisters at the fulcrum of his grip, we are greeted meet a single piano playing a chord with a bass line. Very simple, very quiet, very slow. There’s also the transition from a melody based in a major scale with primarily major chords backing it to a melody based in a minor scale with primarily minor chords backing it. This opening would not be so powerful coming after “Something in the Night”, but as is it’s haunting.
From a theory perspective there’s a very interesting voicing in “Racing…” Most chord books will say that Bittan is playing a D minor chord in the second bar of the intro and instrumental. The Complete Bruce Springsteen Songbook, an official publication from 1986 even says as much. However, looking at the sheet music provided in The Bruce Springsteen Keyboard Songbook 1973-1980, we can see that he is in fact playing a Bb major, which consists of a Bb, a D, and an F. The reason that books will list it as a Dm is because he is playing a D note in the bass with his left hand, making D sound like the root. By making D the root, F becomes the minor third of the chord, and Bb because an augmented fifth. What all this adds up to is that Bittan is playing the IV chord of the scale, but by his voicing he makes it more consistent with the minor feel of the chord. Bittan plays this during the instrumental sections, but when Springsteen sings Bittan replaces the D root with a Bb root, making it the Bb major chord that it is. From the Bb/Dm Bittan goes to a Csus4, providing the tension of a V chord without the optimistic punch of being major. After going through that progression once, Bittan alone, the iconic opening lyric begins.
I got a ’69 Chevy with a 396
Fuelie heads and a Hurst on the floor
She’s waiting tonight down in the parking lot
Outside the 7-11 store
This lyric is so embedded into Springsteen fandom that Backstreets Magazine, the biggest Springsteen fan publication, sells bumper stickers that say “My other car is a 69 Chevy with a 396.” The age and make of the car tell us something important about our narrator. With the album released in 1978, we can see that the car is nine years old. In 1969 Chevrolet made many economy class cars with 396 engines as the standard. This is an old car that’s nothing special but he takes pride in it.
The chord structure here is I-IV-ii-IV. He sticks pretty rigidly to this progression (save for in the instrumental bridge, where the chords are a little out there). The only significant variation is that at the end of verses he will go from a Bb to a Bb(9), which makes it feel a little more different from the rest of the song. Springsteen avoids the V chord, which has a stronger tension than a IV chord. In his omission of the V chord he is denying his protagonist an energy that is so common in rock and roll music.
Me and my partner Sonny built her straight out of scratch
And he rides with me from town to town
We only run for the money, got no strings attached
We shut em up and then we shut em down
These are men of the road. They take pride in their car they put so much into it, but all they got was a 69 Chevy with a 396. They’re professional racers apparently, driving town to town, but unlike many archetypal film characters, they don’t want any honor and glory, they just want to make a living.
Tonight, tonight, the strip’s just right
I wanna blow em off in my first heat
Summer’s here and the time is right
For racing in the street
There’s a race tonight and our narrator is revved up for it. That’s what the lyrics suggest at least. The deliver is so lackluster and faded that it doesn’t sound genuine. He’s supposed to want to blow em off, but it’s getting old and tired. He has trouble caring anymore. “Summer’s here and the time is right/for racing in the street” is a reference to the iconic 1964 song “Dancing in the Street,” an energetic party anthem written by Marvin Gaye with a hit version recorded by Martha and the Vandellas (the original being “Summer’s here and the time is right/for dancing in the street”). This homage was exceptionally powerful to listeners Bruce’s age, as they recalled the dances they would go to where this song would play. The age of the song is not irrelevant either. It plays into this album’s theme of leaving adolescence and entering adulthood. The narrator recalls the playful celebrations of his youth in the 60s as he faces the grim reality that is his present life: racing in the street.
Here is where our first instrumental shift happens. Just a simple rim hit on quarter notes and hi hat on eighths. A dramatic addition to the Bittan piano solo that makes the soundscape more tense. More significant and less noticeable is Garry Tallent playing unisons on bass guitar with the bass notes Bittan plays on piano. It’s an astounding strategy to make the song sound bigger while most listeners won’t notice anything’s been added.
We take all the action we can meet
And we cover all the northeast states
When the strip shuts down we run em in the street
From the fire roads to the interstate
A fairly simple set of lyrics, illustrating the desperate hunt for work the racers experience and establishing that they’re based out of the Northeast, which will be important in a later verse. It’s at this juncture that Danny Federicci enters. A soft series of lick that compliment Bittan’s piano melody. While Springsteen sings, Federiccistays on one note for each line. This emphasizes the lyrics by not distracting from them with noodling and strengthens the licks by giving them space.
Some guys they just give up living
And start dying little by little piece by piece
Some guys come home from work and wash up
And go racin’ in the street
This illustrates the damage that this job can do to the men who do it. It takes their very life out of them. It beats them so bad they don’t even want to live anymore, and once they’ve stop wanting it takes the life away from them piecemeal. The life and death here aren’t necessarily literal, but metaphors for livelihood. Much like the lyric in David Bowie’s “Young Americans,” “If we live for just these 20 years/why do we have to die for the 50 more?” life is symbolic of the ambition and drive that keep one animated. To become routine, become docile, become mundane is death in the eyes of these young men. But still, some guys keep going on, racing in the street.
Tonight tonight the strip’s just right
I wanna blow em all out of their seats
Calling out around the word
We’re going racing in the street
A reiteration of an earlier stanza, with the “Dancing in the Street” couplet modified to be another couplet from the same song. At the beginning of the stanza Weinberg comes in with a crash cymbal to punctuate the shift as Tallent breaks out of his unisons to play a rhythm that compliments Bittan’s but doesn’t parallel it. This shift in bass gives it a yet larger feel without making any of the melody more complicated than it needs to be. Then there’s a brief instrumental break. The lead part of this break is Federicci’s organ, which plays a similar riff to the one Bittan played on piano between the first and second verses. All the instruments stay right in time and on the beat until the break finishes, Weinberg and Tallent leave the mix and Federicci fades out shortly after them. All that’s left is Bittan and the empty space is jarring. As the other instruments leave it feels like something’s missing, which is exactly how it should feel given the content of the next verses.
I met her on the strip three years ago
In a Camero with this dude from LA
I blew that Camero off my back
And drove that little girl away
The dude from LA is clearly a big deal racer. He’s raced all the way from southern California to the Northeast states, bringing his girl with him. Inferring that the girl is also from LA, the narrator driving away with her is a giant shift. Is she so impressed by the narrator that she goes with him instead of the man she came with by choice, or is it some code of the races that since he beat the dude from LA, she has to go with him. It’s a huge leap to go across the country with someone and then leave them for a man who beat him in a race, and as later verses indicate she doesn’t seem to enjoy the relocation, so it’s not clear if she wanted to be driven away.
But now there’s wrinkles around my baby’s eyes
And she cries herself to sleep at night
When I get home the house is dark
She sighs “Baby did you make it all right?”
Here we get two messages that hint at the agency of the girl in opposite directions. On the one hand she’s miserable, crying herself to sleep at night. On the other hand she refers to the narrator affectionately, suggesting she does have a fondness for him that caused her to relocate as opposed to something more forcible. Further suggestion is the use of the contraction “but” which suggests that this is contrary to what was expected. It seems the most likely explanation is that she voluntarily left the dude from LA for the narrator but regrets it. She thought going with the better racer would give her better fortunes, but now she lives in a dark house crying so much it leaves wrinkles around her eyes.
On the last two lines of the stanza you can hear in the background two classic Springsteen moans, much like those in “Backstreets” and “Something in the Night.” The moans add little to the narrative but reinforce the motif of misery and suffering, echoing the tears of the girl. They continue into the next stanza
She sits on the porch of her daddy’s house
But all her pretty dreams are torn
She stares off alone into the night
With the eyes of one who hates for just being born
This is what it all adds up to. This is what our narrator has gotten for all his pain and suffering. He’s put himself through hell and then some and all he has to show for it is a miserable woman. She has given up on her dreams and doesn’t want to be alive. The girl can be seen as a personification of our narrator’s gains. He doesn’t talk at any point about money or fame, all he has is this woman who may or may not be suicidal. That’s all his struggle has earned him.
For all the shut-down strangers and hot-rod angels
Rumbling through this promised land
Tonight my baby and me we’re gonna ride to the sea
And wash these sins from our hands
But still he persists. Despite all the failures he sees around him he’s pushing through the pain and suffering, both his own and his girl’s, to try to find some form of redemption. He recognizes he’s done some wrong, probably to the girl, since she’s crying herself to sleep at night and all, but he has faith he can find some way to make it right and “wash these sins from [his] hands.” It’s at this key juncture that the background moaning ends and lets the focus shift back onto Bruce’s vocal with Bittan’s backing.
Tonight, tonight the highway’s bright
Out of my way mister you best keep
Cause summer’s here and the time is right
For racing in the street
Such is the determination of our narrator. He ends not with a lamentation, but with a warning. He is determined to find satisfaction, and demonstrates his confidence telling you not to get in his way. Such confidence and bravado has gotten him this far and he’s confident it will carry him to somewhere better.
Bittan starts throwing his own licks into the refrain while Federici accompanies him with an appropriately grim tempo. Weinberg’s drums reenter and the whole band comes together for an overture of sorts. The grandness of the instrumental is powerful but the mood is quite profoundly negative, audible through the minor intervals Bittan and Federici make ample use of. Although the lyrics describe another chance at redemption, the music sounds like a death march, another loop around a track that will not end until you do. The song, much like or narrator, fades into oblivion.
Greg von Teig is a musician and author living in Brighton, Massachusetts. His expertise is classic rock, folk punk, and the blues.