“Sandy” has the most nuanced narrator and emotional turmoil of any song on E Street Shuffle, perhaps of any song in Springsteen’s discography. While “For You” before it had a highly sophisticated set of circumstances around the romance of the song. And while “Born to Run” after it may have more poetry, neither of them deal with a narrator so conflicted on what he wants and why he wants it as “Sandy.”
The song is obviously a serenade, as the romantic almost Latin strums that set the sonic stage of the song suggest. The dueling guitar licks set a smooth and serene background making exceptional use of stereo like Bruce hadn’t before this album. Steve Van Zandt once said that Astral Weeks by Van Morrison was the E Street Band’s “Bible” in this period and that can clearly be heard on this track, as many sonic elements overlap with those on songs like “Madam George” from Morrison’s album.
When the vocals come in there’s a little exposition about the setting of the song. The setting of “Sandy” is ultimately irrelevant to the emotional turmoil between the narrator and the subject but as much or more effort is put into illustrating it as that central part of the song. As the fireworks hail over “Little Eden” they shine a light on the jaded faces of the locals (that is, if you’re listening to the studio version where he says “stony” and not live versions where he says “stoned out,” but we’ll get into the differences with live versions after we finish dissecting the studio version). The town is filled with poetic phrases like “switchblade lovers” and “wizards…down on Pinball Way” (which must be a Who reference), painting a vivid image of what it must be like to be in Jersey when the boardwalk comes alive.
I get the feeling that the narrator is telling Sandy all this because he wants her to come out and join it. The imagery is so enticing it makes you want to go out and be a part of it and I think Sandy is a little hesitant to go out this 4th of July. The chorus makes this particularly clear. The narrator pleads with Sandy to join him tonight. He cries the telling line “Love me tonight for I may never see you again.” This lyric tells us so much about the narrator. He’s desperate for this woman who may be gone tomorrow (we, the audience, never know why she’ll be gone). It’s almost like he’s crying out “I need to feel something tonight, even if I never feel it again.”
The music of the chorus is notable as well. The emotions swell as he cries Sandy’s name. I believe David Sancious is playing organ on this number because usual organist Danny Federici is making a rare appearance on accordion, which fits the song perfectly. Garry Tallent makes an even rarer performance on the tuba, while also playing bass guitar through the magic of overdubbing. And Lopez spends this track disproving the often held belief that he’s just a party drummer, a Keith Moon wannabe, as he lays down a quiet and graceful percussion. I’m not going to bother getting into the chords of this song because they’re fairly rudimentary. Never exploring beyond the I-IV-V-vi, there are a few fun descending bass lines in the guitar part and an interesting 7 chord here and there, but it’s mostly standard fare pop music. The emphasis on the accordion part between the chorus and the verse is worth note. It gives a carnival vibe to balance out that ethereal Van Morrison style the guitars invoke.
The second verse brings us back to the setting, with the greasers getting in trouble for sleeping on the beach all night. But then we get an interesting insight into our narrator when he sings “and me I just got tired of hanging in them dusty arcades, banging them pleasure machines,” and he continues to be more explicit explaining how the factory girls would unsnap their jeans under the boardwalk. It is in this verse that we learn that the narrator doesn’t just want Sandy for sex. He is sick of empty pleasure, or at least he wants Sandy to think that. The sincerity of the narrator can be called into question in this song in a way it can’t for any other Springsteen song. Does he truly want a connection, or is he just saying that to get her to go along with him tonight? After all, he says he “may never see [her] again.” The question of the narrators honesty is one that comes up again later in the song but never gets resolved and I think that’s part of the beauty of “Sandy,” there are some things you just don’t know for certain.
The tilt-a-whirl is a nice bit of flavor text about our narrator. I’m not sure if it’s supposed to illustrate a level of foolishness that he has, or if it’s him humbling himself to Sandy or trying to elicit sympathy from her. It feels like it has greater significance than it immediately presents but it’s definitely not central to the emotional crux of the song.
Into the chorus, where Springsteen sings accompanied by Suki Lahav’s uncredited vocals, overdubbed several times over to resemble a choir. There’s some lyrical changes in this iteration of it. The pier light is a life on the water in this chorus, where last time it was their carnival life forever. The last lyric isn’t an appeal to Sandy to go with the narrator but rather a memory of running on the beach with his boss’s daughter. The change in the first lyric is likely to make it rhyme with the second and that lyric is used to transition into the theme of past relationships of the narrator that the third verse explores. The soundscape surges as the tuba and accordion swell and drop out to let the guitar strum alone for a minute to emphasize the significance of the next lyric.
“Sandy, that waitress I was seeing lost her desire for me.” In that opening lyric to the third verse the listener understands in an instance why the narrator wants Sandy so bad. He’s still in the fallout of a bad breakup. He’s not over her, as he takes the time to talk about who this woman was and doesn’t just dismiss her as some ex, but when he saw her parked with her lover out on the Kokomo he knew it was over and there was nothing he could do. The electric piano plays for the second, third, and fourth lines of this verse but that crucial first line stands with the guitar alone.
There’s another version of this verse Springsteen performed most famously at Hammersmith Odeon in London in a 1975 show, a recording of which got a commercial release in 2003. In this version, it’s not the waitress who has lost desire, but angels. God’s messengers have given up on this Podunk town in Jersey. But in the summer they come down from Heaven and act like tourists, frequenting cheap little seaside bars and parking with their lovers out on the Kokomo. This version doesn’t give us insight into the narrator’s personal life but gives a different view into the hopelessness of the setting. If the angels have lost their desire for these people, what hope do they have of anything better than what they have now? Well, they have each other, and the narrator’s trying to make the most of that.
The accordion returns, the bass swells, and Vini Lopez’s sometimes divisive drumming shines beautifully behind one of the greatest Springsteen lyrics ever. “Did you hear the cops finally busted Madam Marie for telling fortunes better than they do?” Perhaps the most powerful political statement Springsteen would make in his career, more poetic and poignant than every critically acclaimed line on Born in the USA, Nebraska, or Wrecking Ball, so subtly and quickly thrown into a song otherwise about a desperate romance. Still, it proves a point about the next line, that the narrator is through with the boardwalk life, and wants Sandy to join him.
Once more through the chorus, Lahav’s vocals return in choir style, the lyrics of the first chorus repeat, and a slow overture leads us into the finale, as David Sancious plays one last sweet lick on the organ. It leaves us wanting more, but if it gave us more we’d wish there was less. Although contemporary critics may have chastised this and other songs on this album as being desperate Van Morrison wannabes based on production style and instrumentation, it would be more accurate to say that Springsteen learned from Morrison’s Saint Dominic’s Preview, not copied it. The every instrument in his seven piece band is utilized perfectly to create a unique and demonstrably serene and romantic soundscape, the perfect background for our unreliable narrator to sweet talk us with just a little insincerity.
Elizabeth von Teig is a musician and author living in Brighton, Massachusetts. Her expertise is classic rock, folk punk, and the blues.