I Can Take You Higher

Transcending nostalgia with Bruce Springsteen's "I'm On Fire"

By Ezio Sabottigh

Around 1994, a popular Italian newspaper published a collection of CDs under the title of L’America del Rock, which, as the name implies, was displaying American popular music from the 1950s to what where the modern times back then – every CD was dedicated to a different decade. My father has fallen prey since his younger days to an unquenchable thirst for media – primarily of the literary kind, but to this day he does not shy away from video and audio supports, especially if they come attached to a piece of paper. This has produced over the years an exorbitant collection of VHS, cassette tapes, CDs, DVDs, floppy disks and CD-Rs – for someone who still cannot operate a computer, an impressive while also quite puzzling achievement – which, partly buried amongst the dizzyingly high towers of books and magazines, still clutter most rooms in my parents’ house. Naturally, L’America del Rock was added to the shopping list and once a month a new volume would turn up at our house.
          I’m not sure my father ever listened to more than a few of those CDs, but I was religiously waiting for every new one. I was thirteen or fourteen at the time, and my personal taste in music, after a brief flirtation with Michael Jackson and a failed approach to the Rolling Stones, had been firmly forged for a few years already in the hellish furnaces of heavy metal and was just then beginning to migrate to more colorful, if not equally hard pastures with the explosion of punk in my little world.
          Although my personal taste was more in the realm of the bizarre and of harder, faster tempos, I have always been a curious person and I was thus trying to get my hands and ears on as much different music as possible. I must also add that the clearly genetically inherited trait of paper hoarding inevitably manifested itself in me, and I started buying music magazines really early in my musical journey. These I would read down to the last line, and several times as well, memorizing names and chronologies, tales of rock lore and imagining how the music evoked by those names and titles must sound like. Without older siblings or acquaintances who could lead the way or provide concrete sonic proof, I was left with a lot of imagination and the odd record I could afford on my weekly allowance or dubbed tape that would find its way to me. Until high school, when networks expanded and things started getting more interesting from that point of view, L’America del Rock-CD series constituted a godsend for someone with a healthy appetite for rock’n’roll.
          After reveling in the 1960s and the ’70s with quite a few pleasant surprises (among others, I will always be grateful for discovering here The 13th Floor Elevators and MC5), the collection was nearing its end when the volume dedicated to the 1980s turned up. And there it was. Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m On Fire,” first released on the Born In The USA album exactly ten years before, in 1984, was waiting, crouching in the shadows, ready to unexpectedly strike me at the jugular.
          I was not a Bruce Springsteen fan. Actually, he and his music were mostly strangers to me. I’m sure by then I must have already heard some of his songs: the title track to Born In The USA was – and still is – almost inescapable and let’s not forget that just one year before, in 1993, the multiple award-winning movie Philadelphia was released, so the eponymous song off the soundtrack (penned by Springsteen and which actually got him an Oscar) was everywhere as well. Despite that, he just wasn’t on my radar, and in truth, I was not really interested. I had vague notions about him from articles in music magazines and newspapers, and I knew he was held in high regard as some quintessential American icon, with lyrics depicting the triumphs and losses of the country’s post-war working class, steeped deep in its myths and traumas. (Nowadays he could probably be described as a Boomer Bardo, which admittedly takes away some of the shine – the fault lies in this case more in the framing of American pop-culture as it has been told and sold, than in Springsteen’s honest recounting of it. He’s obviously not responsible for his generation’s current unpopular position in the cultural landscape, being synonymous with entitled conservatism.)
          As much as I found those descriptions intriguing and holding an almost literary promise, the sparse pieces of music I had heard by Springsteen combined with photos of the musician in action on stage hadn’t really captured my imagination. His backing band – the famed E-Street Band – had brass instruments, which to me at the time meant only one thing: it must be lame.


Back then, I used to listen to a lot of music not holed up in my room, as it usually happens with teenagers, but rather spread out on the carpet in the room where the piano and the stereo used to be – still are, actually – a room nobody was regularly using anyway. The headphones provided a more intimate listening experience and made it so that I wouldn’t get on anybody’s nerves but could also retreat in my own world for the duration of a record or two, usually before I had to sit down and do my homework.
          I don’t remember the exact details surrounding that fatal first listen, but I can vividly recall the feeling after the song started ringing in my headphones; and it really felt like a revelation, a miniature flash of light on my way to Damascus and a weird sense of coming home at the same time. From the onset of the muted guitar arpeggio backed by the rimshot, my mind started to wonder. I was seeing spruce forests and stacked logs glistening in the rain to the stern backdrop of white-capped mountains, the domain of lumberjacks – yes, there they finally were, the famed workers of Springsteen lore! Above all, I felt the bittersweet bite of melancholia.
          Little did I know that the lyrics to the song paint a picture of lust rather than hard-working men, and that Springsteen’s native New Jersey offers more in the way of concrete suburbia than luscious forests. Back then, I couldn’t understand the words properly – I didn’t have a lyric sheet and my grasp of the English language was fairly rudimentary. Objectively, the “Hey little girl”-bit – that much I could make out – should really have been enough of a warning but I’d like to think that maybe the misunderstanding was intentional, so vivid was the vision in my mind that the music inspired.
          In many ways, the song is a monument to 1980s recording techniques and composition. There is a strain of epicness and romanticism that is present in a great amount of 1980s pop music, and not just in the more experimental or alternative strains typical of the decade like new wave, synth pop or the many mutations of punk. In fact, a vast amount of pop music produced in those years has a penchant for chord progressions and melodies that evoke feelings of nostalgia and longing, and those are in turn exacerbated by the massive use of effects such as chorus and reverb, by rumbling, pounding gated drums. Those snare hits are larger than life and the synths envelope you like an epic blanket, ready to take you into another dimension. The out-of-control hedonism of the 1980s often allowed another facet to emerge: a sense of wonder, of adventure and the promise of something greater, just barely out of reach in everyday life but nonetheless very much attainable. I think a lot of movies in those years attest exactly to this sensibility.
          And as far as I’m concerned, that sound still has the effect of a siren’s call and induces an instant feeling of nostalgia for a time I barely experienced.
          Or didn’t I? I mean, I was definitely alive for the whole course of the decade. But I was also a child, so I experienced 1980s music on the radio, through films and tv commercials: it was all around me but I didn’t have a direct connection to it. There are flashes of images I connect with it – short portraits of summer, the background hum to video game arcades, birthday parties at school. When I think about it, the soundtrack to those memory postcards wallows, more than anything else, in the 4/4 beat and arpeggiated bass lines of Italo disco, and that’s probably the type of music I would personally identify most with those years. And then there’s echoes of Duran Duran, Madonna, Gianna Nannini – the usual radio pop fodder at the time. MTV and its Italian equivalent were still a few years away. When I heard “I’m On Fire” a few years later, I could instantly make the connection in terms of production and sound but the song definitely hit me at another level, one that nagged at the very fabric of my imagination and was in fact, as I mentioned before, pretty much detached from the literal meaning of its lyrics.

The word “nostalgia” is made up of two Greek words roughly meaning “sorrow” and “homecoming”. There is a strong connection to the feeling of being homesick, of looking and reminiscing about the past, about familiar sights, sounds and memories, and that’s the description most of us would spontaneously come up with to describe this peculiar state of mind. The German Romantics, being the usual hair-splitting types and keen descriptors of subtle feelings that Germans happen to be, coined at the beginning of the 19th Century the term “Fernweh” (literally “distant pain” as in pain, or pining, for something far) to describe the feeling of longing for faraway places. I suspect this term, still widely in use today in the German language, is the one that most applies to my personal relationship to the song. Obviously, like with all matters connected to nostalgia, there is a whole lot that I might have made up in my mind during the years, and that I convinced myself I clearly remember when, in fact, it never happened, or at least not in those terms. Well, as a matter of fact, the objects of this longing are often places one has never been to, or places that don’t even exist. They are objects of escape, and most importantly, of desire.
          So I suspect that upon hearing the song, I conjured in my head scraps of movies, books, fantasy worlds that I was longing to visit and that the music magically unlocked all at once.
          I am fairly sure that the opening credits to Twin Peaks are mixed somewhere in there – although I hadn’t watched the series at the time, I distinctly remember seeing the trailer and the commercials for it a couple of years earlier and that beautiful haunting music (that would be Angelo Badalamenti’s famous “Twin Peaks Theme”), combined with the images, was stuck in my mind. The logs, the trees and the mountains certainly did. The X-Files are in there as well, where ominous forests and constant rain played a recurring role in many episodes. And last but not least, the town and surrounding forests that frame the adrenaline-packed happenings of First Blood, which I must have watched a million times as a kid. All of this is superimposed on impressions from my real life: snapshots of Sunday hiking trips and ski trips in the winter, the view from the kitchen window on a group of tall firs behind my parents’ house; Jack London’s novels, which I devoured as a kid. Logs, forests, and mountains once again.


          There’s a couple of films I instantly connect to my idealization of rugged US working class types, those being The Deer Hunter and Five Easy Pieces. Both movies are quintessential products of the 1970s, they tell stories that, I have the feeling, could have easily been put to music by Springsteen and both are, at least for a certain amount of time, set to a backdrop of luscious North American forests. I am not sure about the exact chronology here and it’s entirely possible that I might have seen at least one, if not both movies, only after hearing “I’m On Fire”, so I don’t know if they might have informed my reception of the song and its particular visual quality, or rather the other way around. It makes for a compelling argument about the (lack of) reliability of memory, especially when looking back at youthful memories one associates with a positive feeling of warm and fuzzy nostalgia, which might turn out to be entirely constructed in our own heads from bits and pieces of our experience to provide us with maximal emotional fulfillment.
          Does it really matter if the object of nostalgia is something real or fictitious? And does it really matter if the vessel to this peculiar state of mind doesn’t formally resemble its destination? As far as I’m concerned, I clearly don’t care if “I’m On Fire” is in fact the recount of a (frustrated?) erotic fantasy. Nor that it projects me into a world I feel I remember but that most probably is only pieced together in my mind from different sources. What matters is the prickling sensation it evokes, a refuge from the occasional banality of daily life. At the same time, I feel it’s important to place my finger on the artificial character of this escape, in a time where “retro” is king and mediated, artfully constructed versions of these worlds are constantly fed us through all sorts of media. There is an important difference between the world I myself “choose” to wander in and the one that is portrayed by movies and music which are mostly made with the intent of selling an image and, more often than not, a product that goes with it.


          Because really, nostalgia is a double-edged sword: if on one side it allows us to seek refuge in the rosy-colored comfort of our (real or imagined) past, effectively transcending for a precious moment what it might appear as our dull or unbearable present, on the other side it tricks us into changing our perception of history – personal and collective – to abide by the version of it that most appeals to us. It’s a dangerous game, one where we get to sweep the ugly bits under the rug until we can’t be sure anymore how this past really looked like, or if it indeed existed at all in those terms. In that sense, transcending nostalgia itself becomes an imperative. Looking into the kaleidoscope, and recognizing it for what it is.
          Over the course of the years, I have still not become a Springsteen enthusiast, although I am much more familiar with his work than I was back then – and indeed, there are songs I very much treasure nowadays. If I am in the mood, I usually go back to Nebraska, which showcases a more intimate and stripped-down side of his music, or aforementioned Born In The USA. And it’s probably not by chance that those two records were largely born out of the same session, although they were released two years apart from each other. The synth rockabilly of “I’m On Fire” has a certain flavor that reminds of me of Alan Vega and Suicide, and more so does “State Trooper” on Nebraska. And since we’re on it, I think David Lynch might have taken a few cues for the Twin Peaks soundtrack – which, I only realize as I write this, brings us back to how the aforementioned commercial for the series might have informed my own reception of the song in the first place.
          Most importantly, it really is a beautiful song. A very simple structure, pretty much a classic 12-bar blues, and it’s quite short too; if you’ve seen the videoclip – which is admittedly pretty hilarious, especially for today’s standards: it looks like the beginning of a cheap porn movie, and I am not entirely sure it wasn’t made on purpose, given the theme of the song – you’ll notice that there’s a very lengthy introduction, because the song is over before you know it and it was probably not very commercially viable back in the good ol’ MTV days. The genius of it lies, in my opinion, in the use of minor chords and the subtle arrangements: the soft, muted picking, the synth that runs along the course of the song like the trail of a snail, only to punctuate the mood and raise the composition from its emotional restraint, that transform the howl of a sex hound into an ode to yearning. A tale of what has been, or what could have been. A sweaty plea to remembrance and desire.

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