Music: “I learned more from a three minute record than I ever learned at school…”

#1: Bruce Springsteen — Glory Days (1984)


Given that Springsteen’s lyrics have inspired this series we commence by looking at the track Glory Days, his fifth single from the Born in the USA album and a key album track.

As a songwriter Bruce Springsteen is remarkably effective at slyly juxtaposing the tone, key and tempo of a piece of music with its lyrical content.

The best known example of this was Born in the USA, title track from the eponymous album. Lyrically a commentary on the plight of Vietnam veterans in 1980s America, it was nonetheless appropriated by nationalistic politicians, most famously Reagan, who mistook the song as a jingoistic affirmation of their own political views.

Springsteen has opted at points to play a sparse acoustic version of the song in order to lay bare its true message and de-couple it from common misconception. I had the good fortune to hear him do a powerful version in that format in Dublin some years ago and can attest to its strength. Anyone interested in hearing the acoustic version can find it on the box set entitled Tracks, or the sample one-disc selection from that set entitled 18 Tracks.

Glory Days is another in that category of oft misheard songs. The gusto with which the band carries the song (“c’mon boys, keep her rockin’ now” Springsteen famously shouts to his E-Street accompanists during the track) can lull the causal listener into perceiving the song as a rousing celebration of high school ‘glory days’.

Listening carefully to the lyrics another picture unfolds. Within the confines of a very short piece of music, Springsteen provides a coy commentary on the seductions of nostalgia.

At the time of the song’s release Springsteen was in his mid-thirties. On close inspection of the track it becomes clear that its narrator was no high-school hero; he is in fact telling the listener, “look at what became of my high school heroes”.

His old school pals, the boy who could “throw a speed-ball by you and make you look like a fool boy” and the girl who “could turn all the boys’ heads” (including the narrator’s, one assumes) are much older now, their high school years far behind them. Nowadays they look back on, and rely heavily upon, their past achievements and experiences.

By the time of the narration the boy has grown up and sits at the bar relaying old stories of his past glory days in high school. The girl has split up from her husband, presumably her high school or college sweetheart, and father of her children. For the last two years she has, by her own admission, distracted herself from tears with memories of her glory days in years gone by.

The opening of the first verse conjures up a baseball diamond on a dusky evening in summer in small town New Jersey. A high school teenager stands at the foot of the diamond, nervously in awe of his classmate’s pitching prowess as the speed-ball flies by him. Cut: the narrator shifts the scene. We come across the same two boys, now grown men, as they cross each others’ path, accidentally, at a roadside bar nearly twenty years later. One can practically see the playful punch on the shoulder, the warm exchanges “how you doing, man? Long time no see, let’s grab a drink”. Back inside the bar the two old friends try to strike up their past friendship but rapidly find themselves running out of conversation. The narrator starts to perceive that his old friend dwells within the shadow-land of the past; that he finds talking about the past a warmer and more comforting experience than talking about the present.

The second verse switches the setting once more. This time the narrator is calling on an old class mate from high school. She has split up from her husband Bobby two years earlier and the narrator now calls to see her on a Friday night, after she has put her kids to bed. Is this a romantic relationship or an old friendship? One can imagine the turntable playing old records in the background while she admits to the consolation that her high school memories bring her in her existence as a young single mother in her mid-thirties.

What’s notable is that the narrator’s contemporaries are very young to be finding recourse in their high school years. Interestingly Springsteen (or the narrator, one shouldn’t assume it is Springsteen) doesn’t seem to be enveloped in that trap just yet. He is however wary of succumbing to it in the future. In the last verse he reflects this,

“going down to the well tonight and I’m going to drink till I get my fill, and I hope when I get old I don’t sit around thinking about it but I probably will.

In the space of a few short minutes Springsteen has effectively used sparse lyrics to vividly paint a picture in our minds. By the third verse Springsteen has encapsulated a whole world of experience within the short medium of popular song.

The lyrics are a commentary on time and perceptions of time. They highlight the dangers of ruminating too much on the past, and how sentimentality over the past can erode the present. The drink the two old friends share in the bar in the first verse holds no enjoyment for the narrator. That’s because rather than talk about the here and now, or aspirations for the future, his old school friend can talk only about his glory days twenty years before.

One can see how this can happen with those who experience their teenage years in glorious technicolor. Springsteen seems to hint at a trade-off for those who have it too good in high school; you can have the fast cars and thrills in your early years but beware the dangers of peaking too soon. Is his song, rather than being an ode to high school glory days in fact a message for those who did not have this experience?

Picture from the early 1980s used within an article entitled ‘Memories of Glory Days’. Photograph and article can be found at Harlan Daily Enterprise

Cleverly Springsteen puts a stop to the song going down the road of some of his other more serious work. There is an uplifting feel to the song. He establishes this by building a marked contrast between the lyrical content and the uplifting, hard rocking tempo of the musical accompaniment. Here we have Bruce and the boys from E-street with their dial tuned in firmly to full-tilt rock and roll. The wall of sound is solid notably from the low bass of Garry W Tallent to the high keening mandolin accompaniment of ‘Miami’ Steven van Zandt’s with the rest of the band in between. ‘Mighty’ Max Weinberg, who had at one point feared that Springsteen’s attraction to production values may have knocked his drumming off the Born in the USA recordings (see Clinton Heylin’s book E-Street Shuffle), propels the band along from start to finish. As melodies go this song is a joyous celebration.

Perhaps the interaction of that music with the song’s lyrical content is where the true lesson in the music is to be found. Yes the past is important, but not as important as the here and now. Live in the moment, don’t be defined by your past and certainly don’t let nostalgia for your past taint your experience of today.


Anyone interested in reading more about the attempts to employ Springsteen’s works on the US political campaign trail can be found in the following articles

Anyone interested in the purported real life story behind the song may be interested in the article below.


Editors Note:  this article uses photographs which may be subject to copyright and can be removed upon request.

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