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Portrait of the Blue-Collar Artist in Five Bruce Springsteen Songs / Colin Brightwell

"Dancing in the Dark"

Something's wrong. I hit the snooze button one too many times and my boss says that I'm late. My feet hurt. I can't seem to get all the dirt from underneath my fingernails. The laces in my work boots are torn and frayed. They don't stay tied. I could trip. I've gotten workman's comp twice already. A third time, they might start asking questions. I don't have much to say on the clock. I'm all mumbles and grunts. I mulch leaves, throw down pine straw, cut grass. Calluses form on my palms and I trace my thumb over them, like they're small ridges on a map. I clock out and say the necessary goodbyes - least it's almost Friday, didn't they work us hard today, hey man take it easy - and drive off. At an intersection, Springsteen comes on. There's something buried underneath all that upbeat synth, like someone trying too hard to smile. The red light takes its time and Springsteen can't hide that sadness under a drum beat. He's tired. He goes to work and comes home and has nothing to say. Like all that dancing in the dark has worn him down to the bone. He's tried to spark too many fires, he's fumbling with the flint. Nothing's catching. I meet my eyes in the rearview mirror for a second too long. Right at the moment in the song where Bruce is at his lowest. He shouts, he hollers, he screams with desperation: Wanna change my hair, my clothes, my face. Driving and dancing in this skin, the pain in my feet reminding me that I have to do this all again next week, all I think is what Bruce thinks: There's a joke here somewhere and it's on me...c'mon baby, the laugh's on me.

"Something in the Night"

I can taste the humidity with my windows down. Outside the city, it's like you're in a different world. Streetlights disappear about five minutes down the highway towards the lake. You're on your own, kid, with nothing but your thoughts and your music to keep you company. Springsteen's on deck, has been ever since I left the bar. Three PBRs and a bummed cigarette or two and the work week finally catching up on me and all I can think to do is run. I don't even say goodbye to the friends drinking on the balcony. I'll text them later, say I made it home safe when I'm really tearing up the blacktop down to the lake. Springsteen, he howls from my speakers, so loud I think a fuse is going to blow. These are not the howls of a happy man - these are the howls of a man standing in the darkness on the edge of town, a wordless lamentation for broken dreams and promises. Someone who is constantly chasing something that's just a little farther down the road, and maybe he'll catch up to it if he pushes the pedal down to the floor. Springsteen's resigned to fate. I finally get it. It took me listening to him for seven years, but I finally get it. There's a price you pay for the things you want. I'm paying my dues, and I'm behind.


You figure once you survive the Monday and Tuesday shifts, you're practically invincible. Doesn't matter if the boss man gives you nine circles of Hell Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday. There's something waiting at the end of the week that makes itself known when I punch out, dirt-grimed and sweaty. There's a beer with my name on it somewhere, there's a buddy waiting at the end of the bar ready to laugh, there's a story that's wanting to be written Saturday night. Springsteen yells about it all as I burn rubber out of the workers' parking lot: All day they're busting you up on the outside/But tonight you're gonna break on through to the inside. The short ride home is like busting out to freedom. But when I finger my sweating Miller Lite bottle, or punch letters chasing some sort of truth on a white page, I notice the dirt from the week stuffed under my nails. I thought I scrubbed good and hard Friday afternoon when I got off. I pick at them with toothpicks, I wash my hands until they feel raw. After thirty minutes I throw in the towel, fuck it. Let the dirt stay there. Let it fester. It can stay there forever, far as I'm concerned. I got bigger fish to fry. The night is young. My beer is still cold, the words are still waiting to come out. I have a life to live. I'm going to live.

"Hungry Heart"

Something happened in my late twenties. I convinced myself that I want to be alone. I kept my eyes down, kicking at the weeds and grass we had to cut at work, sitting alone on my buddy's front porch during a party before pulling an Irish Goodbye. Spending hours in my room with only my own dumb company, and a few Springsteen songs on repeat, nursing the wounds from the workweek. I can't tell you why I did this, anymore than I can explain theoretical physics. I lost myself in half-smoked joints and crushed tallboys, making plans and then showing up only halfway there when the time came. "Hungry Heart" comes on the shuffle and I remember lonely nights when I would close at the CVS in my hometown. The first time I heard that song where I realized what the Boss was saying. I would stop vacuuming those liminal spaces between aisles and listen. Something was passed between the song and me. An understanding of something. Later, here in my room, or driving backroads after dark still a little buzzed, that last line hits me the same as it did the first time. "Don't make no difference what nobody says," he sings, "ain't nobody like to be alone." I'm trying to listen to him. I want to listen to him. Sometimes everything gets so hard it's enough to wreck you. I looked through my contacts and called someone, every ring getting closer to anything other than this.

"Thunder Road"

A woman I fell in love with once told me that the emotion she experienced the most was joy. I could have listened to her talk about that for hours. The last time I saw her, nothing was said. Maybe something small and meaningless with our eyes, but that's stretching it. I wandered away to the security of my favorite bar a few yards away, found a little bit of joy in a couple of tallboys and good conversation with strangers I'll never see again. The whole time, the idea of joy swimming around in the back of my head. How she said it was the purest thing to feel. Like sugar. I took an extra long drive home. Missed my turn on purpose. At a stop sign I fumbled on my phone, found the song I wanted to blast through the warm spring air with my windows down. "Thunder Road" is four minutes and forty-eight seconds of pure joy. I'm convinced it contains the answers to the universe. Back in Kansas City, my buddy and I would highjacked the jukebox in a small dive bar every Friday night. Nothing but the Boss. "Thunder Road" would be in the queue, waiting while we chugged down Hamm's and Keystones. Waiting for that piano/harmonica intro to fill up the bar and drown down the conversations. My buddy and I doing our best Boss impersonation after a long week of working, feeling Thunder Road tear its way through our bloodstreams. His wife hated the line "You ain't a beauty, but hey, you're alright." We loved the simplicity of that line, that small bit of joy of accepting that you found your person. Then the song roars when I'm gunning down a Mississippi highway. Bruce shifts gears and my car's engine purrs as I eat up the blacktop. The song is escape. The song is fuel. Doesn't matter that the passenger seat is empty. Bruce sings that there are ghosts stranded in the eyes of the boys Wendy sent away. Joyless. There aren't any ghosts in mine. Northbound on I-55, not a cop in sight. Springsteen howls that it's a town full of losers. I take the pedal to the floor and see what my engine can do, how long I can go down the highway before I turn around, life and work waiting up for me when I get back home. Some nights, when joy is on my mind, I want to see this road to the end.


COLIN BRIGHTWELL is a Kansas City native. His work has appeared in Reckon Review, Bull, Flyover Country Literary Magazine, Guilty Crime Story Magazine, and past-ten. His debut collection, Nothing Good Ever Happens in a Flyover State is forthcoming from Cowboy Jamboree Press in 2025.


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