Searching Our ‘Spirits’ In The Boss

“It’s… that rush moment that you live for. It never lasts, but that’s what you […]

Ben Self / 9.3.14

“It’s… that rush moment that you live for. It never lasts, but that’s what you live for.”

– Bruce Springsteen, Time Magazine, 1975

albert_maignan_-_la_muse_verteI’ve always loved the use of the term “spirits” as a synonym for hard liquors. It speaks to what is most alluring in booze and any number of other mind-altering substances and pleasures—that feeling of being transported to another higher, perhaps lighter, warmer, state of consciousness by forces within us that are beyond our control. It’s a kind of ravishing and unhinging of the mind and will that can save us temporarily from the pain of hard feelings or the terror of just not feeling very much at all—of boredom, loneliness, stiffness, anxiousness, emptiness, etc. Absinthe, among the most in/famous of the “spirits”, notably used by a host of 19th-century European authors and painters, has itself been referred to as the “green fairy” or “green muse”, a motif wonderfully depicted in seductive Art Nouveau-era posters and in paintings such as Albert Maignan’s “La Muse Verte” or Viktor Oliva’s gloomier “Absinthe Drinker”.


This sense of rapture, of ecstasy, of “mystic sweet communion” with someone or something, as depicted by Maignan, is a feeling we all seek through any number of “spirits”, including the usual substances, but also through all of life’s most ravishing pleasures. The truth is, we all take our thrills wherever we can find them, hopefully without doing too much damage to ourselves and others in the process. And we seek the ravishing of these “spirits”, however holy or unholy they may be, at least in part because they provide a buffer against what might be called the every man’s “dark night of the soul”. I use that term here somewhat incorrectly to describe not so much a state of spiritual crisis or dryness experienced as part of an intentional process of purification and striving towards union with God (see: St. John of the Cross), but more of a general (though obviously related) state of existential crisis that lies latent within us all—an inward space of despair, isolation, and/or cognitive dissonance that we’ll all do most anything to avoid. The new-agey pop-spirituality author Eckhart Tolle provides an overlapping definition that will suffice:

[Dark night of the soul] is a term used to describe what one could call a collapse of a perceived meaning in life… an eruption into your life of a deep sense of meaninglessness… Nothing makes sense anymore, there’s no purpose to anything… You had built up your life, and given it meaning – and the meaning that you had given your life, your activities, your achievements, where you are going, what is considered important… for some reason collapses…

I assume that we’re all quite naturally terrified of such a dark inward space, more than almost anything else, which is why we will stop at nothing to avoid facing it, to stay ever slightly beyond its grasp on our consciousness (see: “People Prefer Electric Shocks to Being Alone With Their Thoughts”). But to do so we must fill our consciousness with a million fleeting sensations. From chocolate to heroin, from sports to social affirmation, from sex to rock’n’roll—it really can be almost anything as long as it stems the pain and fills the void. You might say, ever faced with the prospect that we might be caught in an existential funk, we are all born to run

Which… brings me at last around to The Boss. You see, of all the things I love about Springsteen’s four-decade-spanning catalogue, I think I most love how vividly he describes in so many songs the hand-in-hand experiences of desire and rapture—of chasing “spirits” in the night, the thrills which have transported him, or which he always hopes will transport him (or his characters), to higher planes of feeling. Again and again, it is in these kinds of experiences, he might say “revelations”—usually romantic in focus—that Springsteen seems or hopes to find salvation amid inward and outward desolation. Some of his earliest and best-loved songs are beautifully illustrative of this theme. Take, as examples, “Spirit In the Night”, “Thunder Road”, and “Born To Run”. Each concerns his (or the speaker’s) involvement with a particular love interest—Janey, Mary, and Wendy—and centers around the joy and promise of various forms of escape, both inward and outward. In “Spirit In The Night”, we follow a host of characters heading out “where the gypsy angels go” for a night of losing/finding themselves in revelry:

Well now Wild young Billy was a crazy cat
And he shook some dust out of his coonskin cap….
By the time we made it up to Greasy Lake
I had my head out the window and Janey’s fingers were in the cake
I think I really dug her ’cause I was too loose to fake…

She felt so nice, just as soft as a spirit in the night

Here, through a mix of substances, romance, music, dance—all enjoyed on the edge of a lake—the speaker seems to experience both a truer, looser, version of himself and a kind of spiritual ecstasy that apparently opens the door for healing to take place.

Likewise, in “Born To Run” and “Thunder Road”, he pleads with each lover to steal away with him so that together they might experience that same sort of ecstatic healing, even salvation. In “Thunder Road”, describing Mary as “a vision” on the porch, he pleads: “Don’t turn me home again / I just can’t face myself alone again”, and offers her the only redemption he can—that “beneath this dirty hood”—claiming that if she’ll only “climb in back / Heaven’s waiting on down the tracks”. In “Born To Run”, the speaker is again “scared and lonely” and living in a “death trap” of a town, which drives his overpowering desires for romance and escape. He projects this desperation and longing onto everyone else, and offers the only cure he knows:

Everybody’s out on the run tonight
But there’s no place left to hide
Together Wendy we can live with the sadness
I’ll love you with all the madness in my soul

Facing the problems of fear, sadness, loneliness—the ever-looming possibility of existential crisis—Springsteen provides a rather beautiful vision: driving off with Wendy into the bright unknown sustained by naught but the power of their love. Then again, it’s also a vision that feels rather adolescent, a feeling reinforced earlier in the song by what might be the worst Springsteen line of all-time: “I wanna die with you out on the streets tonight / In an everlasting kiss”.

As much as that line almost ruins the entire song for me, I think it does get at what the song is really about. On the one hand, the speaker dreams of making a literal escape from a dead-end town and way of life. But in order to do so, he needs the thrill of a lover at his side. He yearns desperately for that same kind of “mystic sweet communion”, for complete absorption in the ecstasy of the moment, and to never have to come back down. And honestly, adolescent or not, who can’t relate to that? In some manner, I suppose the vast majority of pop songs ever written pretty much cover the same thematic territory. Which is in part why they were popular. Restless desire is at the very heart of what it means to be human, and shapes so much of our behavior from cradle to grave, for better and for worse. Together with The Boss, we are all left searching our “spirits” for the answers to life’s questions—not least to avoid ever finding ourselves caught face-to-face with those questions. To some extent, I’d love nothing more right now than to leave my own mundane job/town/life and go to the ecstatic place Springsteen speaks of in these songs. (Several later hits center on exactly the same theme of pleading for romance with the promise of escape—“Dancing In The Dark” and “Human Touch” come to mind.)

The problem of course with this dream of dying “in an everlasting kiss,” or in any sort of enthrallment, is that it sets us up for two disappointing scenarios: a life of grinding, domesticated dissatisfaction (say, as in “The River”) or a life of never-ending, reckless thrill-seeking (as in “Hungry Heart”). Perhaps my all-time favorite Springsteen song, “Racing In The Street”—about a couple of guys who get their thrills from car racing for money—actually divides the world into those two kinds of people: “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 racing in the street”.

But then, if we follow whole-hog the reckless, thrill-seeking option to avoid the feeling of “dying little by little, piece by piece”, as I’m sure Bruce did for a fair part of his adult life, there’s a pretty decent chance we will end up in a very dark place anyway, one in which desire has almost completely consumed our lives. And this is where we meet The Boss in another of his most famous songs, “I’m On Fire”. Desire in songs like “Dancing In The Dark” may be charming, but desire as it’s described in “I’m On Fire” is more terrifying than anything else:

Sometimes it’s like someone took a knife baby
Edgy and dull and cut a six-inch valley
Through the middle of my soul

At night I wake up with the sheets soaking wet
And a freight train running through the middle of my head
Only you can cool my desire

I’m on fire

You can interpret “six-inch valley” however you like, but in this astonishing admission of seething desperation, it’s clear that Bruce has at least become aware of the power of desire to cut a massive hole right “through the middle of my soul”. It’s also clear in this song that not only do we turn to our “spirits” to relieve our pain, but that the stronger the pain is, the more desperately we are inclined to seek a fix, at whatever cost.

Over the decades, Springsteen’s lyrics, themes, and styles have evolved significantly, as I’m sure he has as a person. Now with 23 years of marriage to his collaborator Patty Scialfa, love songs in more recent albums have often taken a somewhat different tone. Love now seems to have a more sustainable sort of air, such as in the 2007 song, “I’ll Work For Your Love”, in which Bruce describes the love he shares with (presumably) Patty as giving him an almost religious sense of mission, complete with all kinds of religious imagery (“I’ll watch the bones in your back / like the stations of the cross”).

There is undoubtedly much that can be learned and grace to be experienced in searching life’s many “spirits”, whatever risks of destruction and dependence there may be. In his Ascent of Mount Carmel, St. John of the Cross asserts that “perfection consists in voiding and stripping and purifying the soul of every desire.” Perhaps, but I can’t really imagine a life of that sort, stripped of every desire—it just doesn’t sound remotely human. And I can’t imagine that one would learn very much through a life of white-knuckled purity—in John Milton’s wonderful phrasing, of “fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed”—let alone be opened to much possibility of the experience of grace. As Yehuda Amichai writes in his poem “The Place Where We Are Right”, it is precisely “doubts and loves [that] / Dig up the world / Like a mole, a plow. / And a whisper will be heard in the place / Where the ruined / House once stood.”

And yet… I also recognize exactly what St. John of the Cross is talking about:

The soul is wearied and fatigued by its desires, because it is wounded and moved and disturbed by them as is water by the winds; in just the same way they disturb it, allowing it not to rest in any place or in any thing soever… The soul is wearied and fatigued by all its desires and by indulgence in them, since they all cause it greater emptiness and hunger; for, as is often said, desire is like the fire, which increases as wood is thrown upon it, and which, when it has consumed the wood, must needs die.

Ultimately, at least for me, the lesson in all this may be that, as Rumi put it, “What you seek is seeking you.” The restless fire in us all is driving us towards something. Perhaps our experience of the “spirits” offers a kind of echo of the Spirit. I don’t know. But I do think that the “spirits” must be recognized for what they are: phantasms. And that sometimes we could actually do with a little less fulfillment. Perhaps, from time to time, we might opt to just sit and wait through our desires until we reach the other side, just to see what might be there. Perhaps, from time to time, we might even turn to face the “dark night” within—taking a few steps out into the “bleak midwinter” into which some say a “Christ” once was born. I don’t know. But I am intrigued by the reflections of another American poet, Hayden Carruth, on the subject of “Ecstasy”:

For years it was in sex and I thought
this was the most of it
            so brief
                    a moment
or two of transport out of oneself
in music which lasted longer and filled me
with the exquisite wrenching agony
of the blues
        and now it is equally
transitory and obscure as I sit in my broken
chair that the cats have shredded
by the stove on a winter night with wind and snow
howling outside and I imagine
the whole world at peace
                at peace
and everyone comfortable and warm
the great pain assuaged
                    a moment
of the most shining and singular sensual gratification.