Friday, October 26, 2007

Bruce Springsteen - I'm On Fire


Bruce Springsteen - I'm On Fire.mp3

I'm sure all of you will know this one already, and I must say: The Boss truly is on fire with this one. In fact, I think this deserves an NBA Jam-esque "HE'S ON FIRE! BOOMSHAKALAKA!" I really love each song I write about, but this is one where I will go out on a limb and say that it's Special, with a capital S. Recently I've been trying to make pseudo-objective value judgements (I've been reading Lao Tzu too much, I suppose), but, in my opinion, this song is flat-out one of the best ever written. It is so short, so simple and so powerful.

The main way I usually sum up my thoughts on this song is by simply saying that I think this song is maybe the best expression of male tenderness I've ever heard. And when I say that, I mean that it has an extremely masculine quality to it that most pop love songs don't; they usually strike me as more feminine. But in this one, the desire is so understated; everything about the song is understated. It's so warm and hidden, like a tiny nook you used to hide in as a child. He never actually says that he loves or even cares about this woman, but it's incredibly obvious that there is a deep tenderness there. And rather than state that it is making him hurt, he describes it as literally cutting him apart (It's like someone took a knife baby, edgy and dull, and cut a six inch valley through the middle of my soul). In fact, all he really says about the girl is that she "cools his desire". There's really nothing else there. There's something so male about that; this stubbornness to admit deep feeling, yet finding a way to express it anyway.

But this song takes me to a very real place; it takes me to that nook I mentioned before, and so many times in my childhood. You see, the first album I ever loved was Springsteen's Born In The USA, from which this track is taken. And this song takes me back to being one or two years old like nothing else. I remember the second house I ever lived in, in Willowbrook, Colorado, and the way the living room was kind of dark. Although the stereo was in there, this track makes me think of the family room at the front of the house, all white and bright and sparse. That was the only place I really knew since we moved there when I was like 18 months old. I actually still have memories of the first house, even from when I was under a year old, but the Willowbrook house was the first house I really knew, as it were. Looking back now, it wasn't the greatest house in the world; for some reason, it seems dry to me. What a weird adjective, because I don't mean it literally. Everything seemed dry and unyielding, brittle; like it would resist and then break without giving at all. Everything seemed old, partially because much of my parents' furniture was passed down from their grandparents. I'm On Fire was just too real and too sad for me to like as much then. I think even then I knew what it was about. I have, for my entire life, been a "romantic". I've always wanted to love someone. I've always daydreamed about the perfect girl and being in love.

And while I am still that way, that time seems so distant now, ages 2-6. This song somehow seems to capture those years perfectly; I wanted so much that was just totally beyond my grasp. In many ways, more than anything, I longed for love, and that wounded me so deeply.

I'm just amazed at the mystery of the past, that's all. Listening to this song takes me back to a time I'll never fully remember and never truly understand. I will never grasp the magic of those spaces, nor will I ever have the opportunity to see them again, even as they are now (not to mention what they were like then). So many things in life are transitory, even within the larger arc of those things that last. More and more every day I see the truth in the Tao Te Ching. Time and life just flow steadily, selflessly. They do not love us in the way we think of love. In the greater picture, they give us everything that we need, but they don't treat us with affection. At best, you could say they are practicioners of "tough love". It does nothing to fulfill us, although it always gives us what we need for that fulfillment.

But what is fulfillment? Even when you have what you need, and even what you want, fulfillment escapes us at moments. There are brief blips where we feel empty, despite the fullness of our lives. Sometimes we don't feel like we're in a movie, like there is drama in our feelings and our relationships with others. Sometimes we feel nothing dramatic, and nothing even that important. This can be hard to accept. Sometimes the greatest fulfillment is anything but overwhelming, sometimes it is incomprehensibly and shockingly subtle. Fireworks don't always go off when we finally get what we want, and sometimes the greatest happiness is as silent as dust settling into place, as light pouring through a window, endlessly in silent motion. There are moments when fireworks do go off, when you feel like a key figure in an important scene in a movie, but they are rare. I think this is part of why people enjoy drinking; I think it's part of why I enjoy it sometimes. Things get heightened or dulled, and both feel important, regardless of whether they are.

But again, what is fulfillment? Getting what you want is not fulfillment. I think fulfillment is a state of mind. I choose to desire certain things in my life. I cannot live entirely as Time does, as The Way does, as Lao Tzu proposes. I do in certain senses, but I am a man of desires that I treasure. I am forever bound to my love for affection and, well, love. But what is love (and why do I ask so many rhetorical questions?)? At times, spiritual love, where you let yourself go and just give, is wonderful. That is perhaps the most valuable kind of love, although it is not always appropriate. But learning to do that is necessary to live a fulfilling life. When you can do that, you can truly, truly love. The other kinds, which are desire-based, are perhaps not as noble, but are essential to life and relating to others. For instance, just heaping affection on someone and having them do the same to you is fantastic. Trusting someone to be kind and caring to you is wonderful. In these we expect something from the other, and therefore it is not truly selfless, but there is nothing wrong with that. I believe in feeding the self, too. What we want can be important, too. Sometimes it's just about determining what's REALLY important and what isn't. And sometimes we have to just go for the unimportant things anyway. Life isn't about being noble all the time; it's about being good when it counts.

But being on fire. How can anyone say "I'm on fire" with such calm, such resignation? It's pretty amazing when you think about it. There's almost a contentment, even perhaps a sense of bizarre fulfillment, in the music itself and The Boss' delivery (package delivery for The Boss). It's so tender. It's like he accepts what she's doing, perhaps out of respect for her. Or maybe he's just weak and afraid to go for what he wants. But it would seem that she is cheating on him, or left him (Can he do to you the things that I do?), although the circumstances are somewhat unclear. I like that ambiguity. It's just longing and jealousy, and he ends up howling like a dying wolf, alone in the wilderness at night.

I saw CONTROL last night, the Ian Curtis biopic. I was really disappointed with it, but that's beside the point. Right now, at least, this song is making me think of Ian Curtis. I mean, I guess it's just that I could picture Ian listening to this in Heaven when it came out in 1984 (although I've heard that the 7" release in Heaven was delayed until 1985 due to copyright issues) and relating to it. Just that resignation and sadness. There's no rage here, only saddened desperation that slips into resignation. It's so quiet, and for me, it makes me watch a silent movie of the most distant part of my childhood: infancy. It's like I'm Chevy Chase in the attic in Christmas Vacation, watching the old home movies, without the hilarity. Those times are gone, and they're never coming back. Again, we have a song that for me is all about the past. But even in the song itself, it seems like it's almost not in the present. It's like it's behind a misted glass of some sort, sinking to the depths of the sea. I think of being in the middle of the ocean at night, how lonely everything is. Where is everyone? You feel so far away from everyone and everything, and you literally are, too. But there's a tranquility in that loneliness, and if you can accept your longing, for all its intensity, you can feel a kind of contentment.

I've also been thinking a lot about 8 1/2 recently, which actually feels like a kind of companion piece to this for me, in a weird way. Both are so masculine; they are about being a man, and what it means to face your desires and shortcomings. And of course, women are the key. It's all about women, folks; the mystery of them and the power they have over us. There's something as mysterious and impenetrable (no pun intended) about the beauty of a woman as the magic and of our childhoods, and I think this song captures both (at least for me).

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