Wednesday, April 18, 2012

In Appreciation of "Bobby Jean"

(The first of what likely will be many, many posts about the songs and stylings of Bruce Frederick Joseph Springsteen that we share here on RTB. This one is about one of my favorites of his, offbeat though it may be).

For nearly all of the 28 years that it has been in existence, from just about the first moment I heard it, “Bobby Jean” has always been one of my favorite Bruce Springsteen songs. I know this might be surprising, because it’s arguably not even among his Top 50 finest songs. But there ‘tis.


For starters, the music. The glorious meshing of Clarence Clemons saxophone and Roy Bittan’s piano in the opening, Max's metronomic power backing it all, the freshness and the energy and triumph as the full E Street Band plays behind Bruce.  Then there are the words, and the beautiful cocktail of pervasive wistfulness and lonesome melancholy that we hear in his voice as he sings, making it equal parts happy and sad all at once. These qualities make it – to me – one of the most beautiful songs he has ever written.

When I hear it, I hear a critical song in Bruce’s career. A bridge between eras, and one of the more important ones he ever wrote. And it’s a salve, of sorts, to help him through a remarkably transitional time in his life. Just as, among others, “Born to Run” and “Badlands” and “The Promise” and “One Step Up” and “Better Days” and “Long Walk Home” and “Wrecking Ball” came to transport him from one era to the next, so too did “Bobby Jean.”

Let’s examine when it was written, in 1984, for the epochal Born in the U.S.A. album.  And just after his longtime bandmate and close pal, Little Steven Van Zandt, told him he was leaving the E Street Band to pursue a solo career. That’s the impetus for “Bobby Jean” – a farewell to a buddy and confidante he had known and played with for so long.

It’s not only the first time the adult and increasingly successful Bruce had to deal with professional loss – Little Steven’s departure just had to hit him hard – and it’s not just a sweet but regretful love letter to one of his closest friends. It's also a realization that life as Bruce Springsteen had always known it was changing yet again. And changing fast, in ways he never could have imagined. From the epic Jersey shore days where he cut his teeth as a limitless performer, through two excellent but poor-selling albums, through the launching pad that was Born To Run, through the three years of legal strife that followed, and through more great records and all the increasing fame and fortune.

Because now, at another defining point and leap forward, Bruce would have to go it alone, without his trusty sidekick.  Hence “Bobby Jean” was written, as a way to deal with the loss.

(And pardon the quick digression, but has any interviewer ever asked Steve how he felt about the song? Does he love it? Is he embarrassed by it? How does it feel now to stand on stage and play behind Bruce as he sings it? I’d love to hear him say.)

The core intention of the song remains the same and likely always will. It’s a gender-flopped tribute to a great friend who has moved on. Tucked in the middle of a Born in the U.S.A. album that seethes rage, bleeds sadness, and speaks in a guttural tone to a world getting away from the people who love it, it is one of the two most personal songs on the record ("Dancing in the Dark" being the other). Even amidst that raw backdrop, though, “Bobby Jean” seems glowing and hagiographic and unflinchingly sentimental.

But a second look at it also shows it is Bruce not only bidding Bobby Jean nee Little Steven goodbye, but also a part of his life that maybe he wasn’t expecting to have to leave so soon. Lets look.

Well I came by your house the other day,
Your mother said you went away.
She said there was nothing that I coulda done,
There was nothing nobody could say

Pretty straightforward, but the suddenness of the lines – the fact that this departure just seems to catch him unaware one day – implies there is more going on. Maybe the old cliché, “You wake up one day and suddenly you’re an old man” really was at work. Maybe it’s not just a sad realization that his friend is gone, but also realization of what he began to observe a decade earlier with “Thunder Road" – (“...maybe we ain’t that young anymore.”) And as someone to whom 40 is now a distant memory, I can certainly understand the out-of-the-blue nature such a discovery brings with it.

He continues:

Well me and you we’ve known each other
Ever since we were 16.
And I wish I woulda known, I wish I coulda called you,
Just to say goodbye, Bobby Jean.

It’s funny how such a loving line also carries with it a certain amount of guilt, either intentional or not. The kind of guilt that only gets expressed in extremely latent ways, never overt, when confronted with the unavoidable. And beyond guilt, it's a sentiment with a hint of anger as well, the kind that will never be vocalized in a hostile way, but with which the narrator seems to be asking, "Why didn't you think you could call me about this? Don't you know what you've meant to me? Didn't I deserve at least that?" And the fact that this sentiment is twice repeated in the song drives home the underlying guilt – something Bruce has carried with him from his Catholic upbringing throughout his career and continually addresses.

The next verse brings more memories, more appreciation of the two great friends, who they are and who they were.

Now you hung with me when all the others
Turn away, turned up their nose.
We liked the same music, we liked the same bands,
We liked the same clothes.
And we told each other that we were the wildest,
The wildest things we’d ever seen.
And I wish I woulda known
I wish I coulda talked to you,
Just to say goodbye, Bobby Jean.

The clothes, the music, the attitude – “Man, we sure did things our own way, didn’t we?” – seems to be the statement Bruce puts out there. The way Hemingway did at the end of The Sun Also Rises when Brett tells Jake, “Oh Jake, we could have had such a damned good time together.” It is a statement hopelessly rhetorical in nature – a point driven home by Jake’s devastatingly poignant reply, “Yes. Isn’t it pretty to think so?” Someone searching for an answer he thinks he has, but will never know for sure.

The same paradigm exists for Bruce within the early lines of “Bobby Jean.” It’s a picture of someone seeking the kind of reassurance you look for when you feel your life getting away from you, for better or for worse. Only he knows he’s not going to get it.

The song moves along at its rollicking clip, with the Professor in particular never letting the mood dip, at least not musically. And then we reach the bridge, and we get the moment where we are hit with undoubtedly the key line of the song, and maybe one of the most revealing lines Bruce ever wrote:

Well we’d go walking in the rain,
Talkin’ about the pain from the world we hid.
And there ain’t nobody, nowhere, no how
Gonna ever understand me the way you did.

Many times when I listen to this song I have a hard time not getting choked up at this part, because it speaks so universal to that feeling of loss we all deal with. I think about this line in relation to longtime friends I still have, but whose relationships with me have changed dramatically over the decades. And it’s so easy to want those memories to stay fresh, and so hard to realize that memories is all they are now, and all they are ever going to be. After all, don’t we all long to have that one person who truly “gets us” like no one else?

But there’s even more to it now. A few years later he wrote, in my opinion, the saddest line of his entire brilliant career. It came at the apex of “One Step Up”  – “When I look at myself I don’t see the man I wanted to be.” But “Bobby Jean,” examined through the 20/20 spectrum of hindsight and placed against songs he hadn’t yet written, seems to hint that this time was coming. Success he had never imagined was coming with Born in the USA. He was to turn from rock star to icon in seemingly a heartbeat, and he knew it. He made his bones with The River and Nebraska and let it be known there was more depth to him than anyone could have possibly imagined, and with Born in the U.S.A. now he knew was making The Leap.

And two things were clear: Life was never going to be the same, and he now had to plow ahead without someone who helped him get there. Someone on whom Bruce could always lean during the rough times, perhaps more than any other pre-Patti bandmate he ever had.

This is where the transitional nature of this song comes full bore – he is not just saying goodbye to someone for whom he has a great fondness and affection. He is saying goodbye to the part of his life that allowed him to get where he is.

But this being the artist known to us as Bruce Springsteen, the man who from the very very beginning has been able to “look into the sights of the sun” and emerge okay, even at some of his darkest hours, he wraps the whole message up with unspeakably beautiful closure.

As gorgeous and optimistic as anything he’s ever written, maybe THE most optimistic thing he’d written since “Born to Run,” come the final lines of “Bobby Jean.”

Now maybe you’ll be out there on that road somewhere
Some bus or train, travelin’ along.
In some motel room, there’ll be a radio playin’,
And you’ll hear me sing this song.
And if you do, you’ll know I’m thinkin’ of you,
And all the miles in between.
And I’m just callin’ one last time,
Not to change your mind.
But just to say I miss you baby,
Good luck, goodbye Bobby Jean.

The past he loved and embraced is gone forever, stolen away into the ink of time. And it’s taken with him one of his greatest and truest friends, taken him away forever. And it’s left our hero a changed man, saddened and again hardened by loss, but still resolute to push forward. Never forgetting what he’s leaving behind, but knowing that something else is waiting for him ahead.

The final “goodbye” to Bobby Jean is a goodbye to what he’s known. A goodbye he hopes is heard by someone someday, even if it’s just through an old motel radio some place far away from him. And it’s mournful to be sure. But what he’s leaving has been too good and too pretty for him not to not press ahead for the next chapter, to see what’s out there.


  1. Thank you for this article. This song is all too relatable.

  2. Cool interpretation. Everyone should have a friendship like Bruce and Little Steven. The song captures all those layers of emotions.