Sunday, April 14, 2013

Sherry Darling

Bruce Springsteen's 1980 album, The River, is a collection which was very deliberately designed to mix light and dark, heavy and light. As Springsteen himself has said:
"Originally [The River] was a single record. I handed it in with just one record and I took it back because I didn't feel it was big enough. I wanted to capture the themes I had been writing about on Darkness [on the Edge of Town]. I wanted to keep those characters with me and at the same time added music that made our live shows so much fun and joy for our audience." 
He also said, 
"Rock and roll has always been this joy, this certain happiness that is in its way the most beautiful thing in life. But rock is also about hardness and coldness and being alone. I finally got to the place where I realized life had paradoxes, a lot of them, and you've got to live with them."
"Sherry Darling" is the second song on the first side and embodies perfectly what Springsteen was going for. A callback to Springsteen's beloved frat rock of the 1960s, it even has fake crowd noises mixed in and is not only one of The River's lighter songs, but one of the most lightweight he'd recorded since his debut. 

And yet, a few years ago I came to realize that even most of Springstee's lighter songs can surprise you in some way, and usually have unexpected depth and weight to them. For instance: 
Your Mamma's yappin' in the back seat
Tell her to push over and move them big feet
Okay. Take that opening. That's funny, and in a way he'd never been before, not on record. It's direct, it's real and dagummit, it's just plain funny. Sure, it's got a car and it's got parent-child tension, both standards for Springsteen, but that kind of humor is new for him.
Every Monday morning I gotta drive her down to the unemployment agency
And there we go. Right there we're suddenly in different territory, both for him and for most rock music. For all he would later draw attention for his first subtle and then overt political stands, the class consciousness which had been there from his first record—and really exploded on Darkness—is right smack dab in the third line of this seemingly lightweight, throwaway summer beach bar song. You know who doesn't get driven to the unemployment agency in the backseat of their daughter's boyfriend's car on a regular basis? Anyone who's middle-class or wealthier. That's strictly a working class or working (or trying to work) poor phenomena.
Well this morning I ain't fighting tell her I give up
Tell her she wins if she'll just shut up
But it's the last time that she's gonna be ridin' with me 
Now there's girls melting on the beach
And they're so fine but so far out of reach
Cause I'm stuck in traffic down here on 53rd street
Again, the sense of longing Springsteen can't help but slip into this seemingly lightweight, throwaway summer beach bar song is striking. He was going for fun. But he's Bruce Springsteen, so the real world can't help but make its presence felt, the knowledge of what's out there, what he wants, and what he cannot have. It's there, he knows it's there, and it's unobtainable--it's not for the likes of him.
Now Sherry my love for you is real
But I didn't count on this package deal
And baby this car just ain't big enough for her and me 
So you can tell her there's a hot sun beatin' on the black top
She keeps talkin' she'll be walkin' that last block
She can take a subway back to the ghetto tonight
Another indication that the people in this song are not exactly upper-class.
Well I got some beer and the highway's free
And I got you, and baby you've got me.
Hey, hey, hey what you say Sherry Darlin'
And then comes something a bit strange structurally, where after the solo, part of the chorus is reworked a bit so it functions more as a bridge, right before one last quick chorus proper. And what a bridge, as a lovely vista suddenly opens up:
Well let there be sunlight, let there be rain
Let the brokenhearted love again
And a brief move into a minor chord for this wonderfully romantic image:
Sherry we can run with our arms open before the tide

And how different is all that, really, than:
Someday girl, I don't know when,
we're gonna get to that place
Where we really want to go
and we'll walk in the sun
Thematically, it's not. It's only the music of this seemingly lightweight, throwaway summer beach bar song that makes it different--that and the fact that he was always open about wanting to put more light songs on this particular album, and its placement right as the second song, an admission that I think has unfairly colored our opinions of this particular song.
To all the girls down at Sacred Heart
And all you operators back in the Park
Say hey, hey, hey what you say Sherry Darlin'
Hey, hey, hey, what you say Sherry Darlin'
Well, I ain't Sherry, but here's what I say: I say this is a magnifcent piece of rock and roll songwriting, combining an upbeat melody over (mainly) three chords with authentically funny lyrics...but which has more than a shadow of seriousness, of bone-deep longing, and the limitations brought on my class divisions, as well as the conviction that love can (maybe at least partially) overcome all that.

Ladies and gentlemen, this is what constitutes a seemingly lightweight, throwaway summer beach bar song for one Bruce Springsteen. 

But also too, let's simply give it up for the fun song, dammit. So much of the greatest rock and roll is about pain in its various forms, and the few truly great upbeat songs—U2's "Beautiful Day," say, or "Sherry Darling"—get downgraded for lack of seriousness and angst. But it's like comedy. When listing the all-time greatest films, why are so many of them dramas and so few comedies? Part of it is the bias we have or have inherited for thinking drama is more inherently worthy. But part of is that there are fewer truly great comedies. But not because there are fewer comedies made. It's because comedy is so damn hard. 

"Sherry Darling" shows that Bruce Springsteen is, once again, a master of more than one genre.

Oh, and it's got a good beat and you can dance to it. (And the Big Man!)

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