Right before I hit the road the other day from my family’s vacation home in Lake Placid, NY to travel to Newport, RI for a Georgetown girls’ weekend, my father called to wish me a good trip and at the end of his message, he said “I have one question: who is Bobby Jean?” The previous weekend, he and my mother left Placid to return back home to NYC on the late side, which was worrisome. During dinner before their departure, I shared those highlights from the record-breaking Bruce Springsteen concert #3 at MetLife Stadium from a few days earlier on August 30 that I knew my parents would relate to the most: “Dancing in the Dark”, “Shout”, “Twist and Shout”, and “Jersey Girl”. Before they left, I also handed my father my copy of the “Born in the USA” CD (Apple hasn’t hit the parents’ roadster yet!) for the ride home, hoping that Dad would play it as he did so many times when it first was released in 1984. Music has a way of opening a pandora’s box of memories like nothing else. I seem to remember he asked me that same question then, though I didn’t know the answer at the time, nor did I listen to music the same way then as I do now. Good music – and lyrics – also have a way of standing the test of time, lending itself to different interpretations at different times of one’s life. That one song “Bobby Jean” is a perfect example, and Dad had obviously played the CD multiple times on that ride home and after.
Two years ago was the 30th anniversary of “Born in the USA”. June, 2014 was a pivotal moment in my own life, arriving in Lake Placid, NY and finding myself riding a bike around Mirror Lake again, just as I had done in 1984 while listening to my Sony Walkman with the cassette tape that changed my life, over and over again. This time, I had my I-pod, and a new (but old and refurbished) bike, that cried out for some complementary accessories to keep it (and me) company: a horn, a basket, some flowers, a nameplate (Placid Betty), and…a “Born in the USA” sign on the back. It may seem to be a bit much, but it seemed perfect to me at the time, as it still does now. It was a reminder to me of that time in my life where I was most carefree, when I was still in my youth with so much ahead of me, when I was the closest to home and the closest to my family. I had not yet had my drivers license then, so my bike was not only my way around town (as I spent my summers in Lake Placid both vacationing with my family, as well as figure skating), but it was also my way to feel free and to come and go whenever the spirit moved me. “Born in the USA” was the soundtrack to that period in my life, as well as the birth of my lifelong love for Springsteen’s music, so it seemed very apropos that the 30th anniversary of this seminal album was coinciding with another seminal moment in my life 30 years later.
When “Born in the USA” was released in 1984, I remember it being something that brought my father, brother, and I closer together. It was a summer when my brother and I spent several weeks in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. with my aunt, uncle and cousins. I remember my father and my uncle (and godfather) listening to the album together, as they also had done with certain movies and other more favored genres of music – classical and operatic – so many times together. They had done the same with another rock artist and album – Elton John and “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” a few years earlier. What was it about this music and these artists that bonded these “Blood Brothers”? Springsteen’s songs on “Born in the USA” – like much or all of his music – are all about the human experience – and more specifically – the American way of life: childhood, youthful dreams, baseball, Main Street, homes come and gone, the plight of the working man/woman, the backyard and neighborhood streets populated and vanished, the various highways, roads and directions taken over the course of a lifetime, wars fought, won, and lost, the migration out West, milestones missed and achieved, friends made and lost, wanderlust satisfied or dreamt about, opportunities missed and chased, and friends made, lost, and made again. Springsteen’s songs are the stories and touchstones of life and humanity that break all boundaries: biological, religious, political, familial, socio-economic…and so much more. While baseball, hometown roots, the American dream and the work ethic that helped to achieve that dream, were the themes that resonated most with my brother, myself, and father (and my uncle) at the time, it was all of those other things too that touched our hearts and souls then, without even knowing it, as they still do and may do even more-so, now.
While there are so many songs on “Born in the USA” to delve into further as it relates to all of the aforementioned, “Bobby Jean” was and still seems to be the one that stands out the most. Who is “Bobby Jean”, my father wondered. I wondered how to answer this for my father during my long trip from the Adirondack Mountains to Newport. While I knew he was looking for the exact right answer and I had that answer, it made me think more expansively about what would be an even more meaningful and metaphorical way to explain the use of “Bobby Jean”. The use of a gender-ambiguous name is purposeful – to create a character who all of us can relate to, a friend who is in one’s life at a certain time for a reason, a friend who can come in and out of one’s life at various stages and always remain the same, a friend who one can lean on with no questions asked, a friend whose essence remains the same regardless of success or failure, a friend whose shared experiences as a child, adolescent, or adult who always brings things “home” again – in one’s memory or in reality. Springsteen’s songs are stories with many fictional characters including Mary, Janie, Wendy, Sherri, Johnny, Jack – who may be based in reality, who may be fictional, and who may be a hybrid of both, but most importantly who are characters we all can relate to in one way or another. Bobby Jean however, is the one character who seems to resonate the most. Sometimes we may have only one “Bobby Jean”, sometimes we may have a few, or even many. He or she (or it) is that one character who comes in and out of our lives, but who never really ever leaves. While Bruce’s “Bobby Jean” is his longtime friend and guitarist Stevie Van Zandt and also perhaps a metaphor for the depressed self he was saying goodbye to at the time, “Bobby Jean” is also a metaphor for that person(s) or thing(s) in all of our lives that remain a constant, regardless of time, place, or circumstance. I am lucky to have just spent the weekend in Newport with a group of my longtime college “Bobby Jeans”, and to have one specific “Bobby Jean” who knows me inside and out despite our very different life directions. But I am also so lucky to have had that bike in 1984 and again in 2014, as another “Bobby Jean” to remind me of how far I have come, how much farther I have to go, how quickly I can change directions if I lose my way, and how most importantly – I can always find my way home again.
Most of all, I am lucky to have “Bobby Jean” – my family and my friends – to continue to stand by me (and vice versa) – every step – or bike ride around the lake – of the way. Of course Springsteen’s music continues to be the soundtrack, so “Bobby Jean” – and Bruce – are along for the ride – all the way home. My companion for long road trips by myself is always “E Street Radio”. Guess what was the companion for this trip to Newport to see my longtime college girlfriends? That same concert from 1984 at Giants Stadium where my dad sat in the parking lot listening to the sounds of Springsteen while my brother was inside. And guess what was the finale for the song from the previous night at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia – a show that broke the record yet again as Springsteen’s longest in U.S. history? “Bobby Jean”. Not only has this song stood the test of time, but it also made history – with fireworks to boot. Almost eight hours later last weekend (thanks to E Street Radio, and not to Mapquest), I also found my way “home” again to my own “Bobby Jeans”, and Dad? Well, he seemed pleased to know that not only was there indeed a real “Bobby Jean” for Bruce in Stevie, but also now seems more interested in learning more about the real and fictional characters featured in Springsteen’s unparalleled stories, while also exploring who they might be in his own life. “Born to Run” – the album and the book – is also now a must listen and a must-read for him too. Seems like my answer to his question was more than he bargained for, but that’s what good music does to the heart and the soul, thanks to “Bobby Jean”.