I’m embarrassed to admit I didn’t know the Bruce Springsteen song ‘I’m on Fire’ existed until John Mayer covered it for his 2009 album. I was a senior in college and still in that swoon over John Mayer phase. Bruce Springsteen was just ‘born in the USA’ and nothing more. When my brother brought this song up on the phone I told him I knew it because of John Mayer. He said “no, you’re thinking of the Jimi Hendrix song.” ‘Bold as Love’ is another cover I didn’t realize was a cover until I loved John Mayer’s version first in the mid 2000s. The timing of my existence is mildly unfortunate, at least in the case of good music, but I digress.
My brother is not a Springsteen superfan, by any means. Of all the years I spent riding passenger side in whatever vehicle he hadn’t wrecked yet (sorry, bro), I never remember any Springsteen. He was my old school rap and Miles Davis loving brother. He is also the reason I had boyz II men cassette tapes before I was old enough to care if they were boys or men. But Springsteen had a song that struck a cord during what must’ve been the most pivotal period of his life so far.
It’s two minutes and 37 seconds long. 2:37. That’s about as short as a song on pop radio can get. People run half a mile in that time. Running is exactly what it makes my brother want to do. When he brought up the song he told me he’d been listening to it on repeat for at least an hour. The why was heartbreaking. The song held no meaning before one particular night after Iraq when he was home safe and realizing the finality of friends that never would be.
…Watch as I skip over tons of details here, because it’s simply not my story to tell…
It was a night when the reality hit so hard that all he could do was run from it. He got up from his seat, went out the door, grabbed his iPod from his truck and hit play.
The early 80s beat picks up…”Hey little girl is your daddy home…” He’s running as hard as he can. He’s thinking of kids he knew over there. Kids, because that’s what they were. He was 23.. Some were just 19. Some, as he put it over the phone the other night, hadn’t even had sex yet. Maybe you argue they knew what they were getting into, but there’s really no way anyone does. The guys who never come home live not even half lifetimes. The guys who do, end up racing down the dark street in the middle of the night months and years later because they don’t know how or why it wasn’t them. My brother told me his whole story and I had no words. After several seconds I said, “In a very small and insignificant way I know what you mean.” That’s when he cut me off, telling me I was wrong. No memory that evokes emotion is insignificant.
There’s a George Strait song that puts me in the passenger seat of my dad’s old Buick. I’m 10 years old and he’s driving me through the West Virginia mountains that old cowboy is describing. I cannot hear it without thinking of that trip. I fell
in love with two things on that vacation; the beauty of West Virginia’s New River Gorge, and Country music. I couldn’t have fallen more in love with my dad if I’d tried. My junior year of high school I was coming home from track practice in that same old Buick, this time I was driving. I heard The first few notes and picked up my phone. I called my dad and left him a message because he was out of town and at 16 you sometimes still need your dad to know you miss him when he travels for work. I told him I was calling because our song was on and I loved him. The phone call ended. The song ended. My dad kept the voicemail well into my college years.
The summer we moved to South Carolina my mom rented a convertible for a week while her car was being fixed. It was an 8th grader’s dream. I had a newly purchased copy of the ‘Moulin Rouge’ soundtrack (terrible movie, btw), the wind in my baby thin hair, and no clue how awkward my teenage years would soon become. All I knew was that my mom and my best friend were willing to belt out Ewan McGregor’s version of ‘your song’ with me no matter where we were in town. I can barely handle Elton’s version anymore without wanting to really give it to the “are they green or blue” line.
Music is memory. Songs put us where we want to be. My music tastes have changed dramatically since I loved John Mayer, or since I thought Dave Matthews was super talented (kinda steered me wrong on that one, bros). I’ve grown up to find what I like, instead of what I “like” because someone I love does. But some songs still take me back. ‘Hand in my Pocket’ has me on the living room floor of my first house listening to my cousin Erika play piano. ‘Sailor Suit’ puts me at my computer with my middle brother leaning over my shoulder telling me which songs are cool enough to download. ‘Rich Girl is me, and Ginny, singing at the top of our lungs in Charleston humidity after a long, perfect day on the beach.
Music makes us feel alive.
Music often makes me want to run. When I got off the phone with my brother that night he told me he was going to run. He was going to put Bruce on repeat and just go until he couldn’t feel. I told him to be safe and I love him. We always say ‘I love you’ now, but we didn’t always say it before he went to war.
I hung up the phone, spent 99 cents on iTunes and put Bruce on repeat in my own bedroom because, in some way, his story is now mine too.