Excerpt From Counting Down Bruce Springsteen: #86 “Straight Time”Posted: June 16, 2014
As promised, the first of several exclusive excerpts from my new book, Counting Down Bruce Springsteen: His 100 Finest Songs. The excerpts that I share here are exclusive to the blog as a little reward for my loyal readers. Another one coming up on Wednesday
86. “Straight Time” (from The Ghost of Tom Joad, 1995)
It’s a counterintuitive notion that someone who served time in jail might be anything less than thrilled to be free. Yet Bruce Springsteen handles “Straight Time,” from The Ghost of Tom Joad, so adeptly that he convinces you that, for the hard case within the song, freedom’s just another word for nowhere to go.
The Ghost of Tom Joad is often thought of in the same vein as Nebraska when Springsteen’s albums are compared in that they are both moody affairs full of folk-based, topical songs. One major difference is that Joad actually contains a few band performances interspersed throughout the songs that feature just Springsteen on acoustic guitar and vocal.
Those band songs, for the most part, hold an advantage over the
acoustic solo songs on the album because they have a bit more melody.
On the acoustic songs, Springsteen seems so focused on the stories that
he’s telling that the tunes can seem like afterthoughts. On songs like
“Straight Time,” the interplay between the instruments creates some extra
added atmosphere and inspires Bruce to break out of any monotonous
In the case of “Straight Time,” the atmosphere conjured by the assembled band, which features E Streeter Danny Federici on keyboards and longtime collaborator Soozie Tyrell on violin, is one of creeping dread.
The song never breaks out of that tension, leaving the listener expecting
the worst after the song concludes.
That’s the perfect musical setting for the protagonist of “Straight
Time.” By singing the song in the first person, Springsteen allows us to
get inside and see what makes this guy tick, and it’s not pretty. Despite
his efforts to walk “the clean and narrow” in the time since he was
released from prison, his worst self continues to pull him back into a
criminal’s life: “In the darkness before dinner comes / Sometimes I can
feel the itch.”
The people that surround him don’t believe in his reformation, which
only serves to push him further back to the dark side. His uncle, who still
revels in crime, bribes him into recidivism. His wife can’t shake the
feeling that he’ll return to his previous ways, even as she tries to hide it:
“Mary’s smiling but she’s watching me out of the corner of her eye.” All
this leads him to believe that any dreams of a different life on the outside
were unrealistic. “Seems you can’t get any more than half free,” he ponders.
Any uncertainty about where this is all headed is laid to rest as the
song wends toward its conclusion. “In the basement huntin’ gun and
hacksaw / Sip a beer and thirteen inches drop to the floor,” Springsteen
sings. The way that the act is described makes it seem like the protagonist
had no free will about reconfiguring the gun to better suit criminal purposes; the excess barrel just falls to the floor as if it had a mind of its own. It’s a clever way for Springsteen to evoke the restlessness and inner void that drives this character to what will likely be a calamitous fate, one that will bring all his loved ones down with him.
“Straight Time” is one of the few songs on The Ghost of Tom Joad
that doesn’t delve into a specific social issue. Songs like “Sinaloa Cowboys,” “Balboa Park,” and others on the album are so tied to their specific, overarching topic that they can come off sounding like lessons rather than story songs. “Straight Time” avoids this pitfall both through its
subtle musical flavorings and by the way Springsteen creates a compelling
character and makes his story somehow relatable even to those in his
audience who have never thought of committing a crime in their lives.
We leave this character on his pillow dreaming, “driftin’ off into
foreign lands.” The methods that he’ll use to get to such far-off places are
no longer in doubt. His sentence to “Straight Time” is clearly just about
(E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. My new book, Counting Down Bruce Springsteen: His 100 Finest Songs, is available now at all major online booksellers.)