Sunday, April 19, 2015

Light: Shut Out the Light

Bruce Springsteen, "Shut out the Light"

Originally a B-side to “Born in the USA” but only widely available once 1998’s Tracks was released, “Shut Out the Light” was kind of the Bigfoot of Springsteen songs: many had heard about it, few had actually heard it.

It’s a beautiful, sparse song, with a haunted protagonist and Springsteen does his best storytelling here: imagistic, but short on expository details. The ghosts of the Viet Nam War, drug addiction, and PTSD hang over this short, sad tale, though Springsteen never names any of those problems by name. He lets image, and sensory detail paint a picture of a man who just can’t find his way back home.

The story is perfect in the small details that paint a Hemingwayesque picture where what little is shown is enough to create a much greater picture: the welcome home banner hanging over the door, the newly polished chrome on the protagonists old car, his wife worrying about how she will look after all this time—“Shut Out the Lights” is a moving portrait of a lost soul and a terribly sad song. There is no hope, there is no triumphant, driving percussion or striding keyboards here as there is on the A-side. “Born in the USA” is an angry assertion of the will, a protest, but in the end, the protagonist of that song is never going to give in. The line that declares “I’m a cool rockin’ Daddy in the USA, now” sounds odd, corny in a way, but that always struck me as a way of saying, ‘I might be beat, but I’m not done.”  In fat the whole song is about getting up, no matter how many times you get kicked. “Shut Out the Light” ends with no such declaration.

The song ends with the protagonist in a forest, staring at a flowing cold, dark river and the lights of a city in the distance, dreaming of where he’s been. There is no expression of freedom or the will to overcome what he’s seen—he simply repeats the request to keep the lights on, and to be held. The obvious specter here is a drug problem, though it’s never dealt with directly. That is one of the aspects of the song that make it so touching: we don’t know what is really wrong, but neither does the poor lost soul whose story we are hearing.  

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