I’ve felt for a long time that rock n’ roll, maybe more than any other form of music, is about encouragement. It’s a way for people to come together in a feeling of joy and community. The message of rock often has a sadness to it, an acknowledgment that pain is inevitable and that these wonderful, youthful things that we’re celebrating will fade whether we want them to or not, but the dominant idea is that we can overcome this pain, and that new joys are to be found going forward.
Of course, rock isn’t all this way. lt can be unrelentingly gloomy, but for the most part, the main themes of the genre are renewal and a celebration of life, and for me, the two songs that capture this most clearly are Bruce Springsteen’s “Thunder Road” and Tom Petty’s “American Girl”
So, what’s the point here? Why am I writing about these songs? They’re hits. We all know them, what more is there to say? Well, I’m not really writing about the songs. I’m writing about what they showed me, what I learned from them about how to deal with life’s trials and appreciate its blessings.
Petty starts the studio version of “American girl” with suspense-building guitar licks and an excited “Shah!” it’s a perfect opening. lt tells you “get ready, this is gonna be a journey, it’s gonna knock your socks off !” by the time he’s launched into his brief, perfectly compact story of a young woman “raised on promises” we’re completely invested. We want to know where this girl, with her moxy and her irrepressible drive to lead a more fulfilling life, is going to go. Where does she end up? Where we all do when we chase our dreams, in a place of regret.
She stands alone on her balcony remembering a lost love and thinking about the wonderful things that she just barely missed out on, but like we all have to do, if we want to face life, she finds the courage to move on. She’s able to find the strength within herself to move past life’s disappointments.
Springsteen’s song opens similarly. His quiet harmonica is backed by Roy Bittan’s gentle, introspective piano. As he begins to sing, he gives us a story of two people who feel stuck in life. Whereas Petty’s heroine arrives at a place of regret, and has to figure out where to go from there, Springsteen’s characters are already in a place of regret when the song begins. They’re deeply dissatisfied as they whittle away their days, and they’re determined to discover better lives as they hit the road with nothing but their love for each other and the clothes on their back. As the lyrics progress, getting more and more desperate-but at the same time more and more hopeful-Springsteen, and his famed E-Street Band, build from their quiet beginning to a crescendo of resistance to the idea of a stagnant life. These two lovers may not find anything out there, but they have to try.
It took me years to learn this lesson. I’m still learning it. I have to re-enforce it on a daily basis. Especially growing up in an environment where my peers sent me a message that I could do nothing. I fell back on other people for far too long. It wasn’t until around last year that I really began to believe in myself and make my own mark. I made my films, but I didn’t believe in them, I didn’t think I could do anything worthwhile, because I didn’t believe in-or even really feel-my own ability to grow. I thought I’d always be this frightened little boy, relying on whatever scraps of love and creativity I could scrounge from the big bad world. lt wasn’t until late last year, when I faced the trauma of being betrayed by an old and treasured friend, that I began to truly face my past, and believe in the possibilities of my future.
That person’s betrayal hurt me, physically as well as emotionally. I suffered back pain for days as a result of what they did, but as I pushed through all that stress, all that pain, all that loss, to find the comfort and love of family and true friends on the other side, I found my own way. I began to realize myself. I wasn’t a scared little boy. I was a tough-fibered adult who could make his own way in the world. I was a genuinely gifted artist who could create something worthwhile that might do people some good. I was a loving and loved son, brother, and friend. It took me so long to get to that place, and I’m not there all the time, but whenever I lose it, I find it again, and the fact that we can not only get to those places, but also get back to them when they slip from our grasp, that’s the message of Bruce Springsteen & The E-Street Band . . . the message of Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers . . . the message of rock n’ roll.