In the summer of 1984 I spent my days playing basketball, reading Stephen King novels, hanging out with friends, and mentally preparing myself for the daunting challenge that lay ahead -- senior year of high school. Then an event hit the popular music scene like an earthquake, the reverberations of which were felt even in my tiny midwestern town. June 4, 1984 saw the release of Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the USA" album. At the time, this album sparked a tsunami of critical praise and fan adoration for Springsteen. It was also the album that captured my attention.
However, I am a bit of a completist (pardon my creation of new vocabulary). When I like a singer or group, I do not simply acquire one of their albums. I feel that if I am to listen at all, I should be a loyal listener and hear everything they have to sing. It's part of the explanation for why I currently own over 90 Elvis albums. I won't start on my Barry Manilow collection. (If you are one of those people who can't understand why anyone would choose to listen to Barry Manilow, then I am afraid you are beyond help and must remain forever unenlightened.)
So following my introduction to "Born in the USA", I went back and collected Springsteen's previous albums and was surprised to learn that an album prior to "Born in the USA" was actually superior in my estimation. That album was "The River." On this album is a fascinating song called "Cadillac Ranch." Springsteen's success in part stems from his position as a musical storyteller for the common person. Through his music, he addresses, comments on, deconstructs, and all around revels in the mundane occurrences of everyday life. Whether its hanging out on the boardwalk, going to a dead end job, or driving around in a stolen car, Springsteen shines a light on the unsung men and women who inhabit America's towns and, in the process, teaches us all something about life.
The message of "Cadillac Ranch" is simple compared to most of Springsteen's other songs. It is a song about the inevitability of death. Yet this dire message comes through a rousing rock song with pounding drums and an infectious beat. It reminds me why I like the Gin Blossoms. Their music is fun, bouncy, pop - yet have you ever listened closely to the lyrics? Underneath that patina of rocker joy lie some of the most depressing lyrics this side of the blues.
The title "Cadillac Ranch" derives from a famous landmark in Texas. Resting in a wheat field along Route 66 is a row of ten Cadillacs buried nose first in the ground. It is essentially a Cadillac cemetery. This visual seems to have prodded Springsteen to pen a song about Cadillacs and death. A cursory listen to the song makes one think he or she is listening to a joyful ode to cruising in a Cadillac. A closer listen, however, reveals that the Cadillac in question ("Cadillac, Cadillac, Long and dark, shiny and black") is a hearse. Essentially the message of the song is that none of us will escape a visit to the Cadillac Ranch.
James Dean in that Mercury '49
Junior Johnson runnin' thru the woods of Caroline
Even Burt Reynolds in that black Trans-Am
All gonna meet down at the Cadillac Ranch
I believe this is a song in which the message of the lyrics cannot be divorced from the music itself. These dire lyrics when coupled with the upbeat joyfulness of the music tell us that even though we cannot escape a trip to the Cadillac Ranch, we can still enjoy the journey there. The inevitability of death does not nullify the enjoyability of life. Or in the more poetic words of Springsteen:
Eldorado fins, whitewalls and skirts
Rides just like a little bit of heaven here on eartth
Well buddy when I die throw my body in the back
And drive me to the junkyard in my Cadillac