“It was a small town bank, it was a mess/Well, I had a gun, you know the rest,” sings Bruce Springsteen in “Highway 29,” a terse outlaw ballad that is not as uncompromisingly dark as the title track to his 1982 album, Nebraska. Whereas the narrator of that song was unapologetic and shrugs off his misdeeds, some humanity comes through in this tenderly sung, entrancing song.
Looking back on his first conversation with the woman with whom he robbed the bank, the narrator concedes that “it should have stopped” right there. Later, he sings, “I told myself it was all something in her/But as we drove I knew it was something in me.” In other words, he’s not blaming her for leading him astray; on some level, he realizes it’s his own fault. And he seems to have some misgivings.
The last verse is ambiguous. There’s broken glass and gasoline. Either they crashed their car, or the authorities caught up with them. She’s silent, perhaps injured or dead. And he thinks, “it was just a dream.”
I don’t think that means he was just imagining it, or dreaming it. I think it means the whole episode — meeting her, robbing the bank, trying to escape — is so far outside his normal experience that it seems like a dream.
Another great line comes when he sings that the thing that caused all this is “something that had been coming for a long, long time/And something that was here with me now.” In other words, it’s not some external force. It’s something inside him. Something that can’t be denied.
Finally, he closes his eyes “and I was running, then I was flying.” Perhaps he was injured in the crash, or was shot, and is now losing consciousness. There are lots of ways to look at this. None are comforting. But maybe there is a glimmer of hope in the singer’s self-awareness.
Background facts: Springsteen released “Highway 29” on his 1995 The Ghost of Tom Joad album. It’s a true solo track, with just Springsteen’s guitar and keyboards, in addition to his vocals.
According to Brucebase, it was performed 135 times between 1995 and 2005.
On each of the 70 days leading up to Bruce Springsteen’s 70th birthday (on Sept. 23, 2019), NJArts.net will do a post on one of The Boss’ best songs of the last 30 years. We’re starting with No. 70 and working our way up. For more on the project, click here.
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