“What if the thing that you did best, one thing you do well, was something that would kill you?” asked Bruce Springsteen at the Count Basie Theatre (now the Count Basie Center for the Arts) in Red Bank on Nov. 22, 1995, explaining the theme of his song, “Straight Time.”
The guy in the song — which is sparsely but tastefully orchestrated, and features some of Springsteen’s best laconic storytelling — is an ex-con. He’s making ends meet with a low-paying factory job and trying to stay clean. But he’s tempted to take up crime again, by his crooked uncle and by his own nature (“Sometimes I can feel the itch”).
“Eight years in, it feels like you’re gonna die/But you get used to anything/Sooner or later it just becomes your life,” he sings. He could be talking about life in prison. Then again, he could be talking about life outside of prison.
There are so many great details in this song. His suspicious wife smiles as he plays with their children, for instance, “but she’s watching me out of the corner of her eye,” he sings.
When he takes his first step toward re-entering a life of crime, sawing off the barrel of his hunting gun so it will be easier to conceal, he makes it sound as casual as if he’s putting out the garbage at night. “Sip a beer and thirteen inches of barrel drop to the floor.”
At the end of the song, he comes home and “can’t get the smell from his hands.” The meaning is ambiguous. Did he get the smell from a crime? Or did he just get it from another day at the factory?
I don’t know. But I think the final line, “Lay my head down on the pillow and go driftin’ off into foreign lands,” is meant to signify that whatever happens — whether he stays straight, or breaks bad again — he just won’t be satisfied with ordinary 9-to-5 life.
Background facts: Springsteen released “Straight Time” on his 1995 album, The Ghost of Tom Joad. According to Brucebase, he performed it 126 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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