You need to pay total attention to “The New Timer,” from Bruce Springsteen’s The Ghost of Tom Joad, to get anything out of it. The song represents Springsteen’s songwriting at its most short story-like: A seven-second guitar introduction, then 11 musically repetitives verses and no choruses. There are no musical frills, and no elaborate ending. He just kind of stops singing.
Not exactly a contender for the Top 40. But it’s a great musical short story, full of memorably rendered lines.
It’s sung from the point of view of the new timer (the opposite of an old-timer, I guess), a young man who decides to leave his family and wander around the country, looking for work. Riding the rails, he meets an older man, Frank, who has been doing this for decades. Frank gives him fatherly guidance “till I could get back on my feet,” he sings.
It’s a hard life, traveling from farm to farm. At one workplace, the new timer sings, “They bunked us in a barn just like animals/Me and a hundred others just like me.”
Frank goes his own way and never sees the new timer again, except for once when “he blew by me on grainer/Shouted my name and disappeared in the rain and the wind.”
The new timer hears that Frank has died, the victim of seemingly random violence. He has a vision of a husband, wife and child in a kitchen, and wonders if his own son misses him. It’s left unsaid, but he’s obviously missing his own surrogate father, Frank.
The story ends with the new timer alone, dreaming of taking vengeance on Frank’s killer. All he wants is “one good rifle and the name of who I ought to kill.” The story ends on this bitter, unresolved note.
Background facts: “The New Timer” is from Springsteen’s 1995 album, The Ghost of Tom Joad. According to Brucebase, it was performed 21 times at acoustic concerts in 1995, 1996 and 2005. At the 2005 shows, Springsteen backed himself on autoharp (see video below).
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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