The screen door slams, Mary’s dress waves. Except that it’s not a screen door, and there’s no Mary around. Instead, it’s the door of our microwave oven. I put a Finnish meat pie in there and sit at our kitchen table with a comic book. It’s cold and dark outside because it’s winter in Joensuu, Finland, a provincial city in eastern Finland, just 102 kilometers from the border between Finland and the Soviet Union.
I could go to the outside skating rink just outside our house but it’s difficult to find the motivation once I’ve got home from school. The thermometer on the roof of the bank at the market square said it was minus-30 degrees today, just like yesterday. I had wrapped my scarf around my face but it only helped for a short while, until my breath made it wet so it froze. Every time I inhaled, my nostrils seemed to freeze up as well.
No, I’ll just eat my pie, read my comics, and then put on some Springsteen. Born To Run.
The stereo, our good hi-fi system was all mine between 3 pm when I came home from school and 5.30 when Dad came home from work. Mom got in a little earlier, so often I’d take my music to my room, and play the Hobbit or Manic Miner on my ZX Spectrum 64.
Born in the USA had come out the previous summer, and I got to borrow the LP from my buddy, Mika, who actually always went by his last name, and who was also my pop culture consultant. He had that Springsteen album, and he had Mellencamp albums from when he was still John Cougar, and he had Huey Lewis when it was all news to me.
If it wasn’t too cold outside and if I didn’t go to the rink, I’d walk the 800 meters from our house to Mika’s house, and he’d play Springsteen, and Mellencamp, or the Blues Brothers, and we’d sit in his room, and he’d pull album after album – when they were albums – from his shelf, and tell me all about the band, then play a few tracks.
We sort of knew of each other but we became friends during psychology class at school. Many a Wednesday morning we sat next to each other playing a word game we had come up with, in which we chose random words from the pages of the psychology book, and then try to create new words using the letters in that word.
The psychology teacher was also our religion teacher, a little old lady who liked to run a tight ship, but simply wasn’t able to do it with a classroom full of teenagers. She got upset very easily, and you could follow her stages of fury just by looking at her. She was like a human thermometer – the kind that we had back then – in that the angrier she was, the redder she got. First it was just her neck, with red spots that got larger and larger, then her chin, then cheeks, until her whole face was crimson.
The religion classes were tougher for her than the psychology classes. Psych was optional, religion not. Once, she asked a friend of mine to read a few paragraphs from pages 78-79 out loud – having first woken him up – and by the time he had finished the passage, the red had reached the top of her skull.
“We already did that last semester,” she hissed.
“Oh, did we?” said my buddy, got up and walked to the waste basket, then ripped the book into two halves and dropped one of them into the basket. Class dismissed.
Anyway, it was Mika who had lent me that Born in the USA album, and I taped it one dark winter’s afternoon when I was home alone. And then I’d sit on the floor in our living room with the album cover in front of me, and listen to the songs, and read the lyrics.
That spring and summer, Terry, a Canadian exchange student who stayed with us for a few months, watched the Dancing in the Dark video over and over again. Terry was convinced that Bruce was wearing a wig, and he used the then-high tech methods of watching the clip frame-by-frame to prove it to me.
“Look at that rug. He must be wearing one, he’s an old man. He’s 35,” he told me.
And then we’d watch Courtney Cox climb onto the stage and dance with Bruce.
“I wanna change your clothes, your hair, your face,” Terry would sing, and point at me with a smirk on his face.
That fall, Terry went back to Canada, and I went back to Mika’s albums. I borrowed Mellencamp’s Scarecrow, and remixes of “Dancing in the Dark”, “Cover me”, and “Born in the USA.” (That’s why I still do an echo in the chorus of Dancing).
I borrowed “The River” from Mika after two girls in my class did their Finnish-class presentation on the man and his music, and then, to close it off, played “The River”. Because it’s a double album, and has a running time of over 82 minutes, I had to use a 90-minute C cassette, which meant that the songs that ended up on B-side – everything from Point Blank on – didn’t get much play in the house.
Even today, when I have all the albums in neat folders on my iTunes, the play counts drop dramatically after Point Blank: Hungry Heart 32, The River 27, The Ties that Bind 20, Point Blank 13, Stolen Car 7, Fade Away 5, Ramrod 5, Drive All Night 4.
But I bought a copy of Born to Run because Mika said it was a classic. Back then, Born to Run was already an old album. It had come out ten years earlier, and Springsteen had also recorded three other albums between that and Born in the USA.
“Everybody should have Born to Run at home,” Mika had told me so when I saw it in the mid-price section at a local department store soon afterwards, I grabbed it.
I remember coming home with the album, and first flipping the cover over to see who Bruce is leaning on – Clarence Clemons, of course – and then opening the cover to reveal the image of a smiling Springsteen, and the lyrics.
I sat down, and I listened to the music with the cover, and the lyrics, in front of me, following the stories, from Mary on the porch to Eddie, and Scooter, and the Big Man.
2.”Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out”
1.”Born to Run”
2.”She’s the One”
3.”Meeting Across the River”
I didn’t know much about New Jersey, and the little that I did know, I had learned from the Rolling Stone magazine which our town’s best newsstand at the square had two copies of each week. I made sure to get one of them. That and a copy of the MAD magazine, with their usual gang of idiots.
But our town did have a river and it made for a good meeting point and which teenage boy doesn’t know what it feels like when “she’s so pretty that you’re lost in the stars, as you jockey your way through the cars”. It didn’t matter that there was no one particular “she” for me, because there were still so many shes around me, at school, at the rink.
“The Rangers had a homecoming in Harlem late last night”. I didn’t know Harlem, either, and hadn’t followed the Vietnam war but I did know the New York Rangers. Often, though, by the time Springsteen had sung that opening line of Jungleland, I was already fast asleep on the couch.
It was cold and dark outside and I was fast asleep, dreaming about a town full of losers, and pulling out of there to win.
It’s December again. It’s cold and dark outside. The screen door slams.