Adolescent dreams

Bruce Springsteen’s early music was about dreams. A glorified gutter rat from small town New Jersey wants to find life, and he’s going to find it in New York City faster than you can shout out 1-2-3-4. 

What’s more, he’s going to find it in a car with ludicrously huge fins, a pretty girl named Wendy seated next to him, and stardust music twinkling from the dashboard as they bullet along the turnpike. 

I discovered Springsteen when I was more or less my son Eliot’s age (he has just turned 14), as if in an adolescent dream. 

But his scruffy anthems also made their presence felt with a jolt of surprising recognition. 

Springsteen’s native Asbury Park (actually, he was born in Long Branch, New Jersey, but let’s not get into that) may be small beer on the eastern seaboard of the United States, but for me, living in the flat, persistently ugly expanse of New Zealand’s Hutt Valley, his serenades gleamed as enticingly as the lights of Manhattan the singer was forever seeing reflected from across the Jersey shoreline. 

Bullets move like snails in wheelchairs compared with the speed with which I hunted out a map and went about lyrically etching all its musical references into my mind. This mythological place had tree-lined streets, that was for sure, and a seaside boardwalk that bustled with strolling couples and stoned poets who didn’t write nothing at all. 

And across the way, according to nearly every track on his debut album, Greetings From Asbury Park, the prize cultural draw had to be a nonstop circus where a neon-lit carousel took riders high above the old lakes, used parks and dusty arcades. 

Years later, I physically discovered the place, too, on a last chance power drive on the way from Washington to New York, with the young woman I would later marry in the seat next to me, and a carefully selected bunch of Springsteen tracks serenading the ride. 

Now all that’s just a dreamy memory, of course, buried somewhere mentally deep between adolescence and middle age. 

And buried deeper still the other month when Springsteen arrived in New Zealand for a couple of sold out Auckland shows attended by everyone who counts, except for one old fan from the Hutt Valley.

Special needs mean special demands. 

Our social engagements usually need to be planned well in advance, and doubly so for anything that requires a trip out of town or abroad. 

That’s not to say my wife and I don’t get our share of fresh air; we do, and that includes the odd concert. 

But having an autistic son requires a bit more patience for couples to make these things work than I imagine is the case with run-of-the-mill domestic arrangements. 

And this time it wasn’t going to work at all. 

So one afternoon I made do with hauling out a few of the old albums and enjoying some of the old surprises again. 

Which certainly happened. 

Just not quite in the way I’d expected.

It often happens that when one returns to old favourites, whether music or movies or even people, a significant reevaluation takes place. 

Thus, as if for the first time, I was filtering Springsteen less as a precocious teen and more as an older parent. 

Interesting. 

I noticed, for example, that none of the small galaxy of characters in Springsteen’s early songs could remotely be described as having special needs. 

Indeed, none of these typically athletic characters even falls sick, not even the girl sitting on the hood of a Dodge guzzling beer in the soft summer rain, and therefore nobody ever has to ‘care’ for them. 

Terminal illnesses? 

Forget it. 

These guys are born to run, not born to die. 

Outside, the afternoon shadows in Wellington were lengthening, a bit like they were all those years ago when I made my pilgrimage to New Jersey. 

Soon it would be time for our usual pre-bedtime routine of fixing Eliot’s shower and meds. 

On that earlier afternoon it had been springtime in America, the time of year when the restaurants drag plastic chairs onto their patios and the crowds come out to feast. 

But in Asbury Park there had been no restaurants and no plastic chairs. 

The fabled carousel was there in all of its ragged glory, but no one was on it. 

The Asbury Park Convention Hall, where Springsteen shot his ominous Tunnel of Love video, also stood (and as far as I know still stands) abandoned. 

Half an hour later, with the afternoon fading into blue twilight, we were heading north again. 

We stopped off at a lookout called Sandy Hook, from where you can behold the skyline of Manhattan. 

On the beachfront, I remember glancing back in the direction of Asbury Park and then across the water to New York City, and wondering for the first time about the distance between what might be and what really is. 

“Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true,” Springsteen once asked, “or is it something worse?” 

The question was cast against one of the singer’s only uncharacteristically downbeat ballads, in which the driver of the vehicle with ludicrously large fins gets his girl pregnant and ends up having to scrimp and save for a family and mortgage and, who knows, a sustained period of supporting an incapacitated kid. 

When I was my son’s age the answer probably seemed obvious, but these days I wonder if the question is even legitimate. 

After all, it’s this life, not those dreams, that’s true. 

And this life, however fitful, hesitant and overwhelming it might sometimes seem when overlaid with the immutable facts of daily support needs, is surely so much better. 

Am I sorry I missed Bruce Springsteen’s Auckland shows? 

Ask me another.

David Cohen is a Wellington based author and commentator. He often writes about health, disability, and ageing issues.