When I was 14 years old, one of my best buds became obsessed with a song by a rock star elder on the topic of relationships with women. Indeed, as he prayed for “the end of time,” Meat Loaf warned me that male desire would lead to the death-sentence known as marriage. I prayed for the end of that annoying song, but I’m sure it also left a scar on my subconscious, especially since my friend played it every single day after school.
The memory of those afternoons was revived – too easily, if you ask me – as I was reading Walk Like a Man: Coming of Age with the Music of Bruce Springsteen, a memoir by Victoria-based author Robert J. Wiersema that hits bookstores today. Conceived in the form of a mix tape, Mr. Wiersema, who is a Springsteen super-fan, presents 14 chapters, each based on a different song.
After a childhood of being picked on by practically everyone in his school, Mr. Wiersema remembers his triumphant first kiss to the nostalgic soundtrack of My Hometown. Later, still as a teen, pining for love and listening to She’s the One, he vented his shy, frustrated15-year-old desires as many of us have, turning all girls into femme fatales: “Standing in that doorway like a dream,” Springsteen sings, “I wish she’d just leave me alone.”
At some point, though, on his way to becoming a man, a boy gets over these defensive measures and makes a go of it. When I asked my bud Michael what songs his life mix-tape would include, he remembered that he used to lie in bed and play Pearl Jam’s Black every time his affections went unrequited. He even used some of the song’s lines in a love letter to one particular girl: “I know some day you'll have a beautiful life, I know you'll be a sun in somebody else’s sky. But why, why, why can't it be, can’t it be mine?”
As it turns out – and this is something that should give hope to nerds everywhere – she could be his. The letter worked.
“It helped me get the girl,” he says. “But in the end, I rejected her. I know, so cruel. I write this beautiful love letter while I was away travelling, she surprisingly returns my feelings, and then it turns out that I decided I didn’t want her after all. Like I said: Cruel.”
Is that the scent of Meat Loaf I smell?
As a guy grows out of his teenage years, he may overcome commitment-phobia by the dashboard light and find songs to share with a sweetheart. Throughout my 20s, my girlfriend and I used to put on music and dance when we’d come home after being out. I’d always play Springsteen’s I’m Goin’ Down and we’d bop along to it, smiling at each other. For some reason I loved it, and it’s surprisingly upbeat for a song about a relationship on the rocks. Later, as we were breaking up, it helped my transition into the next plot point of my life.
Another of my friends had a breakup tune for his mix tape. “When my first long-time girlfriend and I broke up, we both gave each other a copy of I Will Always Love You,” Jay told me. “I listened to it constantly.”
It makes sense that his girlfriend gave him Whitney Houston’s hit, about letting a guy move on, as a parting gift. But him returning the sentiment? “I did still love her,” he said, “but we were young. I needed to roam. She knew she had no choice.”
Apparently, some need a second helping of Meat Loaf.
As I near the hilltop that is 40, I see how songs that remind us of the end of things can come around again. I’m Goin’ Down doesn’t make me simply sad any more. When I listen to it now after years have gone by, I remember both the happiness that it used to accompany, as well as the darkness. I think I finally understand more fully why the Boss made it play to both those things to begin with.
Indeed, music that touches us more than once is the most poignant. A few years after Jay and his ex broke up, she died, which gave the song they exchanged a whole new layer of meaning. “When I hear it now, it makes me cry,” he told me.
I haven’t got to the score for life after 40 yet, but in his book, Mr. Wiersema gives me a peek at the struggles and joys of setting down roots in marriage and family.
“I’m too old for flights of fancy, and Born to Run doesn’t hit me the same way as it did when I was 15,” he told me this week. “For me now, anthems about escape don’t really ring true. As you get older, I think the best you can hope for is realistic optimism.”
These days, he says, lines from Human Touch resonate more. He recited them to me from memory: “So you've been broken and you've been hurt / Show me somebody who ain't / Yeah, I know I ain't nobody's bargain / But, hell, a little touch up and a little paint.”
I wonder if Bruce might even be talking about that same car that Meat Loaf found paradise in so long ago.
Micah Toub is the author of Growing Up Jung: Coming of Age as the Son of Two Shrinks .