Athens, June, 2019
I was on a ferry returning to Athens from Spetses, a beautiful Greek island on the tranquil and beguiling Aegean Sea when I got the text from Polly: the new Springsteen album, Western Stars was up on Spotify.
About six or so hours later I listened to the album.
Crap internet reception on the ferry meant the best I could do was stare at the Spotify “album” and song list.
We arrived in Athens and headed to Aristea and Spiros’ home, where we were staying. Aristea is my wife, Vicki’s, cousin. They are the most beautiful family. There would be dinner and stories. Told in Greek and English and Google translate. And music and laughter and Spiros’ home made wine. This is who they are, what they know and what they share, hearts as open and welcome as the Peloponnese.
Just after midnight in bed, in the dark, with headphones I finally got to listen to the new Bruce Springsteen album! I’m in my late 50s and pretty down with the whole middle aged thing. But first listen to new albums of old favourites and I’m in my early 20s, just like that. The hush, the excitement, the attempt to understand EVERYTHING about the album on first play and that satisfied feeling when a song finishes and you just know it’s a keeper. That is how I was. And the album was delivering. Song after song. I was wowing and nodding, silently laughing and occasionally catching a tear. Then Stones started.
In 20 seconds of orchestrated pop, with an ominous undertone the scene is set, before Bruce sings what might be his most enigmatic opening line.
I woke up this morning with stones in my mouth.
The next line delivers a punch so hard I gasped in the dark, feeling every bit of vitriol and bitterness, every ounce of hurt and confusion, every iota of pride and determination emanating from 10 simple words.
You said those were only the lies you’ve told me
This is Dylan and Hank at their finest; Old Testament moral code made poetic by the phrase, stones in my mouth. I was thinking surely he must have cobbled it from some other poem or story, soothsayer or bard. Nuh, it’s as original as the first sin.
Alone in the dark, a million miles from home, on a holiday that had been generous with sights and moments, love and family, I was almost paralysed by the grief pouring out of this five-minute parable.
Stark and contrasting images connect the confession – cold wind, sun on their bed, a thousand black crows, dark autumn leaves tumbling down and a highway washed in sun. Stones are in his mouth, they gather on his tongue and he can feel their weight. It would seem that neither home nor the freedom of the highway can assuage a restlessness he can’t define. Ricocheting through this tragic realisation is a famous Springsteen line from The River. Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true or is it something worse?
This is not a cheating song. The mirror the protagonist in Stones is staring into reflects an existential impasse. He is unable to settle and unable to find what he is looking for even with unfettered freedom. Can you live with an unsatisfied heart? Springsteen asked this question in another song. The terror at the heart of Stones is that the man pondering it is entering his eighth decade and knows time is not on his side. When he sings, you said those were only the lies you’ve told me he is talking to himself.
Of course I’m understanding the song on my terms. You will have your own understanding. All I know is that when the song finished I could not play the song that followed. I played Stones again. Shivering involuntarily and squeezing my hands into fists to stay the more visceral reaction pushing through my chest. And I soaked up the pain our protagonist was conveying in a futile effort to comfort him as he stared into the abyss of a question that cannot be answered.
Stereo Story #538