For me, one of the most tearingly raw moments I think I’ve ever experienced within a piece of music comes midway through Backstreets. Springsteen’s delivery of the lines – blame it on the lies that killed us. Blame it on the truth that ran us down. You can blame it all on me Terry it don’t matter to me now. When the breakdown hit at midnight there was nothing left to say, but I hated him and I hated you when you went away – is as intimate and bleeding as anything to be found in, for example, Eric Clapton’s moving track Tears in heaven.
Considering that Clapton’s song deals with his coming to terms with the tragic death of his own, very young, child (after a fall from a high-rise window of all things), that’s probably a big call, I know.
A sense of longing and resigned regret infuse Clapton’s ode with an almost transcendent beauty, but it comes from a place where the singer has, to a certain degree, made his peace with the tragedy that informs the song. There is a sober, mature quality to his delivery. The emotions are deep, but no longer raw.
By contrast, when he reaches that emotional zenith in Backstreets, there is the rawness of the nerve exposed. The first part – blame it on the lies that killed us. Blame it on the truth that ran us down. You can blame it all on me Terry it don’t matter to me now – has an almost cornered animal quality. The devastating nature of the thing that has overtaken his characters – turning friend against friend – is redolent in every note. There is the sense that the pain of his own inward facing rage is too much for him to bear.
When the breakdown hit at midnight there was nothing left to say – here we see the moment of dissolution, but now he has got something to say, now comes confession – but I hated him – is spat out with such undisguised pain and blind anger that it is as if he were a child howling against the injustice of some deep betrayal. And yet, immediately there is a shift into an almost apologetic self-awareness and shame as he sings – and I hated you when you went away. The anguished wail that follows is almost redundant.
It’s a moment of instinctive performance genius.
I’ve listened to multiple versions of Springsteen singing this song and those lines are always delivered with exactly the same level of intensity. It is a moment of pure emotion, of total honesty. It touches that place inside us where every past overreaction, every hasty and soon regretted decision hides, coiled and ready to lash out in condemnation.
It is a tortured roar of defiance against our own petty natures; simply a brilliantly artful moment.
This is why art exists.
One soft infested summer me and Terry* became friends,
trying in vain to breathe the fire we was born in
Catching rides to the outskirts tying faith between our teeth.
Sleeping in that old abandoned beach house getting wasted in the heat
And hiding on the backstreets, hiding on the backstreets
With a love so hard and filled with defeat
Running for our lives at night on them backstreets
Slow dancing in the dark on the beach at Stockton’s Wing
Where desperate lovers park we sat with the last of the Duke Street Kings
Huddled in our cars waiting for the bells that ring
In the deep heart of the night to set us loose from everything
to go running on the backstreets, running on the backstreets
We swore we’d live forever on the backstreets we take it together
Endless juke joints and Valentino drag where dancers scraped the tears
Up off the street dressed down in rags running into the darkness
Some hurt bad some really dying at night sometimes it seemed
You could hear the whole damn city crying blame it on the lies that killed us
Blame it on the truth that ran us down you can blame it all on me Terry
It don’t matter to me now when the breakdown hit at midnight
There was nothing left to say but I hated him and I hated you when you went away
Laying here in the dark you’re like an angel on my chest
Just another tramp of hearts crying tears of faithlessness
Remember all the movies, Terry, we’d go see
Trying to learn how to walk like the heroes we thought we had to be
And after all this time to find we’re just like all the rest
Stranded in the park and forced to confess
To hiding on the backstreets, hiding on the backstreets
We swore forever friends on the backstreets until the end
Hiding on the backstreets, hiding on the backstreets
*It is generally assumed that Terry is a girl and that the song deals with the protagonist’s anger at being betrayed by her. I tend to believe that Terry is probably a guy.
…Remember all the movies, Terry, we’d go see
Trying to learn how to walk like the heroes we thought we had to be…
That really doesn’t sound like a relationship between a man and a woman to me.
I also take exception with the notion that the song is about his anger over being betrayed by Terry. I feel it is more about the realisation that he (the protagonist) was just as much a betrayer as he was betrayed. For me, it is about looking back and seeing the moment you screwed it all up. The anger is inwardly directed.