This December, I gave my Composition students an early Christmas gift: I played “Rosalita” for them.
They needed it. Desperately. About a month prior, I name-dropped Springsteen on a quiz. (“Combine these two sentences into one using an appositive: A: ‘Bruce Springsteen is a living legend and one of America’s greatest performers.’ B: ‘He has never had a number one song.’”)
Then, for extra credit, I asked them to name three Springsteen songs. Maybe two kids, out of twenty, could do it.
Granted, they’re only sixteen. During their lifetimes, the only Springsteen song that reached the Top 40 was 1997’s “Secret Garden,” when all of them were still in diapers.
Still… this is Springsteen! How is it possible these kids only know one or two of his songs? It’s not as if he hasn’t been recording music for four decades! And counting: his 18th album, High Hopes, was released today.
I had to do something. Yes, as a teacher, I am charged with educating my students about appositives and antecedents and words such as “aficionado” and “aegis.” But I also have to help them become Functional, Culturally Literate Human Beings. So at the end of class one day, after they handed in their vocab quizzes, I played “Rosalita”—in my mind, the quintessential “Introduction to Springsteen” song.
Not everyone may agree. For example, Rolling Stone, in a 2013 commemorative magazine ranking the greatest 100 Springsteen songs of all time, not only put “Born to Run” at number one, it barred “Rosalita” from the top ten. (Poor Rosie languishes down at eleven.) Also, “Rosalita” was never officially released as a single, which doesn’t help its notoriety.
And frankly it’s old, dating back to his second album, The Wild, The Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle, from 1973. That means the “real” Rosalita (if such a woman ever existed) would be in her early- to mid-sixties by now. (I don’t know what’s harder to accept: that the Boss himself is 64, or that Rosalita is now a cougar.)
Still, for my purposes, “Rosalita” encapsulates everything great about a Springsteen song: it’s got sax, clever rhymes (e.g. “Lord have mercy” and “swamps of Jersey”), an eminently singable chorus, and lots and lots of lyrics, sung in Bruce’s inimitable “somewhere between a mumble and a barbaric yawp” style. All stuffed into an anthemic seven minutes.
Most of all, like so many Springsteen classics, “Rosalita” tells a story—actually, two stories. On one hand, it’s a love song, about a cash-poor/ braggadocio-rich young buck who wants to liberate (confiscate?) his senorita from the clutches of her overprotective parents.
But it’s also a “let’s-blow-this-clambake” song, preparing the way for songs like “Thunder Road” or “Born to Run”; in “Rosalita,” the narrator wants to use music as a way to leave his going-nowhere town and head out West. (And by the end, that dream starts to become a reality, when the record company gives him a “big advance.”)
But I didn’t just play “Rosalita” so my students could learn about Springsteen’s music; I wanted them to learn about Springsteen the man. Think about it: Springsteen has adopted countless personae over the years, from a veteran, to a firefighter, to a despicable—yet bizarrely celebrated—deadbeat dad from Baltimore (who went out for a ride and never went back).
But for “Rosalita,” the first-person narrator is a young, Jersey-born slacker with nothing but a guitar and a rock-and-roll dream. In other words, Springsteen himself, circa 1973.
In his book Songs, Springsteen calls “Rosalita” his “musical autobiography,” and he’s right. It may not be historically accurate (Did Bruce really know a Rosalita? How about a Big Bones Billy?), but no matter: the narrator of “Rosalita” is who Bruce was back then.
And in some impossible, metaphysical kind of way, it’s who he is now. I’m reminded of that great E.B. White essay, “Once More to the Lake,” in which the author describes returning to a vacation spot from his youth. “There had been no years,” White says… and the same applies to Springsteen. We know he’s now an Elder Statesman of Rock; he just doesn’t let us believe it.
That sense of timelessness is on display in “Rosalita.” In the lyrics, Bruce muses about the passage of time, when he says, “Someday we’ll look back on this and it will all seem funny.” But you know what’s really funny? That in 2013, an Elder Statesman of Rock, worth $200 million, can sing lines such as “Your Papa says he knows that I don’t have any money”… and get away with it.
And honestly? I think, by playing “Rosalita” for them, I was trying to get away with something, too. Sure, I wanted my students to know a few things about Springsteen. But I also wanted them to know a little bit about me—as both a fan and a forty-three-year-old high school teacher who still doesn’t feel all that removed from high school himself. I guess, when I hear “Rosalita,” I can’t help but feel a little timeless as well—if only for those seven minutes.
Here’s the story—one I shared with my students after I played the song for them, about the two times I’ve seen Springsteen live. The first was in February 1988, the opening night of the Tunnel of Love Express Tour. I was a senior in high school (“Not much older than you,” I point out to my kids); I was with five of my best buddies; and I was experiencing The Boss playing “Rosalita” live. Glory days, indeed.
As I’m sharing this story to the students, I realize the period is almost over, so I zip to my second Bruce concert. It’s a little over twenty years later, in August 2008, and now I have a wife, two kids, a job, and much less hair. And if I hadn’t already been thinking about how much time pad passed between the two shows, a chance encounter with a former student drove the point the home. “1988?” he marveled, when I revealed the last time I had seen Bruce live. “Wow. I wasn’t even born yet.”
At that moment, as if on cue, I heard a crack of thunder, as the skies unleashed a furious concert of its own. Rain. Wind. Cloud-splitting lightning. They had to postpone the show for an hour, just to be safe.
But when Bruce and his E Streeters finally emerged onto the stage, none of that mattered. They just played and played and played… and then, to reward us for sitting through the storm, they played some more. Finally, just shy of midnight, for the whopping seventh song of his encore, Bruce said he would play one final number—or as he called it, “one more fairy tale about New Jersey.”
“Rosalita.” Of course. And with those opening chords, the crowd erupted, just as raucously as I remember it back in 1988, when I was seventeen. There had been no years.
“And let me tell you,” I say to the kids, just as the bell rings, “it sounded great.” For a cougar, Rosie could still rock