Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Bruce Springsteen, "Hungry Heart"

In honor of the holiday recently past, (Valentine's Day, not Presidents' Day) I thought I should write about a song about love that's been stuck in my head for the last few days. It's Bruce Springsteen's song "Hungry Heart," which was his first Top Ten single, from his 1980 double-album "The River."

It's easy to hear why this was Bruce's first big hit single, it has a very catchy tune, and much fewer words than his early songs! It also has a very simple, hooky chorus. The song starts with a brief drum fill from Max Weinberg, then moves straight into the main melody, played by the piano. Clarence Clemons's saxophone honks away, and the song has a 50's-60's feel to it. Bruce shouts "Yeah!" and then starts singing. But the relentlessly upbeat music is fitted to uneasy lyrics, "Got a wife and kids in Baltimore, jack/I went out for a ride and I never went back." Okay, so in the first two lines of the song we've established that the narrator has a wife and kids, and one day he simply up and leaves them. What reason does the narrator give for his actions? "Like a river that don't know where it's flowin'/ I took a wrong turn and I just kept goin'." Well, that's a suitable justification, right? No, not really. Notice how Bruce works in the image of a river, which is also the central image in the song "The River." By comparing his actions to those of a river, the narrator is essentially saying that he has no control over his actions, that nature is shaping his actions, the same way that nature shapes the river. Which brings up an interesting question, are people meant to be faithful and monogamous? I won't go into all that here, but suffice it to say, there are all kinds of answers to this question.

But that question leads us nicely into the chorus, "Everybody's got a hungry heart/everybody's got a hungry heart/lay down your money and you play your part/everybody's got a hungry heart." The narrator is saying, obviously, that everyone has a "hungry heart," meaning that everyone needs affection and attention, no matter where it comes from. And that everyone is hungry, or greedy, for love and affection. Everybody always wants more than what they currently have. It doesn't matter that the narrator is married and has children, he is still susceptible to the charms of the opposite sex. He still wants something more. I'm not entirely sure what the "lay down your money and you play your part" line means, it could be a reference to prostitution, or it could simply be referring to the different gender roles we play, that men usually pay for things.

The first verse also references Springsteen's recurring motif of travel, of escape, of getting away from things, usually by car. Like Rabbit Angstrom in John Updike's novel "Rabbit, Run," Bruce's narrator simply kept driving away from his wife and kids. He is, like Rabbit, running away from responsibility. In the second verse, we discover what he finds once he stops running. "I met her in a Kingstown bar/We fell in love I knew it had to end." Okay, so he meets a woman in a bar, but what does he know "had to end"? His marriage, or this illicit relationship? I'm going with the marriage, based on the next two lines. "We took what we had and we ripped it apart/Now here I am down in Kingstown again." So the narrator and his mistress ripped apart their current relationships to be together. (Is she married too?) And now the narrator is back in Kingstown again, to see his mistress. Because, well, both the narrator and his mistress have hungry hearts.

At the very end of the second chorus, Bruce lifts his voice up on the last syllables of "hungry" and the song changes key upwards. Danny Federici gets a tasty little organ solo that leads us into the final verse. "Everybody needs a place to rest/Everybody wants to have a home." Which is true, but the narrator had a home and a place to rest, and he threw it all away. This sounds like more self-justification to me. "Don't make no difference what nobody says/Ain't nobody like to be alone." Okay, so once we get past the numerous grammatical errors in these two lines, the narrator seems to be justifying his actions by saying that people naturally seek companionship. But again, the narrator had companionship in his marriage, and left it. Perhaps the narrator would say that even though he was married, he was still really alone, because it was an unfulfilling relationship. The song then closes with another repetition of the chorus, and Bruce gets in some scatting on the fade out.

"Hungry Heart" is a great example of Springsteen matching an upbeat, catchy melody to lyrics that present something more than just a poppy, upbeat message of "Everything's okay." (Think of "Born in the USA.") "Hungry Heart" asks some tough questions about love and relationships: when are we happy, when are we satisfied, and what happens when we should be satisfied, by society's standards of relationships, but really aren't satisfied. What happens when someone tries to break out of those relationships? What's the emotional fall out from the decision to "just keep goin'"? Do we always want what we can't have? Does everyone really have a "Hungry Heart" that is always searching for something "better," something new and fresh, no matter what the cost is to others? That's kind of a depressing way to look at relationships. But these questions are all worth pondering.


Holly A Hughes said...

You've put your finger on what I don't like about Springsteen -- the hooky, upbeat pop song pumped up with anthemic grandeur, yet a strange disconnect between the music and the lyrics. That Kerouacian ideal of the restless free spirit just doesn't ring true for me. But whatever. I agree that once this song has gotten stuck in your brain it's very hard to get rid of it. And now I've got it, d*mn it!!

Mark said...

I agree, there's definitely a disconnect between the music and the lyrics. Kind of like how Ronald Reagan loved "Born the the USA," because he only heard the hooky, anthemic chorus, but wasn't listening to the bitter verses.

Betty C. said...

I just drifted over here from Holly's blog, and I see she has already commented.

I don't really care for this song but have just been relistening to "The River" and I can't get past the first three songs, which I keep playing over and over. There's some great cuts on it, although had he just taken my favorites and made a single album, I'm sure it would have been his best ever!

If you want to play the 15 most significant albums game, send me a note over here:

I lost reading this list. I think it is the "significant" that makes it so interesting.

Betty C. said...

I meant I love reading this list, not lost! Blogging before 7am without enough coffee in my does play tricks...

Mark said...

Hi Betty, thanks for the commment! I read your 15 albums list, I found your blog through Holly's too. It's a great idea, and I'm always happy to see another Kinks fan! I'll have to ponder my list while I'm on vacation next week.

Stu Flint said...

To understand Bruce’s “Hungry Heart” read the entire lyric and set the scene in your mind: Two strangers sitting at a bar

“Got a wife and kids in Baltimore, Jack” Who is Jack? The last line tells you: “Now here I am down in Kingstown again.” Jack is the guy he is telling his story to, presumably his new bar buddy in Kingstown. He says he has got a wife and kids meaning he stills sees them as his. He tried to escape that domestic obligation but still feels it. The “wrong turn” he refers to is leaving his family.

He meets the girl in a Kingstown falls in love but knows it has to end. Why? Because he’d be right back where he started, confined by another relationship again and he still has a wife and kids Baltimore! Maybe he went back home for a little while or perhaps someplace else, but now he has returned to “Kingstown” a metaphor for I’m still trying to find myself.

The whole point of the song is a lament of his actions and a realization that everybody has a hungry heart he is not special in that regard. “Lay down your money and play the part,” is his advice to Jack, saying, stick to your responsibilities or, like him, you’ll be forever searching for something that may not exist (be it true love, a better life, whatever.)

And it is joyful in tune because the truth shall set you free – or Bruce just thought is was catchy

Mark said...

Hi Stu,

Thanks for the comment, that definitely makes sense to me. I hadn't thought to read it as though "Jack" is another person, but I like that, it works. I like your interpretation of "Lay down your money and you play your part" better than mine, it makes more sense.

Anonymous said...

I thought the fact that you thought prostitution was involved in the chorus hungry heart verse was funny. But the rest of your post helped me understand what he was really saying. He's saying EVERYBODY has a hungry heart, men and women. You're right, deep down we are all greedy and want more of things, mostly money. And then he says, lay down your money and play your part. "Your part" means that everyone is being greedy, so you might as well tag along and start being greedy like everyone else is, because you're going to do it anyways. I agree with what you said, this song is about people doing what people do, because they can't really control their desires, their desire for more is just there.

Anonymous said...

Well what you are saying without saying it is Bruce and Patty are in an arranged marriage. Where Patty provides Children and Bruce Provides the promise that no matter what goes down and how many times I prowl We have this understanding that we stay together..I can say Next Bruce but it will cost you a high Price....Money.....this time......:---))

Anonymous said...

I interpret the second verse as him describing how he met his wife... and now here is is down in Kingstown again.

I agree about the close parallel with Rabbit Run and Updike. I find a similar link between My Hometown and Philip Roth's American Pastoral.

Anonymous said...

I came across this doing some research for an essay. I think "Hungry heart" may be from Ulysses by Tennyson. Tennyson being another person who up and left his family. Bruce was also a poet and has some poems published. (That's pretty neat)

I took "lay down your money" as maybe "placing your bets".

Anonymous said...

Ulysses up and left his family in search for new places, ideas and experiences. Not relationships per se. Hungry heart in the poem is meaning to find one's self through new experiences. Just another thought.

masahiro said...

I'm a Japanese and a big fan of Bruce Springsteen.
Your detailed explanation helped me with understanding the lyrics.
Thank you!
I like your blog. I'll sometimes visit.

Anonymous said...

Amazing how people come up with different interpretations. Most lyricists draw from their personal experiences and then go back to cross out certain details deliberately so each person who hears it can put themselves into the story in their own personal way. What grabs the listener is the most powerful connection: "Everybody wants a place to rest. Everbody wants to have a home. Don't make no difference what nobody says (Ain't nobody like to be alone.)"
Let's suppose you had a dream you didn't attain and the nagging emptiness you feel breaks you away. That emptiness would only hurt those you built a family around. Trying to find himself, not knowing how to fit that dream into the family picture, he realizes his basic need of rest and home.
It's the paradox of the dreamer.
The price you pay for that dream or the price you pay of either part you play -the dreamer or the family man.
*John Bogiovi is a prime example of timing the elements of both his dreams. Finding the love of his life who stood by him and helped him attain success with his career. Dorothea believed in him. It takes a powerful mutual love and understanding for that kind of victory.
Bruce leaves his writting open in this song. That river is like a mistress that could be anybody's dream, be it music, acting, travel, even a person, or anything that demands a feeling of longing. Nomatter what that is for you, nobody likes to be alone
...Everybody Needs L O V E...