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.