“Backstreets” is one of my very favourite Springsteen songs and is found on the 1975 album Born to Run. It is a beautiful but heart-wrenching song about loss and I’m writing this to present to you how I see the story. I’m not suggesting for a minute that this really is the true meaning of the song, but this is how I see it everytime I hear it, and I think the lyrics and general tone of the song support my theory.
First off I should start by saying that I’ve always thought I was alone in my interpretation of this song, and indeed, when I have spoken to other Springsteen fans in the past about it they haven’t shared my view on it; even if we can all agree on what an outstanding song it is. Recently though, I’ve been seeing a few (not many) people proposing the same idea as me and so I have to start off by apologising: if you’ve seen this theory before or already subscribe to it yourself, then this won’t be all that exciting. I do, however, hope to go into more depth than other people on this.
To put it plainly: I think this tells the story of a homosexual couple who are struggling to come to terms with their feelings and are therefore trying to hide them, from themselves initially and then from a society that wouldn’t understand or accept them. Inevitably, this tears them apart.
There are a few reasons I started to think about this. First of all, the love interest in the song is named Terry which, although a unisex name, is spelled the traditionally masculine way, rather than the more feminine “Terri”. On this album we can find Mary, Cherry and Wendy, but there’s something about Terry that stands out. Add to this the fact that there are no references to any women in the lyrics. Also, Springsteen is a well-known advocate of LGBT rights and has a humanitarian respect for all groups of people. He was happy to break down racial barriers in the 70s by making his friendship with saxophone player Clarence Clemons a big part of his stage show and even often kissed him on the mouth on stage. He cancelled a performance in North Carolina in 2016 over the controversial “Bathroom Bill” and famously won an Oscar for his song “Streets of Philadelphia”, written for the film “Philadelphia”. Both the song and the film deal with bigotry towards homosexuals and the prejudices that came with the AIDs virus. Springsteen is, to say the least, comfortable exploring the socially forbidden, for want of a better term.
The easiest thing I can do to present my case is to take the song line-by-line and use it to illustrate my point. So, here we go!
One soft infested summer me and Terry became friends/ Trying in vain to breathe the fire we was born in.
There are two points I’d make here. The fact that he introduces Terry as his friend first instantly signals a platonic relationship and, while this doesn’t rule out Terry being a female, I’m hard-pressed to think of many Springsteen songs that present us with friends of the opposite gender. Then, when he sings about trying in vain to breathe the fire they were born in, I take it to mean that they tried and failed to fit in with those around them and to act in the way society expected them to act (more on that later).
Catching rides to the outskirts, tying faith between our teeth/ Sleeping in that old abandoned beach house / Getting wasted in the heat.
Similarly, these seem like activities two male friends would partake in. Hitchhiking to a place where they can be themselves, where they can drink and sleep next to each other. This is the first hint of sexual intimacy in the song but still doesn’t give us much. Then, we get the chorus.
Hiding on the backstreets/ With a love so hard and filled with defeat/ Running for our lives at night on them backstreets.
I’ve always thought that “hiding on the backstreets” was referencing the fact that they really are hiding, both literally and figuratively. They are hiding their activities and their feelings from those around them. In the early 1970s, being openly homosexual could have caused a serious amount of trouble and this is, I believe, what he means when he sings about running for their lives together and why their love is, ultimately, filled with defeat. They live in a world and a time that will never allow them to be themselves.
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 bell that rings/ In the deep heart of the night/ We let loose of everything.”
Now we’re fully introduced to the romantic aspect of their relationship. They are parked together with other lovers and this is where they decide to be themselves: during the night where nobody can stop them. Somewhere they can “let loose of everything”; shed off the prejudice and watchful eyes of their community and be together. At the end of the chorus that follows, they make a pact to live forever, presumably with each other. The bond, however, does not last.
Endless juke joints and Valentino drag/ Where dancers scrape the tears up off the streets dressed down in rags/ Running into the darkness, some hurt bad, some really dying/ At night sometimes it seemed you could hear that whole damn city crying.
This brief visual montage of a city decaying works as both the backdrop and the metaphor for the narrator’s and Terry’s parting. All we know (and all we need to know) is that things got bad and couldn’t get better. This leads to my favourite part of the song:
Blame it on the lies that killed us, 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.
This verse has a lot packed into it. I think the lies the narrator refers to could mean that one of them is refusing to acknowledge their feelings (possibly due to societal pressure) and the truth that ran them down was this very refusal. I think it is the narrator who struggles to come to terms with his own nature as he is willing to take all of the blame. There is also an aspect of infidelity as Terry runs off with another man and our narrator is left bitter and filled with hate for both of them.
Now 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 and 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.
This lyric about faithlessness could be a reference to both Terry’s unfaithful behaviour and the fact that the narrator has no faith in himself and lacks the conviction to live his true life. Trying to force himself to “walk like the heroes we thought we had to be” is a giveaway line for me and one that my interpretation hangs on. The narrator is trying to mould his own behaviour on the characters he sees in movies; namely, heterosexual tough guys who don’t concern themselves with matters of the heart. We feel society’s demand for conformity in this line. Then, in the last line, we have our narrator left stranded and “forced to confess” to hiding on the backstreets. The backstreets now act as a metaphor for his feelings. Avoided and distrusted by all around him. The use of confession implies he was doing something wrong and, in his community’s eyes, he perhaps has been.
We swore forever friends/ On the backstreets until the end.
This bittersweet (or maybe just bitter) line highlights the betrayal and broken promise from Terry and we are left with our lonely and defeated narrator. “Hiding on the backstreets” repeats over and over again until the song ends. He is once again cast out onto the margins of town as well as the margins of society.
Whether or not you agree with my specific analysis, this is without a doubt a song about loss, betrayal, love, shame, acceptance and prejudice. Our central characters’ relationship is bound by defeat from the very beginning and it is a relationship that is never allowed to settle and they are characters who are never allowed to find peace within themselves.
Musically, the song is gorgeous and moving and features some of Springsteen’s most impassioned and furious vocals. His guttural wails in the chorus mirror the narrator’s frustrations with his surroundings and at his lack of courage and disappointment in himself.
On an album about escaping, “Backstreets” is a song about being trapped and not able to get out. The streets, the community, the era… it seems everything holds them back and if they can’t escape then at least they can hide.