Trying to walk like a man

It took me a very long time to realise how good Bruce Springsteen is: like many people, I misinterpreted Born in the USA as a tub-thumping, chest-beating, USA! USA! USA! anthem and didn’t investigate further. I’m a lot older and a little bit wiser now, and while I wouldn’t call myself a fan – I don’t own most of his albums, and I’ve only seen him live once – he’s written some of my very favourite songs. Walk Like a Man is one of them, and it makes me cry every time.

Well so much has happened to me
That I don’t understand
All I can think of is being five years old following behind you at the beach
Tracing your footprints in the sand
Trying to walk like a man

Springsteen wrote it about trying to be the man his father expected him to be and feeling that he was falling short; his relationship with his dad was rocky, his father unimpressed by his artistic leanings and his long hair. But good songs can take on a life beyond the specific circumstances they were written about, and Walk Like A Man is a very good song.

Here’s Naomi Gordon-Loebl, writing in The Nation, on “the queerness of Bruce Springsteen.”

In “Walk Like a Man,” from 1987’s Tunnel of Love, Springsteen sings about the lessons he learned from his father and whether he’ll ever know what he needs in order to “walk like a man”… the words seemed to perfectly encapsulate my experience of growing up in a body out of alignment with my gender, trying to walk a path that was not made for my feet and being constantly, painfully aware of the dissonance.

Me too. Gordon-Loebl and I were driving in different directions – as I understand it she’s a masculine-presenting gay woman, whereas I’m a trans femme –  but we clearly drove the same road and had the same connection with this song.

That line about being “painfully aware of the dissonance” really resonates with me. It’s a great way to describe the fear and frustration and sadness I felt throughout my old life, my frustration at being unable to perform a role my peers did automatically and effortlessly. I never lost that feeling of being five years old, trying and failing to walk like a man.

As Gordon-Loebl says, Bruce Springsteen couldn’t be more straight. But that doesn’t mean his songs can’t reflect other people’s experiences too. There’s a powerful melancholy to much of his music, and many of his best songs are about people who don’t fit in and who yearn to escape the circumstances they’re in. It’s no wonder that they resonate with people who feel suffocated.

But no matter where it comes from, there is an unmistakable echo of queer loneliness in his work. “Everybody’s got a secret, Sonny, something that they just can’t face,” Springsteen sings on “Darkness on the Edge of Town.” “Tonight I’ll be on that hill ’cause I can’t stop…. I’ll be there on time and I’ll pay the cost / For wanting things that can only be found / In the darkness on the edge of town.”

…Perhaps nothing is so fundamentally queer about Springsteen as the pervasive feeling of dislocation that’s threaded through his work, the nagging sense that something has been plaguing him since birth, and that he’s dreaming of a place where he might finally fling it off his back.