Vol. 24: “Nothing Man” Bruce Springsteen

“I can’t think of another album in which such an abundance of great songs might be said to seem the least of its achievements.”
–from Kurt Loder’s review of The Rising: Rolling Stone. July 30, 2002

Very special thanks to The Parent Experiment host and Springsteen Super Fan Lynette Carolla for inspiration on this week’s post!

Maybe it’s Divine, or just The Great Magnet, but when I was thinking about posting an overlooked Springsteen song for Memorial Day, I just happened to tune into E-Street Radio and find a song I found mesmerizing right away. Okay, I admit, it was my “free day” on the Slow Carb Diet last Saturday and my main mission was to obtain some Krispy Kremes from the local Speedway. I happened to hit the E-Street Radio station on SiriusXM  and found a gem I hadn’t heard before. That repetitive, yet mesmerizing melody, paired with lyrics that scream “sad” so softly, and reward repeat listens with more details.

Hooks Heard
In my own songwriting circles, the rule I hear the most is “throw out the rules if it’s a great song”. That applies here, as Bruce takes a minimalist approach to his melody. It’s almost as if he wants to deliver a message with as few notes as possible. The melody is little more than a repetition of the same six or seven notes between C and G. To be sure, the production fills in the spaces here, with an organ and lead guitar that lend almost as much voice to the song as Bruce himself. That distorted lead gives off a vibe of crying. Then there’s the wordless tag of voices that seems to give the story a cloud of witnesses, weeping for what’s been lost.

Meaning Meter
While “Nothing Man” first appears here in 2002’s The Rising, the song dates back to 1994. It’s fitting that it was held back for this album, where it eerily seems like Bruce wrote it after the 9/11 attacks. I was unable to find a definitive statement of story behind the lyrics, but there’s plenty to delve into here. The only obvious piece of the puzzle is a man “forever changed” by a significant event. We get just enough detail to create our own images and wonder what exactly happened. The “cloud of pink vapor” suggests a gruesome explosion of blood. Is he remembering a battle where he witnessed the death of a fellow soldier, or is it the enemy he saw, killed by his own hand? The chorus seems more straightforward. While he longs for love he warns any potential lover that he’s the “nothing man”, emotionally scarred from his experiences, and possibly not capable of love.

For almost 40 years now, The Boss has made an art out of telling stories of the common man in song. His up-tempo rockers get the most airplay, but the brooding ballads like “Nothing Man” are spun far less often, yet pack a hefty emotional punch.