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Highway 29 revisited: Bruce Springsteen and Guy Clark

Updated: May 7, 2020

Ian Malin

In 1995 Bruce Springsteen released his understated masterpiece The Ghost of Tom Joad. Springsteen’s best works are his narrative songs and this is a collection of tales of America’s dispossessed, the Mexican child prostitutes of Balboa Park, the Vietnamese shrimp fishermen of Galveston Bay, the young men who cross the border from northern Mexico to make methamphetamine in a ‘tin-shack on the edge of a ravine’ in Sinaloa Cowboys.

All these marginalised people are living on the edge. Springsteen tells the tale of a petty criminal trying, without much success, to live a straight life in Highway 29. Part of Springsteen’s genius as a songwriter is his ear or capturing the nuances of everyday speech in much the same way as a novelist such as Anne Tyler can write pages of dialogue of ordinary people of her native Baltimore and make them sound like poetry.

Here’s an arresting few opening lines:

I slipped on her shoe, she was a perfect size seven

I said ‘There’s no smoking the store ma’am'.

She crossed her legs and then

We made some small talk, that’s where it should have stopped

She slipped me her number, I put it in my pocket

My hand slipped up her skirt, everything slipped my mind

In that little roadhouse on Highway 29.

Highway 29 runs from Tyler’s Maryland to Florida and you know this one-night stand in the motel is not going to end happily for this latterday Bonnie and Clyde. They rob a small-town bank before a car crash that ends in ‘a road full of broken glass and gasoline’ that might have done for the shoe-shopper.

Cars feature heavily in Springsteen’s songs, from the upbeat rocker Pink Cadillac to the mournfulness of Stolen Car to the tale of sexual longing of Drive All Night. But the journey along Highway 29 ends in tragedy. This a quiet and potent song, one of Springsteen’s best.

Twenty years earlier the Texan Guy Clark penned another song about a one-night stand. It doesn’t end in tragedy but revels in the everyday. Instant Coffee Blues is a lovely, sad song about a waitress who picks up the check of a customer and ‘for reasons that she did not understand’ takes him home. Springsteen may be one of the most recognised men in America but Guy Clark, who died last year, has never received the recognition he deserves.

I remember having a conversation with a Texan I met in Rome who had never heard of him. One of the reasons might be that, for all Clark’s brilliance as a songwriter, many of his best songs have been interpreted better by others. Suzy Bogguss, a country singer from Illinois, gives a perfect rendition of Instant Coffee Blues (its title is spot-on) on This One’s For Him, A Tribute To Guy Clark where artists from Emmylou Harris to Steve Earle to Kris Kristofferson take on some of Clark’s works.

Instant Coffee Blues works better for a female singer and Bogguss gives it an added poignancy. ‘They shot the breeze quite cavalier to the boilin’ of the pot. And sang the Instant Coffee Blues and never fired a shot.’ Her lover drives off, maybe heading towards Highway 29, as mysterious as ever while she is left feeling ‘wholly empty, like she’d felt it every time’. It’s a moving tale and one of Clark’s best.


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