‘Independence Day’, for me, is Bruce Springsteen’s saddest song. It tells the story of a son’s relationship with his father and how the time has finally come for the son to leave home:
Just say goodbye it’s Independence Day
It’s Independence Day this time
On one level the son simply wants his father to accept the fact that nothing is going to change his mind. Growing up has been one long argument, with neither side ever prepared to back down:
Now I don’t know what it always was with us
We chose the words, and yeah, we drew the lines
Deep down, the son knows the reason why:
There was just no way this house could hold the two of us.
I guess we were just too much of the same kind
He also understands, unlike his father, that times have changed and they can’t be changed back:
Because there are just different people coming down here now
And they see things in different ways
And soon everything we’ve known will just be swept away
You start to realise that the son does see the value of his father’s values, even though he’s spent so long railing against them.
The pace of the song is slow, like the departure is being dragged out. There’s an overwhelming feeling of melancholy. Bruce Springsteen’s own relationship with his father is well-known. An alcoholic and probably bipolar, the man struggled to hold down a job and took it all out on his son. As Bruce has said: “In my house, two things were unpopular – me and my guitar.”
Much can be explained by the death of his father’s sister when she was just 5 years old, hit by a truck when out riding her tricycle in April 1927. People say the death created a void in his father until Bruce’s birth in September 1949.
As the song approaches the end, what’s left for the son is a feeling of guilt. He loves his father despite everything and understands the sacrifices that had to be made, the dreams that had to be abandoned:
So say goodbye it’s Independence Day
Papa now I know the things you wanted that you could not say
But won’t you just say goodbye it’s Independence Day
I swear I never meant to take those things away
And suddenly, with the repeated use of ‘Papa’, your mind flips back to the very first lines of the song and you hear them in the way that was intended:
Well Papa go to bed now it’s getting late
Nothing we can say is gonna change anything now
So the son is becoming the father and the father the son. The son is going out into the world, down all those empty highways Springsteen so loved writing about. Of course, he doesn’t really know where he’s going. ‘Independence Day’ is from the 1980 album ‘The River’ and as he sings on ‘Hungry Heart, the next song on that album:
Like a river that don’t know where it’s flowing
I kept a wrong turn and I just kept going
But the father, he's being left behind by the world, alone with his bitterness and disillusionment.
Douglas Springsteen died in 1998 aged 72. He and Bruce were reconciled long before his death. As it turned out, separation improved the relationship, as did a stroke which changed his personality. Eventually, you feel, both sides forgot what it was they had been so angry about.
And if you want to know how Bruce felt deep down about his father, you just have to jump forward to the ‘Tunnel Of Love’ album from 1988 and the song ‘Walk Like A Man’:
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
It all goes to show how the need for Independence can turn before too long into a desire for reconciliation.