Lost in the Flood (Springsteen Track-by-Track #5)

Early Springsteen

Early SpringsteenMy previous Track-by-Track entry was June 23, before a summer dominated by producing and appearing in a Stephen Sondheim revue. Diving deep into Sondheim isn’t conducive to patience with lesser songwriters, and Springsteen at the beginning of his career was still developing a craft. His meter and rhyme scheme were sloppy, while his imagery and vocal delivery owed more to Bob Dylan than he was willing to admit. Lost in The Flood frequently appears on “best-of” lists by Springsteen fans, probably because it presages the clichéd cinematic imagery of Jungleland; that song is saved by magnificent musicianship. Unfortunately, in 1972 Springsteen wasn’t yet working with collaborators who could muscle out his grandiose visions, and his producers (Mike Appel and Jim Cretecos) weren’t much help.

The ragamuffin gunner is returnin’ home like a hungry runaway
He walks through town all alone
He must be from the fort he hears the high school girls say

We presume this character is a returning Vietnam veteran. “He must be from the fort…” is one of Springsteen’s best lines; we picture the girls whispering to each other as the soldier passes, while he pretends not to hear. Perhaps the song is about this soldier, returning to a country he feels alienated from.

Unfortunately, Springsteen doesn’t limit the scope. In early interviews, he sometimes mentioned that Lost in the Flood was at least partly about the Asbury Park riots of 1970.

This countryside’s burnin’ with wolfman fairies dressed in drag for homicide
They hit and run, plead sanctuary, ‘neath the holy stone they hide

During the week following July 4, 1970, riots broke out on the West Side of Asbury Park, NJ, resulting in over $4 million in property damage, 167 arrests, 165 injured (including 15 police) and leaving many families homeless. Some of those families, and presumably some of the rioters, were given temporary housing in area churches. Springsteen wasn’t finished.

Nuns run bald through Vatican halls pregnant, pleadin’ immaculate conception
And everybody’s wrecked on Main Street from drinking unholy blood

Springsteen’s Catholicism is woven throughout his songwriting, but his most vulgar appropriation of Catholic iconography is certainly the “Nuns run bald…” line. Its purpose might be to describe a world gone mad, or perhaps it’s a macabre hallucination; the line is effective to either end. (Although many have read it as an indictment of the church, the context doesn’t support a literal interpretation.)

Wait, that’s not all…

Sticker smiles sweet as gunner breathes deep, his ankles caked in mud
And I said, “Hey, gunner man, that’s quicksand, that’s quicksand that ain’t mud
Have you thrown your senses to the war or did you lose them in the flood?”

The first verse ends with the ragamuffin gunner apparently lost in a drug trip. This suggests the preceding lines are all fragments of the same trip, but again Springsteen keeps widening the song’s (or maybe the trip’s) scope. The second verse is about a stock car racer who might be the same character from the first verse; the racer might or might not floor the accelerator and shrink to a point on the horizon; he might or might not be dead at the end of the verse.

That pure American brother, dull-eyed and empty-faced
Races Sundays in Jersey in a Chevy stock super eight
He rides her low on the hip, on the side he’s got Bound For Glory in red, white and blue flash paint
He leans on the hood telling racin’ stories, the kids call him Jimmy The Saint
Well that blaze and noise boy, he’s gunnin’ that bitch loaded to blastin’ point
He rides headfirst into a hurricane and disappears into a point
And there’s nothin’ left but some blood where the body fell
That is, nothin’ left that you could sell
Just junk all across the horizon, a real highwayman’s farewell

Springsteen’s use of the word “junk” suggests the slang translation of cocaine/heroin (as opposed to the more common modern use of the term for genitalia.) Springsteen might be saying that drugs are more than just an individual flood; scattered as far as one can see, they threaten the entire country. But maybe not – it’s unclear what any sense of the word junk might have in common with “a real highwayman’s farewell.” And the characterization is muddled: although the image of a “dull-eyed and empty-faced” man squares with the silent gunner from the first verse, it doesn’t jibe with someone who tells “racing stories” and inspires kids to bestow an affectionate nickname.

Here, Springsteen’s imagination seems to flag; his rhyme of “loaded to blastin’ point”/“disappears into a point” is dead on arrival. Other awkward phrases: “They’re breakin’ beams and crosses with a spastic’s reelin’ perfection” (verse 1); “Some storefront incarnation of Maria, she’s puttin’ on me the stare” (verse 3). These hurt because there are so many good couplets: “He lays on the street holding his leg screaming something in Spanish/Still breathing when I walked away” (although that “away” is once again rhymed with itself.) It’s like 80% was as far as Springsteen was willing to go with the song; for the price of a rhyming dictionary and another couple of hours he might have worked out some real gonzo poetry.

Eighth Avenue sailors in satin shirts whisper in the air
Some storefront incarnation of Maria, she’s puttin’ on me the stare
And Bronx’s best apostle stands with his hand on his own hardware
Everything stops, you hear five quick shots, the cops come up for air
And now the whiz-bang gang from uptown, they’re shootin’ up the street
Whoa, that cat from the Bronx starts lettin’ loose, but he gets blown right off his feet

The third verse seems to be about a shootout between the police and one, maybe two gangs, witnessed by flamboyantly dressed (gay?) men and a prostitute. It also might be a continuation of a song-long, drug-fueled hallucination. The song’s conclusion suggests as much:

Hey man, did you see that, those poor cats are sure messed up
I wonder what they were getting’ into, or were they just lost in the flood?

David Sancious’ organ work is reminiscent of The Doors’ instrumentation, further reinforcing the “drug trip” angle. Steven Van Zandt’s sole contribution was dropping an amplifier to simulate the sound of thunder that opens the piece (again recalling The Doors – check out the beginning of Riders on the Storm.) Strangely, the song ends mid-bar, just as the band seems to be engaging. If this effect was intentional, it might have been orchestrated more deliberately.

Springsteen released a live version of Lost in the Flood in 2001, on the Live in New York City album. On that recording, the E Street Band revises and enlivens the accompaniment, bringing a Scorsese-esque production to the material that’s thrilling despite the adolescent songwriting. It’s a great example of how the band can elevate Springsteen’s “B” material to “A”.

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