Thirty-five years on, Bruce Springsteen’s Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out decoded.
He’s 59 and jumping off a piano – in front of an estimated TV audience of one billion. It’s thought to be the most-watched Super Bowl in history. Fireworks exploding into the night sky. Bruce Springsteen is now at the microphone. The opening bars of Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out are pumped out all over the globe.
Tenth Avenue what?
Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out was the first song played by Bruce Springsteen at his Super Bowl 2009 half-time performance. Bruce’s “twelve minute party” playlist also featured the songs “Born to Run”, “Working on a Dream” and “Glory Days”.
Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out was also the second song on Springsteen’s 1975 break-through album Born To Run.
A Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out?
But what exactly is a Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out? Why would Springsteen open one of the biggest gigs of his career with it? And why should you care?
I’m not a Bruce Springsteen fan, but I caught his Superbowl performance on YouTube and was impressed by the spectacle and the performance. It was an entertaining mass media event. Global rock stars are rarer these days, as pop music has fragmented into niches.
Yet Bruce is a global star on stage in front of a billion people, and he’s chosen to sing about a Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out.
Springsteen has packaged himself for global consumption. But look at his lyrics, as his millions of fans know, and they’re not as simplistic as the image of the singer that was once projected by the press. President Reagan, for example, may have attempted to co-opt the anthemic chorus of “Born in the U.S.A” for his 1984 presidential campaign, but the verses reveal that the song is a bitter commentary on the treatment of Vietnam veterans.
What I’m trying to say is that if you’re not a Springsteen fan, maybe don’t dismiss him out of hand.
A ridiculous exercise
Please note: I’m aware that pop music is pop music, it doesn’t require analysis. Literal interpretation of pop music is even more foolish. But I’m curious enough to see if this song will bear being poked at. I’m lost in music, caught in a trap.
Bruce Springsteen’s not telling
What does Bruce Springsteen say a Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out is? He says he doesn’t know. Musicians often say this, they don’t want to spoil their listeners interpretations. But recently, in his Super Bowl blog, Springsteen wrote: “During “Tenth Avenue” I tell the story of my band… and other things “when the change was made uptown”…”.
Online, fans tend to agree with “The Boss”. They say it’s a song about how Springsteen formed his E Street Band in the mid 70s. But they say they don’t know what a Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out is.
Tenth Avenue? E Street meets 10th Avenue in Belmar, New Jersey. Springsteen was born in Long Branch, New Jersey.
So now we know where the Tenth Avenue in the song title is from – and it points towards the song being about Springsteen’s formative musical years.
But what’s a Freeze Out? Quick, to the dictionary.
Collins: Freeze Out, verb;
“To prevent (someone) from being involved in an activity, conversation, etc., by being unfriendly or reserved.”
And in poker, a Freeze-Out is a “A table-stakes cash game or tournament that continues until a small number of players (usually only one) has all the money.”
And to me, a Freeze-Out sounds cool musician-speak. Simple as that. And Wikipedia says: “Cool has been used to describe a general state of well-being, a transcendent, internal peace and serenity.”
So we have three definitions. So far a Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out is:
a) Being unfriendly to someone in New Jersey.
b) A type of poker game in New Jersey and
c) New Jersey serenity.
Sieve the lyrics
Now let’s sieve the definitions through the song’s lyrics.
Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out has three verses;
Tear drops on the city
Bad Scooter searching for his groove
Seem like the whole world walking pretty
And you can’t find the room to move
Well everybody better move over, that’s all
I’m running on the bad side
And I got my back to the wall
Tenth Avenue freeze-out, Tenth Avenue freeze-out
Interpretation. First verse: Bad Scooter is Bruce Springsteen. The first verse is establishing tension – desire for something better. The dictionary definition of Freeze-Out springs to mind: “To prevent (someone) from being involved in an activity”. In other words, Bruce’s surroundings are stopping him taking his music to the public / being the musician he wants to be. The music behind the lyrics is “cool”.
I’m stranded in the jungle
Taking all the heat they was giving
The night is dark but the sidewalk’s bright
And lined with the light of the living
From a tenement window a transistor blasts
Turn around the corner things got real quiet real fast
She hit me with a Tenth Avenue freeze-out
Tenth Avenue freeze-out
And I’m all alone, I’m all alone
And kid you better get the picture
And I’m on my own, I’m on my own
And I can’t go home
Interpretation. Second verse: Bruce states his desire to be something better. But moves the tension up a notch. Now it’s not just his surroundings that are preventing him from bettering himself, there’s also a woman preventing him from activity. But he’s started out on his journey and can’t return. The music is “cool”.
When the change was made uptown
And the Big Man joined the band
From the coastline to the city
All the little pretties raise their hands
I’m gonna sit back right easy and laugh
When Scooter and the Big Man bust this city in half
With a Tenth Avenue freeze-out, Tenth Avenue freeze-out
Tenth Avenue freeze-out…
Interpretation. Third verse: Tension is resolved. The Born to Run album took many frustrating months to make, changes included moving to a new recording studio and replacing band members, so that Bruce could achieve the sound he had in his head. The Big Man is Clarence Clemons (saxophone), an important member of the E Street Band. The Freeze-Out seems to become more positive in this verse. Is it a Freeze-Out in the poker sense? Bruce can see that his future is bright, that he’s one of “a small number of players [that will have] all the money.” ? The music is “cool”.
A Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out is…
In conclusion, a Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out is a song that attempts to encapsulate three feelings:
a) Rejection/dejection in the provinces.
b) Intention to better yourself.
c) The sound of a band that’s playing tight and “cool”. The feeling of being part of that band.
Thirty-five years on from its first performance, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band still perform Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out because it’s multi-layered. It’s the story of how they broke out of New Jersey and became one of the most famous bands in history, compacted and distilled into a three minute pop song.
Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out is on Springsteen’s Born To Run album.
Springsteen writes about his formative years in Born to Run – his autobiography.
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What’s your interpretation?
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