Sevens :: Bruce Springsteen: I’m On Fire

(Sevens, a recurring feature on Aquarium Drunkard, pays tribute to the art of the individual song.)

Johnny Cash did it, and nearly turned it into a hymn. John Mayer did it, and sweetened the notes until it sounded like Paul Simon. The dance-punks in Electrelane and the power-punks in The Motorettes both tinseled it up with distorted guitars. And fellow Jersey Boy Brian Fallon fed it through a tremolo pedal and damn near touched his hero’s garment. But in the end, they all come up wanting: “I’m On Fire” will always be Bruce Springsteen’s.

“I’m On Fire” was the fourth single released from Born in the U.S.A., sandwiched between the title track and “Glory Days.” Aside from the heavy presence of Roy Bittan’s synth, the song seems to have little in common with its cohort. “Born in the U.S.A.” and “Glory Days” were and still are stadium-sized rockers built on insistent drumbeats and outsized choruses; “I’m On Fire”’s chorus, by contrast, consists of a single line tagged onto the end of the verse and characterized by a gentle “ooh-ooh-ooh” from the Boss.

But Born in the U.S.A. is an album about longing, whether that longing is for justice, freedom, or peace. “I’m On Fire,” then, with its mists of synth and tick-tack guitar line, its cooed lyrics, and that final few seconds whose glistening suggests a stopping point if not an ending, is perhaps the album’s secret lodestar.

Springsteen’s early eighties transformation from rock ‘n’ roll classicist to humble human is well-documented. Starting with The River’s title track and continuing through the Nebraska sessions, the singer, infatuated with the writing of Flannery O’Connor and Howard Zinn and the music of Suicide, began to diverge from the romanticism of his youth. While sexual longing had been present in Springsteen’s songs at least as early as Greetings From Asbury Park, “I’m On Fire” is the first song in his catalog to express the anxiety of unrequited love as a kind of suffering, rather than a kind of freedom.

The song begins as a straightforward appeal from a single man to an anonymous woman who is either married or seriously involved. And while the singer makes it perfectly clear who the woman prefers–“Can he do to you the things that I do?”–their future is uncertain. Bittan’s washed-out synth underscores the point, at times obscuring the path of Springsteen’s finger-picking. The singer’s voice pierces the synth field like a lantern through the fog, but swings in and out of confidence. “It’s like someone took a knife, baby, edgy and dull, and cut a six-inch valley through the middle of my soul,” he sings in the bridge. The tension between the desire and its consummation is almost unbearable, and as the song clicks out under Springsteen’s howls, Bittan tweaks his keys. A single bright note cuts through the muffled soundstage he’s created, reframing the singer’s lamentations. It’s a moment of minor grace–the closest the song comes to an answer–and is to us unknown. words/ m garner


19 thoughts on “Sevens :: Bruce Springsteen: I’m On Fire

  1. I always thought the line was, “…and cut a six-inch valley through the middle of my SKULL” instead of “soul.” That’s what I hear when I listen to the cut off the album (although online lyric searches say “soul”). No matter–great song.

  2. Another Springsteen song that I find is totally outside his normal realm is “The Fever” from 18 Tracks.
    The organ is truly amazing.

  3. I’m pretty sure “I’m on Fire” was written when he was working on Nebraska, but didn’t make it onto a record until Born in The U.S.A.

    It’s not hard to imagine it being written around the same time as songs like “Atlantic City” and “State Trooper.”

  4. You know, I actually thought the same till I checked Springsteen’s site. Mostmof the covers referenced above say “skull,” too.

  5. Nice blog. Thanks for the read!!

    But the sound quality is really off in that youtube you posted… It sounds like the batteries of the tape recorder were running out… (ah, the good old days! ha 😉 ) So I just HAD to post this version: 2009, Pinkpop Festival (Holland):

  6. Great read. This song used to terrify me as a small child. It was so chilling. The A.A. Bondy Myspace page featured a cover of this song several years back that was spectacular. It was up there for a few weeks. Despite the pleadings of a lot of his fans the song was never put back up or made available for download. This post reminded me to Google it just now and I see that several sites have reposted the cover. Check it out if you have not.

  7. The lyric sheet in my LP copy of ‘Born In The USA’ says “middle of my soul.”

    I like the idea that the knife isn’t sharp.

  8. Nils pickin hypnotic. Songs got that Americana grit to it. Lyrics and melody always been one of my out the city travelin fave

  9. This 2006 version from the band Frank Smith is pretty great, if you like low-fi sounding stuff. The slow tempo and slide guitar give it a kind of creepy edge.

  10. “I’m On Fire” is the first song in his catalog to express the anxiety of unrequited love as a kind of suffering, rather than a kind of freedom.

    To an extent I think Springsteen evoked a kind of erotic suffering in “She’s The One” (from Born to Run, in ’75), with lines like in the opening verse:

    With her killer graces and her secret places
    That no boy can fill with her hands on her hips
    Oh and that smile on her lips
    Because she knows that it kills me
    With her soft french cream
    Standing in that doorway like a dream
    I wish she’d just leave me alone

    Is he in some sort of anguish, being teased (to put it mildly) by this sensual, feminine creature? Yes. Would he have it any other way? Not in a million years.

  11. The Little Milton version on A Tribute to Bruce Springsteen is worth a listen as well.

  12. “Skull” rhymes better with “dull” and if you listen to the song closely, he’s definitely saying “skull”. I don’t care what he wrote, or thinks he said, he does not sing “soul” LOL.

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