In Bruce Springsteen’s Hunter Of Invisible Game, the narrator, a hardy, itinerant bard, finds himself on a continual odyssey through scenes of ruin and decay (e.g., “empty cities and burnin’ plains”), concluding that “there’s a kingdom of love waiting to be reclaimed”.
Not to be undone by these harrowing scenes, the narrator sings, “Through the bone yard rattle and black smoke, we rolled on / Down into the valley, where the beast has his throne / There I sing my song and I sharpen my blade / I am the hunter of invisible game”.
Living amidst “empires of dust”, what compels this character to keep at his hunt? Indeed, what is it that compels so many Springsteen characters to persist in spite of adverse, seemingly hopeless circumstances?
The answer, in my view, is the core thesis on which virtually all of Springsteen’s music is based: We have to get out of here.
Springsteen’s work implores us to resist the kind of stasis that arises from the fear of abandoning one’s sphere of comfort. This inertia may lead you to stay in your hometown and “do just like your daddy done” (to borrow from The River), or to retreat inward out of a juvenile desire to avoid heartache.
For Bruce’s heroes, that ain’t no way to live.
Anxiety over making a wrong move, the potential for pain, knowing you don’t have all the answers—according to Springsteen’s cosmology, they’re not reason enough for inaction.
Thus, we can understand why it is that the angst-ridden, insecure narrator of Dancing In The Dark (“Man I’m just tired and bored with myself / … I check my look in the mirror / I want to change my clothes, my hair, my face / Man I ain’t getting nowhere / I’m just living in a dump like this”) is somehow enlightened enough to recognize that “there’s something happening somewhere”, and that if you “stay on the streets of this town”, “they’ll be carving you up alright”.
After all, he notes, feelings of insecurity and restlessness won’t abate unless we actually act on them: “You can’t start a fire worryin’ ’bout your little world fallin’ apart / This gun’s for hire / Even if we’re just dancin’ in the dark”.
It’s directly reminiscent of Thunder Road, in which the narrator pleas for his world-weary love interest to give romance and escape another chance: “You can hide ‘neath your covers / And study your pain / Make crosses from your lovers / Throw roses in the rain / Waste your summer praying in vain / For a savior to rise from these streets / Well now I’m no hero / That’s understood / All the redemption I can offer, girl / Is beneath this dirty hood”.
“Climb in”, he sings: “Heaven’s waitin’ on down the tracks”.
This ‘following the highway to fulfillment’ motif pervades Springsteen’s work, notably in the proud, defiant cries of the narrator of The Price You Pay: “So let the games start / You better run, you little wild heart / You can run through all the nights and all the days / But just across the county line, a stranger passing through put up a sign / That counts the men fallen away to the price you pay / And girl before the end of the day / I’m gonna tear it down and throw it away”.
In Born To Run, the sonic epitome of teenage escape, the narrator vows to “live with the sadness”, telling counterpart Wendy, “Someday, girl, I don’t know when / We’re gonna get to that place / Where we really wanna go / And we’ll walk in the sun / But till then, tramps like us / Baby, we were born to run”.
We find such consistent and urgent calls to break away, to make something of oneself, because Springsteen is among that rare breed of people so brimming with passion as to be incapable of doing anything but hounding their dreams.
Take, for example, Badlands, in which the narrator calls out, “For the ones who had a notion / A notion deep inside / That it ain’t no sin / To be glad you’re alive / I wanna find one face / That ain’t looking through me / I wanna find one place / I wanna spit in the face of these / Badlands”.
Discovering music as a means of making good on this sense of yearning, the narrator in No Surrender sings, “Well, we busted out of class / Had to get away from those fools / We learned more from a 3-minute record, baby / Than we ever learned in school / Tonight I hear the neighborhood drummer sound / I can feel my heart begin to pound / You say you’re tired and you just want to close your eyes / And follow your dreams down / Well, we made a promise we swore we’d always remember / No retreat, baby, no surrender”.
In The Promised Land, the narrator is rendered so impotent by his situation that he must will himself to be a man of action: “Working all day in my daddy’s garage / Driving all night chasing some mirage / Pretty soon, little girl, I’m gonna take charge / The dogs on Main Street howl / Cause they understand / If I could take one moment into my hands / Mister, I ain’t a boy, no, I’m a man / And I believe in a promised land”.
Of course, diving so passionately into life isn’t in itself a guarantee of happiness and fulfillment. Much of the beauty of Springsteen’s rallying cries stems from the acknowledgment on his part that hardship is an inextricable part of life, that the indeterminate nature of the future means that we should expect to stumble.
In Springsteen’s parlance, just because he has the intuition to set off down the highway, to chase something greater than what could ever be found here, doesn’t mean he can predict everything that will happen along the way.
Thus, we have songs like With Every Wish, in which the narrator tells us, “These days I sit around and laugh / At the many rivers I’ve crossed / But on the far banks there’s always another forest / Where a man can get lost / Well, there in the high trees love’s bluebird glides / Guiding us across to another river on the other side”.
In Waitin’ On A Sunny Day, the singer describes moments of pain as inexorably natural: “Hard times, baby well they come to us all / Sure as the tickin’ of the clock on the wall / Sure as the turnin’ of night into day”.
More succinctly, the hapless narrator of Girls In Their Summer Clothes reminds us, “Love’s a fool’s dance / I ain’t got much sense / But I’ve still got my feet”.
Springsteen is kinesis incarnate, a sonic preacher for whom the mere search for redemption is a kind of salvation unto itself. He admonishes, in a way that rarely feels didactic or heavy-handed, that we abandon the comfortable in pursuit of the ecstasy that accompanies having followed a dream.
But what are we to make of this continual searching, this ravenous hunger for love and connection and a sense of place that has yet to be satiated for Springsteen?
Perhaps that it’s in yearning that we exact from life what we need to reach spiritual fulfillment. That happiness lies not in having followed your ambitions to some divine, mythic conclusion that’s essentially akin to death, but rather in ceaselessly resisting the ease of stasis, to only ever grasp at the fruits of passion, music, and love for moments at a time.
Those who look for invisible game will never stop hunting.