“Rosalita (Come Out Tonight),” from the 1973 Bruce Springsteen album The Wild, The Innocent and The E Street Shuffle.
Joyous, raucous energy, cool story.
(5 minute read)
*Note – I’m not even going to try to rank songs. I just plan to periodically write a little bit about some songs that I like.
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If I didn’t know me so well, I’d expect I’d love Bruce Springsteen. An East Coast white guy in my mid-50s, I grew up on 70s rock. I have a soft spot for horns and bombastic songs, and powerful songs about average people just living their lives. I value artists who seem like decent people, and who have a bit of a stick-it-to-the-powerful streak to them. And I do love a great rock and roll performer. But just like poison ivy, I’ve never had Bruce Fever.
For 18 months I dated a woman who loved Bruce. It was a lousy relationship that ended badly (her and me, not her and Bruce), and I used to attribute my disinterest in The Boss to that experience. But it was 35 years ago, and the drama of it seems so silly after all the living that’s ensued. So I gave him another listen in the past 10 years, and found I was still not susceptible. I guess it wasn’t her fault. You see, I don’t seem to get poison ivy1, and I don’t seem to get Bruce Springsteen.
Except for “Rosalita,” a joyous, raucous, multi-part spectacle with several chill-inducing swells, a funny story and about a million words. It’s not a perfect song (I’ll get to that), but to me it’s the perfect Boss song. It’s a song that makes me go, “Okay, I get why people love this guy,” even though none of his other songs seem to give me that experience. Perhaps if I rolled, naked, in a deep bed of poison ivy I would experience what it’s like to have a reaction. Maybe “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)” is like a poison ivy wallow. (In a good way.)
“Rosalita” is immediately – from the first two organ chords – all about building and releasing tension. The song sits on top of a bouncy sax riff from Clarence Clemons that drummer Vini Lopez stays on top of with little rolls and fills. The E Street Band (on this album, and counting The Boss) includes a sax, a guitar, an organ, a piano, and bass and drums. This means they can throw in all sorts of interesting riffs and sounds throughout a song. In the verses, organist Danny Federici plays a lot of little curlicues, and pianist David Sancious adds nice emphasis. There’s so much good stuff going on from the whole band through the entire song.
The verses are key to how “Rosalita” works. (Here’s a link to the lyrics. You’ll need them.) Each verse in the song has two parts – a spirited, wordy, first half and a mellower second. For example, at 0:27 (“spread out now Rosie …”) and at 0:52 (“you don’t have to call me …”). At the end of that second half, (1:05, “Rosie, you’re the one!”) Clemons plays a rising sax riff that … doesn’t resolve. It’s just a tease. Our ears are ready for something big and new, but instead we get another verse, some nonsense about what Dynamite and Little Gun are up to. But that rising riff is key to the song, because it keeps coming around. And whenever it delivers a chorus, as at 1:53, the sense of joy and release and power is inescapable.
But I have to write a bit about the lyrics, because they may be, generally, the reason I can’t get into Bruce. I don’t need poetry: I love Yes and Van Halen and AC/DC, none of whom are what would be called wordsmiths, or Voice-of-a-Generation types. But I also love XTC, The Beatles, Lucinda Williams, Elvis Costello – artists who can move you with a simple phrase. I even love Steely Dan and Jimi Hendrix and Belly, and The Stone Roses, each of whom must be making some point, but I generally have no idea what it is.
But many of Bruce’s lyrics seem sort of goofy and embarrassing2. He goes on about highways running, calling his car a “machine,” and talking about all the dangerous guys and tough chicks on street corners that he knows. Bruce always wants you to know he loves you, baby, and that together you’ll make it, despite the long odds. And he’s forever asking you to put on that cute little dress of yours (you know the one), so he can sit you on the back of his motorbike and ride down suicide streets and whatnot. (He seems like the kind of guy who’d say “motorbike” – maybe he doesn’t.) I don’t know. He always sounds like a handsome horndog with a terrific rap. Maybe I’m jealous of him. But what do I know? One of my favorite songs has the lyrics “Anger, he smiles towering in shiny, metallic, purple armor.” I guess it’s all a matter of taste.
But in “Rosalita,” I’m able to put all my qualms aside. His lyrics are goofy as ever, but they’re so joyous, and tell such a great version of Romeo & Juliet that I’m even able to (basically) overlook his assertion that the only lover he’ll ever need is Rosie’s “soft, sweet little girl’s tongue.” Look, songs by men have forever demeaned their targets with patronizing terms like “little girl,” I get it. But even setting that aside, the line sounds more like a serial killer’s letter to the newspaper than romantic badinage. But who cares? I’ll put up with it, and Weak Knees Willy, too, and Sloppy Sue, and his machine that’s a dud, and mama in her chair, and all that jive, because I like the story.
But back to the music! We left off at the chorus (1:53), which is pure shout-along, frenzied fun. The backing harmonies are terrific, and it all passes much too soon, leaving us back in a verse with Jack the Rabbit, et al. (Okay, again, I understand that lyrics don’t have to make perfect sense, but how are they going to “skip some school” if they’re doing this at night?) But this verse does have a tremendous couple of lines: “Windows are for cheaters/ Chimneys for the poor/ Closets are for hangers/ Winners use the door.” Then after another rousing chorus, we hit the magnificent bridge.
But first! At 3:18 there’s another crazy tension-building section. The organ tootles up and up the scale, the bass joins in ratcheting the anticipation, everything is coming to a head … then (3:43) Clemons plays a sax riff that doesn’t exactly break the tension, but doesn’t relieve it, either. (By the way, through all this drummer Lopez is playing like a man possessed.) The band joins in the riff, and it almost seems like they’ve forgotten what song they were playing. But they come out of it and bring things down (4:17) so a simmering Bruce can start moving us – oh so gradually – to the story’s big payoff. Rosalita’s family hates, him3, fine, but he doesn’t care. And he really does sound sexy announcing his plans to “liberate you, confiscate you.” We’re approaching resolution … but first …
Before he gets us there, he leads the band in a sing-along of “papa says he knows I don’t have any money!” I mean, come on Bruce!! A little teasing is fine, but this is starting to get annoying! But then, finally, at 5:11, when The Boss reveals he’s gotten a big advance, the exuberance is palpable! The payoff seems worth all the buildup throughout the song, and I never feel manipulated. It feels satisfying, like a good short story or TV show, like the writer and I have bonded. The rest of the lyrics are denouement, and I don’t even bother myself with questions of how he’ll get Rosalita to the airport (they’re headed “down San Diego way4,” after all) with his car lost in a swamp. Or how she’ll know to pack a bag for what originally sounded like a simple evening on the town, playing pool and going to Woolworth’s, but now involves a cross-country trek. (At least now the skipping-school part makes sense.)
It wouldn’t be right to simply fade out or end the song un-bombastically, so The Boss throws in some “hey-hey-hey”s at 6:31, then Lopez leads everyone through a twenty second flourish until a simple, warbling organ is all that remains. It’s an exhausting song, like a good workout. When you watch live clips of Bruce playing the song, it’s a wonder to behold. They played this version on MTV all the time. There’s a version of a young, Mike Nesmith-looking Bruce playing in London. Folks have often told me that I haven’t caught Springsteen Fever because I’ve never seen him live. I haven’t been close enough, just like why people say I’ve never had poison ivy. If that’s the case, I’ll probably never fully get into The Boss. But I sure do have a reaction to “Rosalita.”