Bruce Springsteen, ‘Shut Out the Light’ – Rock’s Hidden Gems
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For a while there, ‘Shut Out the Light’ served as sort of a secret handshake for true-blue Bruce Springsteen fans. As a non-album b-side, it was one of those songs you had to make a serious effort to listen to and claiming knowledge of it – much less expressing admiration for it – meant that you were serious about Springsteen.
After its inclusion on 1998’s ‘Tracks’ box set and with the advent of YouTube, it’s gotten easier to hear the austere track, recorded in 1983, although it remains a fan favorite. That’s because it’s not just one of the Boss’ hidden gems, but one that cuts to the heart of what makes so much of his songwriting meaningful.
Appropriately paired with a-side ‘Born in the U.S.A.,’ ‘Shut Out the Light’ also focuses on a Vietnam veteran’s return home. But that’s where the similarities end. Where ‘Born’ was bombastic, ‘Shut’ is acoustic and quiet. With the exception of gospel-tinged backing vocals and Soozie Tyrell’s violin, it sounds like Bruce alone in his room.
That loneliness envelops the song, with lyrics about 4 a.m. panic attacks and a disconnect between what your life used to be, and what it is after returning from war. It’s interesting that Vietnam is never specifically mentioned, it merely exists as a phantom presence. It ends with the main character, broken-down Johnson Lineir, staring down that darkness, not so much on the edge of town, but within himself.
Springsteen has rarely expressed so much with so little (he wisely jettisoned two more verses that spelled out Johnson’s drug habit). The details are superb, from an anxious wife who undoes an extra button on her blouse to the “Welcome Home” banner and polished chrome that only seem to increase the distance between Johnny who changed and the people who stayed the same. As Bruce said the first time he performed it (embedded above), “It’s about leaving home and not being able to find your way back.”