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Fair Whether

Springsteen's darkly light 'County Fair,' a should-be summer classic

By Karl Byrn

Are we having fun yet?

Isn't that what we expect from the currently running Sonoma County Fair--a chance to simply enjoy? Our times are filled with uncertainty, uneasiness about our leaders, the economy and an irresolute war, so we need the guarantee of thrill that the fair offers. The fair unites our expectations in a community experience, but there's a little bit of a let-down built into every anticipation; the fair moves on and we have to go back to routine.

There's an obscure Bruce Springsteen song about this, a real gem titled simply "County Fair." This detailed portrait of a small-town, end-of-summer fair, taken from sessions Springsteen recorded in 1983 after his fabled Nebraska album, was a bootleg favorite for years before surfacing officially on the Columbia Records' Essential series. "County Fair" is tucked away on the third disc of The Essential Bruce Springsteen, which follows two straightforward best-of discs with an often roaring, often somber set of the Hall-of-Famer's rockabilly, soundtrack and B-side miscellanea.

"County Fair" plays as whimsical, relaxed folk rock, sentimental and childlike. There's a palpable sense of shared desire in the opening lines: "Every year when summer comes around / They stretch a banner 'cross the main street in town / And you feel something happen in the air." From there, Springsteen lays on the good stuff: the roller coaster, "the pipe organ on the merry-go-round," winning stuffed animals on the midway--even laughing at himself while searching for his car in the parking lot.

What's striking about "County Fair" is that it isn't about all that. The artist is looking for something deeper. And what he finds is something that's closer to our common expectations and enjoyment, a whole cycle of hope and dissatisfaction. The song is really a desperate prayer for eternal life. He names the act at the open-air bandstand "James Young and the Immortal Ones," places the site of the fair at "Soldier's Field," and tries to "steal a kiss in the dark" (not get or give, but steal). By the final line, Springsteen doesn't hide the prayer: "I lean back and stare up at the stars / Oh, I wish I'd never have to let this moment go."

The final blow is a simple musical trick. "County Fair" is written in a standard, easy-going, roots-rock chord progression that goes G-C-D, with an E minor tossed in for pensive effect. It's the four-chord template of the Drifters' "There Goes My Baby" and the Marvellettes' "Please Mr. Postman," a pattern varied slightly on other classics like Van Morrison's "Brown Eyed Girl" and Bob Seger's "Night Moves."

Usually, the E minor comes in the verse or chorus. But here, Bruce omits it until after the final line, strumming it suddenly and purposefully into a ghostly rumble, an unresolved tag that dramatically shifts the mood of "County Fair" from fond community celebration to bitter dread.

Though recorded 20 years ago in the Reagan era, this song still tells us about our present. Why does fun seem like an illusion? Why are we haunted by irresolution? Is joy merely slippery and temporary? Perhaps there's just too much in our imbalanced world that's too hard to take. The county fair is an archetypal tradition, a symbol with a huge comfort factor, an annual chance to put uncertainty aside. But as our world gets more extreme, we may expect too much of our fair experience, so much that its thrill becomes an exaggerated promise with the painful price of having to reluctantly let it go.

"County Fair" is an example of how powerful rock music historically plants itself on a tightrope between redemption and disaster. It stares uncomfortable reality straight in the eye, asserting joy while acknowledging imperfection. This song may belong in rock's amusement-park tradition of songs like Freddy "Boom Boom" Cannon's "Palisades Park" or the Drifters' "Under the Boardwalk" or with the fun-in-the-summer theme of any number of Beach Boys classics, but "County Fair" is a closer kin to the current rock mode of confessional doubt.

Rock may have stopped being a music and culture of fun. Hip-hop and country hits still try to party, but the important rock acts of our day--Radiohead, Metallica, Jack White, Dave Grohl--sing more about mysteries than anything close to simple enjoyment. Rock songs celebrating fun are a rarity. But Springsteen's should-be summertime classic does both jobs, touching a nerve of incompleteness, but with the fond reminder that the teddy bears and rides may be the bottom line after all.

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From the August 4-10, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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