A Price in Return: Bruce Springsteen’s Tale of Brothers, Loss, and Pain
The American Dream is constantly at his songs’ cores, but that Dream is always marred by reality and life (“The River” offers a beautiful example of this theme). Springsteen speaks to the blue-collar worker, the fatherless child, the people working three jobs just to pay rent and afford deli meat. His voice is raw, graveled, and rough, but that’s what makes his songs ache of a universal truth.
In my opinion, “Sinaloa Cowboys” may be Springsteen’s most fully realized narrative song, and it is also one that very few people know—which is a shame. When listening to “Sinaloa Cowboys,” it’s hard not to be reminded of “Highway Patrolman” (off Nebraska). The structures, sounds, and themes are similar, as are the stories’ narrative focus on two brothers; though “Sinaloa Cowboys” does not give us that hopeful image of one brother watching the other drive to his freedom.
The Rosales brothers are guided simply by hope. This setup also plays into one of Springsteen’s most oft-used themes of what someone will do to survive; we’re told that the two brothers “could spend a year in the orchards / Or make half as much in one ten-hour shift” in the Meth lab. Here, Springsteen is forcing us to confront the harsh reality that, at times, especially in the economic environment we live in, there becomes a necessity to do the wrong thing, the illegal thing, in order to survive.
Though, as with all opportunities, this new job is dangerous, and Springsteen foreshadows the violent end with his seemingly out-of-place description of “hydriodic acid . . . burn[ing] right through your skin,” and the fumes that can “leave you spittin’ up blood in the desert.” These dangers are laid out bluntly and jarringly to us, but Springsteen does this so we can see just how much Miguel and Louis are sacrificing in hopes of financial security and a good life.
And, thus, we are challenged here: Is financial gain worth the possibility of pain and loss? We’d like to say No, never, but I think Springsteen is looking us square in the eyes and really asking us to examine our inner beings, forcing us to directly confront the demons of hope and the American Dream. Is money worth it?
“Sinaloa Cowboys” offers a simple, straight-forward story. It has no chorus, only six verses, all of which are sung in Springsteen’s stripped and graveled voice, accompanied by a strumming guitar. It is interesting to note that when the Rosales brothers begin working at the Meth lab and their path toward eventual death and loss begins, another guitar—a Spanish guitar, specifically—and synthesizer (both instruments that add an aesthetic beauty to the song) begin to play. These latter instruments directly contrast the pain of the narrative and is done for a purpose: Maybe loss is a beautiful necessity of life? or something along those lines. Possibly. It’s hard to tell for sure. But what is clear with this song is that there is a narrative genius in Bruce Springsteen, one spawned from pain and loss and anguish, a genius that cannot be matched in story-telling.