Hey everyone, I went long on one of my favorite obscure little Bruce tracks for my second, and final, contribution to the two week Springsteen One Week One Band Marathon.
"County Fair" (recorded March 24, 1983 at "Thrill Hill West" [Springsteen’s home studio], Los Angeles, CA; available on The Essential Bruce Springsteen)
by Jon Bernstein
Come on, mister, tell me what’s waiting out there
In 1983, Bruce Springsteen was recording rampantly, amassing a lifetime’s worth of material as he continued to write songs for the record that would soon become, after its many early iterations, Born In The U.S.A. “County Fair” sounds and feels unlike anything else recorded during that prolific, career-defining year of song.
“County Fair” may be the most straightforward song Springsteen’s ever recorded, the simplest story he’s told. In some ways, the song is a throwback to the types of stories Bruce was telling a decade earlier, when his songs took place in the hazy, hot nights of Springsteen’s adolescence, when juvenile men and women trampled around Jersey boardwalks and Manhattan streets looking for trouble and thrills, too drunk on youth and music to be worrying yet about finding a way out of their own towns full of losers. Like so much of his earliest work, Springsteen sets “County Fair” in that mythical summer past, only this time, we’re in Small Town U.S.A., at a local carnival so commonplace, so specific in its uniformity, that you can feel the cotton candy sticking to your hands as Springsteen takes through a night at the county fair.
His narrator here is young and hungry, a teenager innocent enough to still take deep comfort in his small, safe surroundings, but old enough to know those very surroundings just might be transitory. His local county fair is a yearly tradition, and so it is also a marker of time and age, a way to realize, as you ride the Ferris Wheel year after year after endless year, both how little and how much you’ve changed.
The first half of the song focuses on the former, on the annual childlike joy our hero takes in a county fair he’s perhaps outgrown. “Every year when summer comes around/ they stretch a banner ‘cross the main street in town/ you can feel something happening in the air” he sings like a kid on Christmas Eve, waiting with open eyes for the annual reminder of his own youth. In the second verse, he’s on the roller coaster with his 9th grade sweetheart. The night’s full of sex and promise, and yet he can’t stop thinking about the fair itself, about its lights and smells, its yearly gift of eternal childhood. “Well baby you know I just love the sound,” he sings at the top of Ferris wheel, in a line that’s sure to un-impress his date for the night “Of that pipe organ at the merry go round.” He’s infantilizing the moment, encouraging his girl to “win your daddy one of them stuffed bears.”
But as “County Fair” progresses into the eternal carnival night, time slowly starts to evaporate. The pivotal moment comes in the third verse, when the teenage couple goes to the edge of the fair to catch some local music. “It’s James Young and the Immortal Ones,”two guitars baby bass and drums,” Springsteen sings, in a moment that blurs the distance between narrator and author. It’s hard not to hear Springsteen in that line, pining for the burning, basic rock and roll that got him to where he was in 1983: feverishly writing, trying desperately to find the precise sound to re-introduce him to the masses after four years out of the spotlight. In ‘83, Bruce, staring ahead at equal parts uncertainty and stardom, is, like his narrator, scared of what the future holds, and he relishes that fleeting moment in that third verse, “just rockin’ down at the County Fair.”
“County Fair”, which opens and closes with the sounds of crickets, feels like a demo, its sound muted and murky. As one Springsteen fan once remarked on Backstreets, the definitive Springsteen fan forum, the record sounds like Bruce is singing underwater. There’s a precise monotony to “County Fair,” with Springsteen mumbling and stumbling through the verses, and as a result, the song feels much longer than its five minute length, as endless as the youthful summer it first promises. The crickets chirp on as the teenagers glide through the fair in an indefinite fog of adolescent restless bliss, realizing, or just remembering, at some point that the local fair is like everything else at age sixteen: a bit boring.
Suddenly, though, the song gets quiet. The drums all but drop out in the fourth verse, and suddenly, the night’s over. Our singer has come a long way, growing up, gradually, with every verse, and by the end of the song he’s now painfully aware of what’s at stake. “I pull Carol close to my heart/ And I lean back and stare up at the stars/ Oh I wish I’d never have to let this moment go.” The music then dissolves into a mix of murky synths and crickets, with Springsteen robbing his listener of one more chorus, a final go on the Ferris wheel. The song that once preached an endless innocence is now abruptly sinister. There’s no more time to be young and eager, spending your summers on rusty roller coasters and creaky tilt-a-whirls. Instead, the singer only has time to realize he’s been taking his night, his town fair, his precious youth, for granted, but by the time he realizes that it’s all gone.