Thursday, July 29, 2010


I think it was around 1997... That's when I started thinking about 'voice' in relation to fiction and storytelling. I was barely developing mine at the the time but I do remember that I was reading Bernard Malamud and listening to a bunch of Bruce Springsteen. Something brewed in me. And mind you, it wasn't the rah-rah "Born in the USA" Bruce but the quieter tunes from his solo discs like "Nebraska" and "The Ghost of Tom Joad." I was on vacation in Florida and kept playing "Johnny 99" over and over on CD and in my head. Something struck me about that particular tune.

Now while I was always a fan of 'The Boss,' I was starting to discover his incredible penchant for storytelling through lyrics and words -- and sometimes the lack of them.

Flash-forward around 13 years.

Driving to work today I was listening to "Johnny 99" again after not hearing it for quite some time and damn if it didn't drum up those same feelings of awe. Fuckin' guy is great, I thought, and after visualizing the words I'd say "Johnny 99" makes for a stupendous piece of flash fiction.

So that said, check out Springsteen's tune reconfigured in narrative form and see if you agree... The video -- with that classic era Bruce -- is also embedded below if you wanna hear the tune.

* If you enjoy the tune, I recommend snagging a used copy of the Springsteen book "Songs" on Amazon if you want a collected copy of all his lyrics. They're sheer poetry. Gritty and gorgeous.

# # #

Well they closed down the auto plant in Mahwah late that month. Ralph went out lookin' for a job but he couldn't find none. He came home too drunk from mixin' Tanqueray and wine. He got a gun, shot a night clerk, now they call him Johnny 99.

Down in the part of town where when you hit a red light you don't stop, Johnny's wavin' his gun around and threatenin' to blow his top. When an off-duty cop snuck up on him from behind -- out in front of the Club Tip Top -- they slapped the cuffs on Johnny 99.

# # #
Well the city supplied a public defender, but the judge was Mean John Brown. He came into the courtroom and stared young Johnny down.

"Well the evidence is clear gonna let the sentence son fit the crime. Prison for 98 and a year and we'll call it even Johnny 99"

A fist fight broke out in the courtroom and they had to drag Johnny's girl away. His mama stood up and shouted "Judge don't take my boy this way."

"Well son, you got a statement you'd like to make before the bailiff comes to forever take you away?"

"Now judge, I had debts no honest man could pay. The bank was holdin' my mortgage and they were gonna take my house away. Now I ain't sayin' that makes me an innocent man,
But it was more `n all this that put that gun in my hand.

...Now your honor, I do believe I'd be better off dead. So if you can take a man's life for the thoughts in his head. Then sit back in that chair and think it over, judge one more time. Let `em shave off my hair and put me on that killin' line..."

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  1. Damn, Anthony, I haven't heard that tune in quite a few years. What a lyricist/songwiter/storyteller - call him what you like...

    Love you little dialogue piece a lot. Have done the lyrics a great service. Well done!

  2. You're right Anthony, the Boss does write Flash. You do a pretty good job of it yourself. If I didn't wear the grooves off of it back in the 70s, I think I'll haul out Born To Run and play it today.

  3. Yup, you're right about the song. Cool the way you liaid it down. And it was great seeing the Boss in action - I'd never seen this piece before. I'd forgotten how those arms of his looked in cut-offs ...
    The best thing for me was hearing the insight about you. Driving along, hearing an old favourite song, and thinking the same thing about it. Getting excited about it.
    YOU are da boss, Ant.

  4. no what if's about it... the man is the poet laureate of the American landscape~~ <3 this piece!

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  6. I've been saying this for some time how songs are flash fiction or poetry. They get a short time to build a world or to evoke a feeling. Definitely have learned soooo much from checking out lyrics and listening to music over the years. Great spotlight here.

  7. My writing would be nothing without music, and I do love Bruce Springsteen, though I have to say more now than I did as a kid, because that's what my parents listened to, and so I had to rebel and crank my AC/DC and Metallic.

    I enjoyed this video much (he, P.Simon, B.Joel are some excellent song writers), and you and Carrie are so right about music and flash fiction - they are really kin.


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