For years, I assumed Bruce Springsteen’s iconic song “Highway Patrolman” was set in Michigan.
I can’t tell you why, other than the fact that Joe Roberts, the protagonist, “musta done 110 through Michigan County that night” while pursing his brother Frankie on suspicion of murder toward the end of the song.
But there is no Michigan County in Michigan, I discovered. No problem, then…it’s probably Ohio. Hell, Joe feels like an Ohio guy, right? He reminds me a bit of Ted on “How I Met Your Mother.” Ohio it is!
Doh!! You can’t drive to Canada from Ohio. You can drive to Canada from Wisconsin, Minnesota, Pensylvania, New York…but why would Pennsylvania, or New York, which don’t border Michigan, have a Michigan County? They don’t. Neither does Ohio. Michigan as a place name is based on a French pronunciation of a Native American word, so it is very unlikely that the name could exist in Pennsylvania or New York predating the state of Michigan.
Now, that’s not the end of the story, because county names in the U.S. aren’t quite as simple as all that. Many counties have historically changed their names, been incorporated into other counties, and even switched states. The song is set in the ’60s and possibly the early ’70s. So, hey, who knows, right? Maybe there wasone.
In fact, there isn’t a Michigan County anywhere inthe United States, there wasn’t in teh 1960s, and as far as I or any other obsessive Springsteen fan can tell, there never has been.
Yes, in case you were wondering, I felt silly when it finally occurred to me to look up the Wikipedia page on the song. Especially since I’d been using Wikipedia trying to find out if there was a historical Michigan County. To be fair, I think when the question first occured to me a while back, there was no page for ‘Highway Patrolman’ the song. But apparently others before me performed the same weird search that I did. Then one of them said, “I think I’ll start a page for ‘Highway Patrolman’ and mention that there is no Michigan County.” Thanks, guys. Obsessive Guy Time Wasters Task #133,675 completed, with honors. Now moving on to the ballistics pages to try to figure out if you could really kill ten people with a sawed-off .410.
Joe is also a sergeant out at Perrineville, which could have been “Perronville,” which is an unincorporated area in Michigan’s Upper Penninsula. But it’s not. I’d never really looked at the lyrics in print. Why would I? As with all the songs on Springsteen’s Nebraska, the lyrics clearly anunciated. Hell, it’s like listening to a damn audiobook. It’s one of the things I like most about the album — because on Nebraska, Springsteen pairs both narrative subtlety and thematic clarity to evoke my favorite part American landscape — the night side — in a way he hasn’t done before or since. I certainly wouldn’t be the first person to say that the album is American noir. There’s a cleanness to writing about real locations, even in noir fiction. Atlantic City, the New Jersey Turnpike…they’re real, sure, but there’s a different feeling, an atmospheric one, to writing about invented places. Gotham, Arkham, Metropolis, Sunnydale…maybe Michigan County is Springsteen’s Sin City, where you do 110 down the right back highway you can find anything…anything.
On Nebraska, nothing is what it seems. As in a Hitchcock movie or a Cornell Woolrich story, no word, phrase or gesture has only one potential meaning. On first listen, from some perspectives, the lyrics seem credulous, credible, almost boneheadedly simplistic. The stories they tell sound like soundbites from the nightly news if you don’t read them too deeply. But in fact, not a single line on Nebraska is meant at face value. Nor is the album laced with comic irony. Hey, Springsteen is a good-natured guy, I think. He’s mostly too nice to be snarky. And isn’t it always the nice ones who turn out to be serial killers? Springsteen’s irony, on Nebraska, has one intent, and that’s to fuck you up so bad you won’t know what hit you.
Oh, sure, Springsteen might be making a point about the American Dream, about family, about sin, redemption…whatever. That’s all the counter-text to a credulous subtext. It only works because it’s vicious. It’s meant to leave you bleeding. If you think Springsteen thinks it’s all right that Joe Roberts let a killer escape, you’re off your rocker. If you think he’s making a statement that Joe did the wrong thing, you’re equally whacked. To my reading of the song, Springsteen doesn’t know what the hell Joe Roberts should have done in Michigan County that night. He’s just glad he’s not Joe.
Except that he is, and we all are, and that’s why it works.
Bruce usually isn’t ironic. Oh, sure, he can be kinda funny at times. I get the sense he’s a good-natured guy. Having seen him twice in concert, I am glad he was never my toddler. I imagine he cracks jokes, siles a lot, slaps his friends on the back.
But he isn’t usually ironic in the way he is on Nebraska, where Even my favorite Springsteen song, “Thunder Road,” is mostly unironic throughout. There’s one exception, and I think it makes the song. I imagine the narrator smiling when he says “You ain’t a beauty, but hey, you’re all right,” as if he were talking to a sisterly friend he grew up with, and used to tease because he liked her… and she just happens to have become the love of his life. He gives her shit because he likes to see her blush. Beyond that one line, I read “Thunder Road” as being desperately straightforward.
Anyway, “Highway Patrolman” is not desperately straightforward, and it’s not set in Michigan. It’s not set in Ohio. And as to what Joe should have done, well… all options sucked. That’s the point.
Here’s to you, Michigan county: Speed limit 110, no waiting to cross the border.