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"Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)"

A song written by Bruce Springsteen in 1973

One of the great rock’n roll performances, and as close to a perfect song as anyone’s ever recorded.

— George P Pelecanos, Uncut magazine, 2003 (1)

Never mind The Beatles or The Rolling Stones, this is the best rock’n roll track of all time.

— Chris T-T, Uncut magazine, 2003 (2)

I have to add my assent to the ones above that this is one of the greatest rock recordings of all time. If I had written the rest of Reason To Rock first, and then created a song to illustrate everything I’d been talking about, I couldn’t have come up with a better example.

The track opens with a jangly electric guitar. Drums and organ make a splashy entrance on top of the guitar, and a saxophone is soon added to the mix. They rise to a quick crescendo, prefiguring the action to come, then drop down into the basic riff that provides backing for the verses.

Springsteen’s vocal starts. His voice is warm, relaxed, earthy and assured, almost swaggering. He speaks his lines as much as sings them, stretching syllables, then shortening them, playing with the beat. The backing instruments are laid back, but energetic and playful, supporting the mood of the singer. The sound is rich, including guitar, drums, piano, organ and saxophone, all playing behind the vocal. The rhythms are strong and propulsive, with the whole effect being something like a coiled spring, suggesting hidden power yet to be unleashed. Here’s what he sings.

Spread out now, Rosie; Doctor, come cut loose her mama’s reins.
You know, playin’ blindman’s bluff is a little baby’s game.
You pick up Little Dynamite; I’m gonna pick up Little Gun;
And together we’re gonna go out tonight and make that highway run.

The overt tension of the song is laid out in these first two couplets: Springsteen wants to release the girl from her parents so that she can be with the singer. Rosie’s parents and their house are part of what constrains her, but the mention of a childhood game also suggests that Rosie herself is not sure she is ready to leave her girlhood behind and become a young woman.

Notice the dramatic movement in the beginning of this first verse. The first two lines describe the current state of the girl, childish and still tied to her mother’s apron strings. The next two lines introduce two friends whose nicknames suggest explosive and perhaps dangerous freedom, and the intention of the singer to release the girl from her bondage.

Note also the marvelous language that Springsteen uses. Here, as throughout the song, he manages to choose words that work simultaneously at two different levels. On the one hand, they sound conversational and vernacular, as if this were a straightforward and everyday conversation between a guy and a girl. At the same time, though, many of the words are symbolic, and the phrasing unusual. The overall effect is of a wonderful kind of street poetry. The names of some of their friends, such as “Dynamite” and “Little Gun,” work in this way.

The last line quoted above is also a wonderful example of these parallel meanings. The sentence starts out saying “we’re gonna go out tonight,” using an altogether ordinary phrase. But then the same line finishes with the promise, “and make that highway run.” If the word “run” is interpreted as a noun, then this phrase is also ordinary, although there is a hint of mystery, since we don’t know what that “highway run” consists of, or where it leads. But the phrase could also be interpreted to mean “force the highway to run,” a sense that has no literal meaning but has wonderful symbolic resonance.

Another interesting element of the song is the relatively long line length. This results in many of the lines being broken in the middle, really containing two sentences, or a compound sentence. The effect of this device is to convey the singer’s confidence and informality: unlike many singers, he’s not in a hurry to neatly finish off each couplet by supplying the closing rhyme; instead he stretches each line out, confident we will wait around for the pay-off.

Let’s see how Springsteen closes out the verse.

You don’t have to call me lieutenant, Rosie, and I don’t want to be your son.
The only lover I’m ever gonna need’s your soft sweet little girl’s tongue:
Rosie, you’re the one.

These three lines are wonderfully rich. It’s important to remember that, by the time this song was released in 1973, tales of urban romance, teen love, and liberation from parents already had a pretty full tradition. These lines, though, make it clear that Springsteen is staking out his own territory. The first line implies that Springsteen is not looking for a traditional patriarchal relationship of male dominance and female submission: he doesn’t plan on giving her orders or on calling her his mama. The next line is wonderfully sensual, going beyond the bounds of traditional propriety in pop and rock songs. And the last line, in its elegant simplicity, says that he is not merely interested in playing around with her or in another sexual exploit. So while the overt conflict in the song is in freeing Rosie from her parents, there are other sorts of liberation at work here too.

Underneath the lyrics, the music is doing interesting things as well. The urgency of the rhythms build beneath the first line above. The song then slows for thoughtful reflection behind the second line, emphasizing the intimacy of the words. The drums and sax then soar again when we hit the climactic exclamation, “Rosie, you’re the one,” carrying us along into the second verse.

Dynamite’s in the belfry, playin’ with the bats.
Little Gun’s downtown in front of Woolworth’s,
tryin’ out his attitude on all the cats.
Papa’s on the corner, waitin’ for the bus.
Mama, she’s home in the window, waitin’ up for us.
She’ll be there in that chair when they wrestle her upstairs,
’cause you know we ain’t gonna come.
I ain’t here for business, I’m only here for fun:
And Rosie, you’re the one.

The second verse continues in the vein established by the first, with some interesting variations. Some humor is added to the mix, giving us a break from the urgency of the first verse. The playful use of language continues, including the wonderful declaration, “I ain’t here for business, I’m only here for fun.” Line lengths now vary quite a bit, again giving the singer a chance to play with rhythm and melody, this time by stretching out one line and then racing through the next. Some internal rhymes begin to show up, such as “chair” and “upstairs,” adding to the playfulness of the song. Clarence Clemons’ sax soars gracefully behind the singer, suggesting the release from parental controls into the fluid freedoms of youthful camaraderie.

Now, for the first time, we hit the wonderful chorus. Springsteen is helped out on vocals by his band members singing backup, embodying the youthful community he has been describing. Clemons continues to soar on sax, adding a suggestion of salsa as we find out Rosie’s full name and discover her Hispanic heritage.

Rosalita, jump a little lighter.
Señorita, come sit by my fire.
I just want to be your lover, ain’t no liar.
Rosalita you’re my stone desire.

The best part of the chorus is the first line. Springsteen again makes it clear he is not attempting to liberate Rosie from one constraining relationship only to bind her to another one. Has there ever been a more graceful, liberating injunction between prospective lovers? “Rosalita, jump a little lighter!” The saxophone continues beyond the words, lightly climbing the scales, embodying the release suggested by the lyrics.

The third verse, again followed by the chorus, names additional characters, adding to the feeling of community that illuminates the song. Springsteen also strengthens his injunction to Rosie to join him, urging her to walk right out through the front door, adding to the sense that he wants her psychological liberation as much as her physical escape.

Jack the Rabbit and Weak Knees Willie, you know they’re gonna be there.
Ah, sloppy Sue and Big Bones Billie, they’ll be comin’ up for air.
We’re gonna play some pool, skip some school, act real cool,
stay out all night, it’s gonna feel all right,
So Rosie come out tonight. Baby, come out tonight.

Windows are for cheaters; chimneys for the poor;
Closets are for hangers; winners use the door:
So use it Rosie, that’s what it’s there for.

Rosalita, jump a little lighter.
Señorita, come sit by my fire.
I just want to be your lover, ain’t no liar.
Rosalita you’re my stone desire.

Springsteen now plays with the structure of the song. We hear a sort of false ending, an extended musical interlude that could easily have faded out, with the song already at about the four minute mark. But instead the music slows, pauses, then resumes slowly behind the singer as he speaks the following confessional.

Now, I know, your mama, she don’t like me,
’cause I play in a rock and roll band.
And I know your daddy, he don’t dig me,
but he never did understand.
Papa lowered the boom, he locked you in your room —

I’m comin’ to lend a hand…
I’m comin’ to liberate you, confiscate you — I want to be your man.
Someday we’ll look back on this, and it will all seem funny.

Now the song begins to rev up again, the band playing louder, Springsteen’s voice rising in intensity.

But now you’re sad, your mama’s mad,
And your papa says he knows that I don’t have any money;
Oh, your papa says he knows that I don’t have any money;
Oh so your daddy says he knows that I don’t have any money —

These last three lines are sung with the band acting as chorus, with only drums for backup, and with hand claps emphasizing the rhythm. The group almost sounds like a chain gang, singing the same lines over and over again to provide rhythm for their physical labors. The effect is certainly to suggest poverty and a lack of freedom. But now the music explodes and the lyrics provide a sudden dramatic reversal.

Tell him this is his last chance…
To get his daughter in a fine romance…
Because a record company, Rosie, just gave me a big advance!

Here, for one shining moment, the singer seems to have it all: the usually adult attributes of money, power and respect, while still retaining his youth, his community of peers, his playful attitude, and his love. But the beginning of the next verse starts immediately, comically deflating the image before it can become overstated.

My tires were slashed, and I almost crashed, but the Lord had mercy.
My machine she’s a dud, I’m stuck in the mud,
somewhere in the swamps of Jersey.
Hold on tight, stay up all night, ‘cause Rosie I’m comin’ on strong.
By the time we meet, in the morning light, I will hold you in my arms.

Now, at the end of this verse, we get a glimpse of real freedom, of the promised land. The music slows, and the singer’s reading is breathtakingly beautiful.

I know a pretty little place, in Southern California, down San Diego way:
There’s a little café, where they play guitars all night and day,
You can hear them in the back room strummin’.
So hold tight baby, ‘cause don’t you know daddy’s comin’.

Everybody sing:

Rosalita, jump a little lighter.
Señorita, come sit by my fire.
I just want to be your lover, ain’t no liar.
Rosalita you’re my stone desire.

We hit the chorus again and then the song comes to a big muscular finish, the band playing for all it’s worth, shouting in the background, finally winding down into a single echoing note on the organ.

This song has it all. The lyrics are funny, personal and idiosyncratic, bringing you into touch with real people and real situations. The song describes liberation from parents, from traditional social structures, from the boring world of adult toil, and into authentic love, community, adventure and art. The structure of the song is fluid and full of surprises, liberating itself from traditional forms as it goes. The playing of the band is strong and supple. The instruments are as restless as the singer, yet moving in perfect sympathy and synchronicity with him. Together they perform as one cohesive unit, yet with room for all the individual parts, and allowing them all full freedom of expression.

This is rock music at its best.

Originally published at

  1. Pelecanos, George P. Apr. 2003. “Thunder Road”. Uncut. London: IPC Media.  ↩

  2. T-T, Chris. Apr. 2003. “Thunder Road”. Uncut. London: IPC Media.  ↩

May 5, 2004