Why Bruce Springsteen Wrote a Song Specifically for Michigan
The Boss debuted a song in Kalamazoo at Miller Auditorium on his 1996 tour. He only played it twice at his Michigan concerts and has never recorded this rarity.
"Hello, [insert city name here]! Are you ready to rock?" It's the cheapest and yet, most effective way for a rock star to get the crowd riled up at a concert. That's not exactly what Bruce Springsteen was going for when he wrote "Highway Patrolman." The bleak, raw song, from the 1982 album Nebraska, is a first-person account of the story of Joe Roberts. His brother Franky went to Vietnam while Joe got married and stayed home on the farm. Since this is a Springsteen song, it doesn't go so well. Joe loses the farm and becomes a highway patrolman. After Franky nearly kills someone in a bar fight at "a roadhouse out on the Michigan line," Officer Roberts has to do his duty and pursues Franky (in a Buick with Ohio plates) across several Michigan counties until they are nearly at the Canadian border. Blood prevails over the badge as Joe Roberts quits the chase and lets his brother go free. "I pulled over the side of the highway and watched his taillights disappear."
Here's the problem: Michigan audiences cheered whenever their home state was mentioned. This enthusiasm, although appreciated, is misplaced in the middle of the stark song, accompanied only by an acoustic guitar and harmonica. By the time Springsteen embarked on his solo Ghost of Tom Joad tour in 1995, he had had enough. When he hit the stage in Michigan for the first time, at Miller Auditorium in Kalamazoo, he replaced "Highway Patrolman" in his set with a song written for the Mitten. The only other time he ever played "In Michigan" was two nights later in Ann Arbor.
At first, it seems nothing good happens in the Great Lakes State as he sings about his mother rolling over and dying, his dog getting hit by a truck and getting drunk and puking up his guts in Michigan. The chorus assures us things are OK.
But I’m alright, I’m alright, I’m alright, I’m alright
And man I’m riding here tonight in Michigan
-Bruce Springsteen, In Michigan
Despite coming in last pace in a race, shooting himself in the ass and getting arrested, Bruce decides "you got here one hell of a state in Michigan, oh, Michigan." This replacement song gave the Miller Auditorium crowd and the Ann Arbor audience a chance to show their pride in their hometown state, and hoot and holler all they wanted without ruining the somber mood of a Springsteen classic. The Boss has never recorded the song "In Michigan" and has never played this rare gem again.