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Bruce Springsteen (on being born a 99% American)

Springsteen is singing in my living room. The album art is very 1980s, and Bruce looks like a boy, but he was writing and shouting like a man. It’s a pop-cult quote o’ the day!

Five years in China was five years removed from my modest collection of vinyl records and my turntable. Even on summers home, which gave me access to Hewitt’s Dairy and good chocolate and real hamburgers, yes, and libraries and bookstores, too, there was no listening to the old records because our home was rented out. I don’t have much of the collection that I had as a kid and as a young man, and (mainly) thank goodness and improving taste for that. (Divorce helped, too.) No John Denver, no Grand Funk Railroad, no diminishing returns of obsessively buying every progressively more disappointing Chicago album and only belatedly accepting that they’d left their soul in the ’60s.

I play through what’s left, though, and I’m about three quarters of the way through listening to the whole cabinet. After bouts of Talking Heads and Steely Dan, and a week of playing The Atlantic Family Live at Montreux – the Average White Band and a host of other jazz players blowing their brains out, fine stuff that doesn’t age for me at all – I flipped this morning to what is probably one of my bride’s earliest LP purchases, Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA. The title song slays me.

The flag distracted me. As BS said, "The flag is a powerful image, and when you set that stuff loose, you don't know what's gonna be done with it." And no, he wasn't peeing on the flag in the iconic backside/blue jeans/red hat cover photo.

The flag distracted me. As BS said, “The flag is a powerful image, and when you set that stuff loose, you don’t know what’s gonna be done with it.” And no, he wasn’t peeing on the flag in the iconic backside/blue jeans/red hat cover photo.

It’s one of the most interesting pop songs ever, partly because of its raging despair, the pounding beat and the lofty place it and the entire album assumed — and still does, I’d say — in American pop culture. What’s really fascinating to me is how misunderstood it was, and still is. As a Canadian incidentally hearing it on rock radio, I got sick of it 30 years ago, principally an allergic reaction to what I saw as its jingoism, the highly amped assault of overbearing Yankee pride. Or so I thought, until I actually listened to it. Does anybody ever listen to songs?

Here’s how the supposedly patriotic “Born in the USA”, a song that was – unbelievably! – used as a Reagan campaign rallying cry in the 1984 Presidential election, begins:

“Born down in a dead man’s town
The first kick I took was when I hit the ground
End up like a dog that’s been beat too much
Till you spend half your life just coverin’ up…”

This thing is painful. The repeated “born in the U.S.A., (I was) born in the U.S.A.” chorus, one that I at first and millions still, in memory, regard as a roar of American affirmation, is ironically and bitterly judgmental. Springsteen’s guttural wail is in the persona of a poor, working-class schmuck who never gets a break, especially when he’s drafted for what nearly all Americans by 1984 had accepted as a useless and evil war in Vietnam:

“Got in a little hometown jam
So they put a rifle in my hand
Sent me off to a foreign land
To go and kill the yellow man…”

Or maybe it’s worse when he gets home, damaged by war and the death of a brother in arms, and can’t find a job or get any help from the Veteran’s Administration. He looks at a picture of his lost friend and his Vietnamese lover, and laments that he’s “all gone”. It’s a working class tragedy, a howl of dismay, a political mess, and a depressing declaration of the ways that it’s bloody hard to be an American, for so many of them. I can’t believe how obtuse I was to bristle, in my 20s, at yet another braying example of what I took to be American chauvinism. I can’t believe how many U.S. citizens accepted it, still do, as an anthem of pride and joy. And I’m still stunned that I can play it on a snowy Monday morning in 2015 and get that familiar surge of astonished sorrow and a tightening throat as Springsteen’s desperate loser screams that he has “nowhere to go”…

“Down in the shadow of the penitentiary
Out by the gas fires of the refinery
I’m ten years burnin’, down the road
Nowhere to run, ain’t got nowhere to go…”

Born in the USA. What a song. Nebraska is still my favourite Springsteen album; I don’t always love the jangling guitars and the honking of sideman Clarence Clemons (rest in peace). And I confess: I haven’t heard the post-911 album The Rising, or anything recent, so I’m too much the musical old fart with his head up his past. What has Springsteen done for you lately? I don’t think it’s essential to be a fossil to appreciate his writing, but sadly, it likely helps.

Comment (1)

  1. Karl King

    I too love vinyl. I’ve been obsessively collecting records for almost 30 years. My first LP was early Rush (the one with Tom Sawyer on it). That was followed by Boston, KISS, AC/DC and then, after a foray into British heavy metal in my early teens, I found punk rock. My first 7″ EP was from a Mississauga band whose name was M.S. I. (More Stupid Initials). I bought it at Cheapies, down in Gore Park in Hamilton, when I was 17. What followed was a deep exploration of the punk genre for the next 29 years as my ears took me to all corners of the globe. My favourite bands still come from Japan, Sweden, Finland, and the former Yugoslavia. As for Bruce Springsteen, I was never a fan during those years because for me he represented the mainstream, and I was all about rebelling against popular music. All that changed in 1994 when I moved from Ontario to Vancouver. I was exposed to new sounds in the live clubs downtown near my house. I love the energy and complexity of jazz, for example. I could get caught up for hours in a blues bar and yes, eventually I discovered Springsteen. As an ex-athlete, my favourite song was “Glory Days”, which I’ve sung many times at karaoke. I too found deeply ironic the audience’s misunderstanding of the true meaning of the song.

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