[from aquarium drunkard...]
(Sevens, a new feature on Aquarium Drunkard, pays tribute to the art of the individual song. From now through the election, Sevens will focus on political songs)
Only twenty-four years ago, Ronald Reagan was running for re-election under the cheering banner of a slicker, better America. The story that he had been selling for four years was pockmarked with portable phones and skyscrapers, a white collar dream that we could all believe in – a future-flag that would wave us all into the 21st Century. Every tiny burg would have a Mercedes dealership, their car hoods gleaming with the reflection of Old Glory. The irony, of course, is that Reagan was seventy-three years old and an internationally-known film star who hadn’t lived in a small town in forty-seven years; The Gipper moved West in 1937, leaving Iowa City, IA, for Hollywood, a town which middle Americans would later demonize as a symbol of the out-of-touch elite. Reagan made himself a star in the early days of Hollywood, parlaying that success into a presidency of the Screen Actors Guild and, eventually, the country. In many ways, Ronald Reagan was the American Dream, pausing only long enough to dust off his shirt before he pulled the country up from the bootstraps, too. This man was One Of Us, and by 1984 he was setting up the kind of America that we had always believed was possible. We’d already won the love of the world in WWII; now was the time to globalize and pass our assets across country lines. The sun circled the earth in red, white, and blue.
Also in 1984, Bruce Springsteen, a rising rock star who had had plenty of critical success and even a Top Ten hit with “Hungry Heart,” prepared to release Born in the U.S.A. The record, Bruce’s seventh, would be the first-ever compact disc released in the United States, the miniaturized flag on the cover punctuated by the faded blue of those famous Levis. And that summer, fifteen million Americans would make Springsteen a superstar. They would spin the future in their CD players, squint at the tricolor cover, and feel their heart pump along with the martial snap of Max Weinberg’s snare drum. Garry W. Tallent’s bass would thunder through the woofers of sports cars while the dawn’s-early-light synth of Roy Bittan trickled from the tweeters. Red blood pumped. Blue eyes quelled. A golden age. And then came that thundercall shout, like a voice in the wilderness:
“Born down in a dead man’s town,” it said. “Born in the U.S.A.”
“Born in the U.S.A.” is completely lacking in the freewheelin’ party spirit that E Street perfected on Born to Run. Darkness on the Edge of Town was the hangover, The River was one last go-round, and Nebraska was rehab. But “Born in the U.S.A.” is the rebirth, the muscles rippling on a beast that has been beaten down and has only grown stronger for its trials. This furious – daresay audacious — hope is the same hope that Bruce always believed in, only stripped and compacted to its most essential power. Springsteen labored like a trenchman over the lyrics, recording version after version of demos until the song was distilled down to black tar. And while the acoustic versions recorded for the Nebraska sessions better embody the despair of the lyrics, this is a song that needs its bombs to burst in order to breathe. The solo “Born in the U.S.A.” is powerless; the E Street version is combat-ready.
The story that Bruce tells in “Born in the U.S.A.” is not hard to follow – a small-town kid gets in trouble with the law, so they ship him over to Vietnam “to go and kill the yellow man,” and returns home to find that his country isn’t terribly interested in helping him to assimilate back into American life. The “VA man,” who condescendingly calls the soldier “Son,” insists that he just doesn’t understand the way the world works. The arms of the Dream apparently don’t extend to those who fight for it. At what is perhaps the most emotional moment in the verses, the singer then goes back to Vietnam, remembering a fellow soldier – a “brother,” Bruce calls him – that he fought alongside at Khe Sahn. “They’re still here, he’s all gone,” Bruce shouts, and doesn’t bother finishing the bar. E Street fills out the line with pummel.
Maybe the most remarkable thing revealed upon repeated listens of “Born in the U.S.A.” is just how much the song chugs – there is no fat on this thing at all. Even the words are so densely packed that Bruce has no choice but to shout them out, choking on the weight of every syllable as it lurches from inside of him. It was recorded live in the studio, and the version that made Springsteen a superstar is actually the second-ever time that the E Street Band ever played “Born in the U.S.A.” as a group. You can hear the impatience and passion of the players, and as the song chimes on, even Bittan’s synth starts to twist into a grimace.
And then there’s the coda. The ending – Weinberg’s drums, specifically – pops all of the clinched shoulder muscles that Bruce had been flexing from the opening strums of Nebraska all the way through 1982 and ‘83 and up through “Born in the USA”’s five verses. It circles back around the darkness on the edge of town – lest the prosperity of the ’80s had caused you to forget – and gives it blinking neon attention in the form of Roy Bittan’s tinfoil synth. It carpetbombs the America that Ronald Reagan had already been selling the nation for two years before the song had been written, an America of clean streets and cleaner teeth, a CEO at every dinner table and blinging factories, all lit by a sun that wouldn’t also rise – it would only rise. This vision of America – the one that has no way of explaining anything that has happened here since, from Rodney King to Hurricane Katrina – is shouted down by the veins bulging from Bruce’s neck. Born in the U.S.A. sold fifteen million copies and everyone in America suddenly had to compete with the separate visions of two Bosses.
Only they didn’t. Reagan, bizarrely, tried to co-opt the song for his 1984 presidential campaign, and was quickly (and politely) denied permission by Springsteen. To this day “Born in the U.S.A.” is popularly considered a patriotic anthem. And it is. But it’s not the blinded brand of patriotism that baptizes every one of our country’s actions, the version of patriotism that our Founding Fathers themselves fought a war against. No, on “Born in the U.S.A.,” Springsteen’s shouts echo like the Grand Canyon against the abyss of American injustice. Like an interventionist, he tries to take control of the plane before it crashes into the mountain. Because when you love something, you’ll do anything to save it from itself.
It would not be unfair to say that Springsteen’s relationship with “Born in the U.S.A.” is tenuous at best. Though he opened every date of his 1985 World Tour with the song (performed in front of a massive American flag, no less), it is far from a concert standard. The original demo was released as part of the Tracks set in 1998, and subsequent live performances have ranged from loping 12-string acoustic versions to the traditional full-band version to (on the solo Devils & Dust tour) a boot-shout version performed on stomping board and bullet mic. An E Street show in 2008 is more likely to end with the immigrant anthem “American Land” than it is “Born in the U.S.A.”
And so the song begins its end with Bruce yelping that he’s a “Long gone daddy in the U.S.A.,” a term that links him immediately to Hank Williams. Hank, of course, was yet another version of the American Dream. Widely considered to be the greatest country music songwriter of all-time, he belongs to that Woody Guthrie school of dustbowl poets who saw a vision of America that didn’t fit into Reagan’s. Having been barred from the Grand Ole Opry for his struggles to stay sober, Hank was trying to prove his reliability to the very people who would later canonize him. Then, on January 1, 1953, at the dawning of the rock ‘n’ roll era that would be just as essential as the country tradition in forming the identity of Bruce Springsteen, he shot himself full of B12 and morphine and drank himself to death in the backseat of a Cadillac, shriveling away as the spotlight drank him up.
“Oh, God, no,” Bruce whimpers. And the song ends. words/ m. garnerDownload:
MP3: Bruce Springsteen :: Born In The U.S.A. (Nebraska demo)