Tuesday 24 June 2014

Bruce SPRINGSTEEN: Born In The U.S.A.

(#310: 16 February 1985, 1 week; 6 July 1985, 4 weeks)

Track listing:  Born In The U.S.A./Cover Me/Darlington County/Working On The Highway/Downbound Train/I'm On Fire/No Surrender/Bobby Jean/I'm Goin' Down/Glory Days/Dancing In The Dark/My Hometown

Sarah (Vowell) presents me with a hardbound copy of the United States Constitution and we head back to the station.  We have half an hour to kill before our train.  If I thought the lack of American-related decor in the main room of the citizenship facility was lousy public relations, it is as nothing compared with this port of entry;  the town of Hempstead itself.  Sarah and I attempt a walk around.  My first glimpse as a citizen of this golden land is not the Lady of the Harbor shining her beacon through the Atlantic mist but cracked pavement, cheap liquor stores with thick Plexiglas partitions in front of the cashiers, shuttered businesses, and used car lots.    
David Rakoff,  "Love It Or Leave It,"  Don't Get Too Comfortable

Lately I have been thinking a great deal about home and what home means; sure, it's where you live, but it's also where you come from and also where you find yourself, at any given time.  As any expatriate knows, you can feel more at home somewhere by bringing or having something that reminds you of home with you.  But what if you haven't left home, and yet feel...left out?

That is the great question that encircles and defines Born In The U.S.A; how to belong to a place, how to live in it, even if you don't fit in.  That Springsteen remains ambivalent about a lot of these songs (save for the title one) shows that even for him this is tricky territory, so to speak, and the huge success of the album in some way oddly muffled that ambivalence, or distracted from it.

If I seem to have lapsed into prim last-year-of-high-school writing, that's because that's where I am when this is huge; by the time this album is on to its...fifth single I am back in summer school one more time, to get one more credit so I can finally graduate.  (I have attended the graduation ceremony along with everyone else; passing Macroeconomics is seen as a formality.)  By this time hearing anything from this album on the radio is a given; you didn't need to own it to know it pretty well.  (Album tracks like "Bobby Jean" and "Darlington County" were played on rock stations anyway, just 'cause.)  Boys like Keith (perpetually upbeat, sporty, unambivalent about anything) in my class loved The Boss, whereas the more refined boys like Owen-I've-been-to-Germany wouldn't be caught dead lining up overnight for anybody, least of all Springsteen.  Owen knew about Propaganda, and thus the whole Regular Dudes vs. Effete Snobs situation presented itself to me for the first time.  Not that I was interested in either of these guys - how could I be? - but I knew that these preferences were set in stone for them, whereas they weren't for me.  And while I was more of a Propaganda girl myself, I knew that Springsteen was trying to say something, trying to come across, but in the general mix of radio - CFNY, in particular - it got kind of lost.  Big shiny songs, lots of 'em, videos too, and great success; it is no wonder that my favorite station considered him to be mainstream and by and large didn't play him that much.  It could well be that having moved back to Canada a few years previous, I was at one remove from the feelings in the songs; but really, this is a grown-up album, and I understand things in it much better now than I ever could have when it came out.  

Hometown Jam

"Born In The U.S.A." is the one song Springsteen feels stands on its own on the album; it's also the only song that Greil Marcus doesn't think is "cheese."  Martial in beat, defiant in spirit, this is a grown-up version of "Summertime Blues*" that sees one man vs. The Man in what voiceovers of movie trailers would describe as "a war he couldn't win."  That the Republicans in power thought it was a proud song by a patriot was...interesting, but the triumphal spirit that laced through '84 in the US put this song in a light that was...flattering, and unnecessary.  A much better reaction came from Stanley Clarke a year later and Cheech and Chong did "Born In East L.A." around the same time. 

The chorus of this song can mean several things; things that are too - yes that word again, ambivalent - to be used for a political campaign of any stripe.  It could mean that the narrator is, despite everything, proud to be an American; or angry that the American Dream hasn't happened to him, that from birth he's been hit hard time and again, a tool of US foreign policy and his brother (note how that word could mean an actual brother or a good friend) died for nothing, leaving a widow (not sure about that, but in effect...).  He has, like Martha and the Vandellas, nowhere to run to, nowhere to hide...

...and yet Max Weinberg's drum freakout at the end suggests that there is still some hope, if only that faint hope that being an American in and of itself is a kind of rough nobility.  This narrator doesn't demand respect - "I'm a cool rockin' daddy in the U.S.A.!" he proclaims at the end, meaning the exact opposite.  But he is Everyman, the Baby Boomer who would have agreed with "Fortunate Son" and whose plight and psychic pain would be the burden of a whole generation.  Springsteen's body language says as much here; his level look at the end asks if you can comprehend what has happened, and take it from him - a man who himself was rejected by the Army.  (I can well imagine some vets getting steamed up about that, but for Springsteen music was/is life and his dad, a WWII veteran, was surprisingly relieved when his son came back after three days, still a civilian.)

But still, I wonder - what could this "hometown jam" be that was so bad that going and joining the Army was the preferred thing to do?  Jail, I guess...

Wild Winds

In the previous song, there's a dog that has been beaten so much that he has to be covered up, and here is the narrator again - maybe not the same one - who longs to escape the world**.  He's looking for someone who will protect him from the rain and snow, someone who will in fact take him away from the world altogether - it's rough and ugly and exhausting and mean, the U.S.A.  Though this could apply to many places, of course.  Almost needless to say, this album was big in Scotland and northern England as a working class testimony right up there with Steeltown; but in the rest of England it was more Springsteen as ur-American, a middle-class phenomenon who isn't really one of them but speaks to them anyway.  Which isn't to say they don't feel those wild winds, either; but maybe not as roughly...

Two Big Spenders

Or, how do you write about, well, jerks sympathetically?  I mean, two guys from NYC who can't find a girl anywhere?  How awful are this pair?  They don't know, they are blissful in their lack of awareness, they just have an uncle - Wayne's - who can hook them up with some work, and off they go, in their car, blasting rock'n'roll and being unbothered by The Man.  First thing when they get there, there's a girl they pick up, convincing her that they are wealthy, so rich that "Our pa's each own one of the World Trade Centers."  That seems to work on her, poor girl, though I wonder how much of their bullshit she actually believes.  Wayne ends up being arrested by The Man, and the narrator rides off into the sunset with the girl - he has seen "the glory of the coming of the lord" and somehow I think Springsteen isn't just talking religion (Prince would understand).  Sha-la-la, la-la-la-LA-LA indeed, as the less awful of the two, I think, goes down the Dixie Highway to the Promised Land, I guess...(oh, and Clarence!)

She's Just A Little Girl
Move over, Meatloaf!  A working-class dude sees a girl (how young is she? She doesn't seem to be anywhere for long without her brothers) and works and works for her, courts her, tries to get her dad on his side...he answers that she "don't know nothing 'bout this cruel, cruel world."  The song is so rockabilly quick and brisk that the ugliness here is partly masked by the joy in his pursuit of this girl, a pursuit that leads to eloping overnight.  They go to Florida (in a moment of complete jerkdom, the narrator says "we got along all right") and sure enough the brothers are there and he ends up in jail, working again on the highway and unable to make eyes at any girls at all.  The American Dream so far here seems to be picking up girls and being either successful or not, depending on sheer luck.  Love makes you blind, careless, reckless and just plain stupid so far (how did her brothers know where she was, I wonder***)?  And oh, hello future TPL stars Arcade Fire....

Your Love Had Never Died

The next sympathetic man who has lost everything is here, and while their are virtually DNA-type links between this and Tom Waits' "Downtown Train" I am reminded even more forcibly of something else; a reverse of the Cupid and Psyche story, where Cupid runs to his house of love where he once knew Psyche, desperate, only to find she is not there.  His heartache is perpetual and profound, his loss terrible ("hung my head and cried").  The train has taken his baby away, as in "Mystery Train" and unlike that song there's no way she's coming back, though he is there working on the railroad at the end, in forlorn hope, once again another man without a woman, his loss tangible and bitter as unlike the jerk in the previous song, he really had something with her, or thought he did....

The Middle Of My Soul

And here is another train song, though this is the unrelenting train of lust and burning - though Springsteen plays this cool, quiet, as the song virtually smolders.  And yet that line about the soul suggests that this isn't just a physical thing, picking away at him like the guitar, the drums.  This fire is all-consuming, and he feels or thinks that he can take the girl higher, take her and perhaps change her, consume her and transform her.  This is damn primal stuff, and the ache here is for that Other who will thrive on this kind of attention and not be disturbed by his intensity.  This is an improvised song, done in the studio, a kind of mood piece that peels back a persona to reveal something darker, more interesting, "bad."  His feelings are making him sweat, his love/lust is stunning him, his need for the girl is almost the cry of a sick man.  His cries at the end are again like a train, as if he is tied to the tracks, effectively, with no way of escape....(And as Marcello says, "If only Elvis had lived to make this album.****")

Thus ends the first side; the songs Springsteen wrote in '81-'82.  The songs now shift to the more personal, the more revealing....

I'm Ready To Grow Young Again

The songs here came out of the same rush that produced the tough songs of Nebraska; Springsteen started with songs about Vietnam and went from there.  This happened along the way and its cheery message that surrender is not an option and musical redemption were not something he wanted on the album, but Little Steven convinced him otherwise.  "The romance of rock 'n' roll" is one thing, but in Reagan's America that grittiness was no longer really in fashion - rock as ideology to be corrupted and co-opted by The Man was more of what was happening (The US Festival of '83 being a fine example).  "We learned more from a three minute record than we ever did in school" gets to the heart of the matter, a heart that is perfectly understandable and worth fighting for, but part of me itches at the notion that Music Can Conquer All and music being a metaphor for a bigger fight, one that keeps people from really growing up.  But then I think of the music that means something to me and how it keeps me going - which is all this song is about - and I suddenly want Springsteeen to cover Stereolab (has he ever even heard of them)?  This is the first song to imply that there is a struggle between the past and present, but at least here there is a sense that the future is good and doesn't involve jail, running away or despair.

I Miss You Baby

"Bobby Jean" is a girl, the first girl here with an actual name, one that shares a past with the narrator - and suddenly she is gone, there is nothing he can do.  He remembers her with great fondness, not just as "pretty" or "little" but as his equal, who loved the same things he did, who shared his pain and joy, who told each other they were the "wildest"...indeed there is such affection here that she could have been his girlfriend, sure, but also just a close friend, period.  And she understood him better than anyone anywhere ever will, they were that close.  What has happened to her?  Her mom says there was nothing he could have done, she is in parts unknown, and he can only write this song to her (fourth wall broken!) and hope that she will hear it on the radio somewhere so he can get through to her that way, through music.  How two people who were so close once could be separated is never explained, but then the narrator doesn't really seem to care; he wants only to tell her that he misses her, in chords that show some knowledge of the Associates and the emotional exaltation that comes with them.

I'm Way Out Of Bounds

Or, welcome to the other side, the more realistic view, alas, in romance.  The girl sighs, bored, the boy feels low, unable to feel anything other than rejection and gloom, a toy that gets knocked around by the girl. He doesn't seem to know why she is like this, doesn't ask her questions, and even when they fight it's not worth the effort - nothing gets settled.  He is going down, all right, comparing their tense present with their eager and hot and bothered past - is this romance over?  The confusion and frustration here could relate just as much to a songwriter and his muse, now that I think of it.

But I Probably Will
If this album was huge and made people happy, despite the pain, it is mostly up to this song.  It is sung with a smile, a joy, even if it's about reminiscing and drinking (in a bar or at home) and realizing that the past is a shared thing, not a solitary one (contrasting sharply with the first song, where the narrator has no one to relate to, literally and figuratively).  The high school baseball pitcher who talks about nothing but high school; the high school beauty queen/divorcee who now drinks with the narrator at home after she's put her kids to bed (part of me can't help but think that the narrator may want to be her next husband, but then this isn't a romantic song).  The wink of a young girl's eye, indeed.  The past is wrestling the present to the ground and has its eye on the future.  But the narrator, once again hearing those baseball stories yet again, wonders if he too is going to succumb to the lure of the past - and is only stopped by the utter repetition he finds in them, the "boring stories" that have no oxygen or life in them anymore, just a lot of stale wistfulness and rank nostalgia that moves nothing forward.  This happiest-sounding of songs has the toughest message, ironically enough - that the beauty queen, miserable enough to cry, is saved by her remembering how things once were, is alive - though sad.  But the baseball pitcher just tries to "recapture" something that maybe wasn't all that great to begin with, and is dead but doesn't know it, as the Amish would say.  And then Springsteen ends it with a direct homage to "Roadrunner" as if to say he knows Jonathan Richman and Elvis Costello too, knows that when you look to the past it's one thing, but to age gracefully in the present is another thing altogether.

I Need A Love Reaction

When this album was nearly ready to go, Springsteen's manager asked him to write a song that was "contemporary" - which I guess means something danceable, upbeat, that would give the album oomph.  Certainly that's how Springsteen must have interpreted it, but what a direct autobiography of writing and disgruntled writing!  And yet the narrator here - I can't pretend it's not Springsteen himself - is reaching out for this Other, this girl who can liberate him from himself, get him out of his slump/dump, out of his relentless self awareness.  He needs just a spark, just a dance, a little something to give him some encouragement.  But there is one enemy that he at least has the grace to bow to - and these lyrics are key to the whole album.  "You sit around getting older/There's a joke here somewhere and it's on me."  Age and what comes of it haunts this album, from the hapless vet who's been around for ten years getting nowhere to the songwriter who feels he's the joke, but is old enough to know "there' something happening somewhere." (I always heard the next line as "I just want a kiss" instead of "I just know there is."  And in case you're wondering, I had no/have no crush-type feelings for Springsteen.)  He is tired and bored with himself***** - no need to hear high school buddy stories here - he just needs the Other, the Not Him, to get the world moving, not in the light but the dark, which he will happily settle for.  "Hey baby!" he yells at the end, like Bruce Channel, as the band does its best sophisticated boom-boom best and Clarence comes in, as he finally reaches out to her, a Hades in his dead world reaching out to the living girl, with a smile.

Take A Good Look Around

Or, where do you go when you can't be anywhere?

If the narrator we started with is stuck in a limbo of post-Vietnam nothingness, the narrator here looks back to a happy childhood, a troubled 60s and a recession in the present day, not as it hits just him but his town as well.  It is a calm song, the tension and agitation of all the previous songs washed out to a kind of acceptance.  And yes, that word again, ambivalence.  The boy is father to the man - he is taking him for a ride in his hometown, just as his father did with him, back in the 50s.  (There is a Harry Chapin feel to this, though in that song the boy grows up - this song is more about the parents.)  Is where you live an anchor?  Is it worth moving away, or is that pointless?  He and his wife Kate (the second woman with a name on the album) talk about packing up and moving south, and perhaps if they didn't have a child they would.  The textile mill has closed down, the town is going down, there seems to be no point in staying when there's work elsewhere.  It's hard to know if they do move or stay - the boy will lose a sense of where he is in the world if they move, but he will likely have better prospects if they do - as will his parents.  But the calm of the song is absolute; and Springsteen shifts the song to include you as well as his narrators, that this figurative hometown is your literal hometown, and another sort of wall gets broken down.  And thus the album ends, back and forth, asking the question of the listener, sympathizing with this difficult problem that a restless nation/world has to deal with, has had to deal with for a long time.  But being from the U.S.A. is one thing; being away from your hometown is another, and attachments are hard to break.  "This Land Is Your Land" and you don't just give up on your land, ever.   

In hindsight Springsteen was bound to have a hit with this slick and bright album, but under that slickness is a world of desperate men, men who are unable to hang on to things but are at least alive to their passions and in the best cases honest with themselves and others.

It's that honesty and no-bullshit forwardness that make this album vital; that would give both Steve Earle (and the whole New Country movement) and Chuck D instructions on how to structure songs and tell truth to power, to tell it like it is, plain and simple.  (Not that this was a big album in the world of hip-hop, necessarily, but it does have the one-two punch of realism and popularity that hip-hop has.)  It's the first US #1 album with the American flag on it since Sly and the Family Stone to address a national crisis - here the Baby Boom crises of Vietnam and their coming of age as thirtysomethings who are struggling against sitting around talking about the 60s, man, the rest of their lives.  (As it stood, Generation X as a term didn't exist in 1985 - that existential battle has yet to come.)

The impact of Springsteen in the UK was like a simmer that came to a boil - The River nearly got to #1 in 1980, and Nebraska the same in '82, but Born In The U.S.A. was so big and his tour in the UK so successful that it brought his first two albums into the chart for the first time, and the UK has had open ears to him ever since - this is the first of many times TPL will get to him.  But this is a whomping calling card that gave him a huge audience he has struggled sometimes to lead this way and that, but is doggedly loyal, as they sense he - along with Prince - are two Americans who are utterly themselves and thus trustworthy.  He gave money from his tour to the miners in Newcastle in early July; miners who had been on strike, who he identified with as they reminded him of his own father (his hometown is their hometown).  His tour was likely full of gestures like that - and his missing Live Aid was due to his relentless touring and the bubble he was in, had been in for a year by that time.  This was the #1 album when Live Aid happened, and that large event was somewhat at a loss without him, but then it was more that so many pop stars were doing for one day what he was standing for the whole while.  The outsider as insider; the person of no place everywhere; the hand and voice reaching out in the dark.  Springsteen understood all this, and still does.

Next up:  Northern Hometown Jams.

*I can imagine a young Springsteen listening to The Who's Live At Leeds and really liking their version.

**The "wrap your arms around me" harks back to "Born To Run" as does the first song, pretty much.  And do I hear an echo of The Smiths' "Pretty Girls Make Graves" here?

***I can only imagine that Stovell, where some of the narrator's coworkers go with "trouble on their shirts" is a way of saying that the whole crew here are kind of looking for trouble.

****And I definitely hear an echo of this song in the slow burn of Eric Church's "Springsteen."

*****This is the exact opposite of Jim Reeves' "Welcome To My World."  Springsteen wants, like the narrator of "Cover Me" to get out of his world and goes further - to become someone else altogether.