It wasn’t easy focussing on the album-book-of-the-week with the looming whirlwind of the election buffeting hearts and minds but we managed, after a fashion. After all, that’s the group’s raison d’être. Select the next volume of the 33 ⅓ monograph series and discuss. See also: dissect (respectfully); disagree (politely); digress (frequently). The album was Bowie’s Low which was a rich topic even though the mood of the group was captured in the title. The tension between focus and digression into politics was palpable.
Someone said, you couldn’t have planned the synchronicity of next week’s album. The day after the most significant Presidential election in living history, this group of passionate music nerds planned to zoom for the 27th time and launch into a genial talk-fest on Born In The USA. The day after the election. You couldn’t write that shit.
Published in 2007, Geoffrey Himes’ book is well-researched and very enthusiastic. He calls Bruce Springsteen’s seventh album his “finest moment”. The eighties studio sheen some find off-putting (“I’m on fire”, for example) doesn’t worry him at all, nor the unsubtle use of synthesisers on a few tracks. Mr Himes glories in the pop hooks of the singles, and the gritty story-telling of the lyrics. He also highlights the humour in Springsteen’s songbook, citing “Glory Days” as a prime example. Not that there was a whole lot to chuckle about in Bruce’s growing up.
Reading Springsteen’s 2016 memoir, Born To Run, it’s clear working class New Jersey in the 60s was a tough and unforgiving place. Like so many teenagers, young Bruce found refuge in music. Unlike most, he discovered a passion for playing and songwriting that drove him forward towards… what? Dreams, fantasies, conflict, love (doomed or otherwise), cars as escape vehicles, and hard knocks as the currency of the everyday. These were the album photos a young man of burning ambition wove into songs of towering drama grounded on dusty vacant lots; rusty knights in an industrial wasteland just looking for that one lucky break.
The promise of the early LPs was realised on 1973’s Born To Run, the album that garnered a still penniless Springsteen covers on Time and Newsweek and changed everything. The soul, the gritty rock, the over-the-top romanticism of this classic album catapulted The Boss to nationwide—and eventually worldwide—acclaim. It also marked the beginning of a change in perspective for the songwriter.
Up until now, Springsteen had been writing his own New Jersey version of the American Dream. Sure, it was often shadowed by film noir darkness but more often the band surged with almost histrionic waves of passion and melodrama. To be honest, I never connected with that movie; it had little to do with the suntanned torpor of suburban Melbourne, despite a major point of contact in the limited options imposed by being poor. You can be poor, and fantasise about something better.
“Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true, or is it something worse?” That line from “The River” exemplifies the shift in Springsteen’s songwriting, in fact the entire song is a signpost for where he was moving. Life is tough. You can’t always get what you want, or even what you need.
So how come he’s waving his ass at the camera in front of the stars and stripes on the cover of Born In The USA? The flag that, more than any other symbol, proclaims to the world this is the country of possibilities, where ambition is rewarded.
Someone, at this point, refers to the escalating COVID-19 death toll. Pushing towards a quarter of a million. While the leader, the commander-in-chief, lies compulsively, telling the population “It’ll just go away”. I’d call “war crime”, myself. But I don’t say it out loud.
The gap between dream and reality. That’s the core of the title track of Born In The USA, the opening number that starts with a declaration then explodes into a thrillingly righteous rocker. It says something telling about the USA that many did not realise, at the time, the song was social commentary. That it was a critique of the abandonment of Vietnam Vets and by implication of the way the world’s richest nation ignores its poor and dispossessed. The resonance of the song with the 2020 election was the mammoth in the zoom. As was the unanswerable question, how can so many people who are being dealt losing hand after losing hand continue to cheer for this orange sociopath whose only interest is his own aggrandisement? How can people continue to believe that citizens dying by the tens of thousands is less important than an abstract economic concept serving only the rich?
[I have a tentative theory about this paradox, but this probably isn’t the place to digress into such psychological musings. Suffice to say, the feudal mindset is one of learned abjection that gains enormous weight from conservative religion. Add in endemic trauma and you have the foundation for a twisted hero-worship with more than a little similarity to mass Stockholm Syndrome.]
Meanwhile, back in the land of 33 ⅓, the conversation drifts towards the lo-fi introspection of Born In The USA’s predecessor, Nebraska. Somehow that stark, reflective album seems to fit the mood of uncertainty in the group. Geoffrey Himes awarded Nebraska A- in the critical discography at the end of his book. With allowance for haggling over plusses and minuses, most agreed.
There was also broad consensus that Born In The USA shouldn’t be blamed for having so many hits (seven Top 10 singles!) and that the LP is, in fact, a very satisfying listen. “Working on the highway” is a rollicking rockabilly tale, “Cover me” fizzes with raunch, the honest fatalism “My Hometown” is genuinely touching, and of course there’s a classic Bruce story of working class struggle in “Downbound train”.
Several people shared memories of Springsteen gigs with all acknowledging his commitment to delivering a top-value show. Prior to the tele-meeting, I’d listened to the third CD of Springsteen’s next release, the epic Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band Live/1975-85. Tucked into the box was a ticket stub from a concert at the Melbourne Show Grounds in April 1985. I’d forgotten I’d seen The Boss live and when asked for my recollections I struggled to get beyond hazy memories of unseasonable heat, dust and the exhausting length of it all. But I made some favourable noises and hoped I didn’t look any more of a fraud than I’d already amply demonstrated. What, really, could a white middle-aged Aussie possibly have to say about US Presidents, American rock and roll heroes, patriotism, racism, working class dreams and the deceit of late-stage capitalism? Not that lack of knowledge deterred me from sharing my opinions, but fortunately (or not) the group refrained from rubbing my nose in such lamentable ignorance.
The nation whose financial might and cultural dominance shaped the lives of my generation appeared, during election week, to be teetering on the edge of an abyss. Even as I write, the most appalling english-speaking leader in half a century has not only refused to acknowledge defeat but seems to be attempting to manipulate the defence forces, adding deluded despot and dictator-in-waiting to his long charge list. Yet amongst that group, sitting in eight different Pacific North-West lounge rooms talking about an American musical icon—one, it should be added, who has been loud in his criticism of the Trump debacle—there was an enthusiasm, a welcoming acceptance, and a warmth that gave me a glimpse—perhaps my first—of how it might be a thing of satisfaction to be born in the USA.