BORN WHERE?

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.

 

38 comments

  1. The political backdrop made me wonder about the parallel between Springsteen and Trump, as fans of each seem equally likely to perceive their hero as authentic. Now, a perception of auhenticity that has its roots in candor and honesty doesn’t trouble me at all, even after it’s been leavened by poetic lyrcism. In fact, I think it is rather a nice thing to have such benign heroes.
    And so perhaps it would be nice to
    Begin the benign.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Ah, very nice, DD. I’d wear that t-shirt, and I believe Cole Porter might too.

      Like

    2. pinklightsabre · · Reply

      That’s a good one DD, begin the benign. We could almost get “genuine” into that sentiment but genuine doesn’t add to the meaning I don’t think; you can be genuinely terrible. (Clears throat.)

      Liked by 1 person

  2. “Born To Run”, “Born In The USA”, “The River” were some highlights of Bruce Springsteen. I saw him live 1981 in the Hallenstadion in Zürich and 1988 in the St. Jakobstadion in Basel. But in the last years, however, I stopped looking at the new Springsteen albums, the previous ones were simply too little interesting.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. There are particular challenges with having 50-Jahre career, nicht wahr? How to avoid stagnation? How to maintain the interest of fans?
      And I tend to go with your choices, although I do like the stark simplicity of ‘Nebraska’.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Sure, “Nebraska” was a great album. We just did something about “The Ghost Of Tom Joad”: https://hotfox63.com/2020/11/08/17007/#comments

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Another great piece dude. Born In The USA is a strange album in so many ways – it’s almost like a grab bag of tracks but given its gestation it’s no surprise. I’m piecing together a series on the many versions of BITUSA that were ‘ready’ during the years between The River and its eventual release but there’s no arguing that the final result was spot on for the moment in time and Bruce’s career.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Cheers Tony. That research project sounds fascinating. Have you read the 33 ⅓ book on BITUSA? There’s some good background there.
      Look forward to your post!

      Like

  4. The college I attended had a lot of kids from New Jersey, some of them, would-be tough guys, yo, stugatz, you gettin’ this? like an ongoing audition for The Sopranos. A lot of them weren’t really into music appreciation or the substance of songs, music was more of soundtrack for substance abuse. But I was struck by the devotion most of them felt for Springsteen, when they said “The Boss” or “The Governor,” they really seemed to mean it. I think he’s the real deal, too.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. The whole ‘hero’ thing is fraught, isn’t it? I know I’m a major league hypocrite in that I would gladly shake the hand of someone who genuinely liked Springsteen for his consistency of message and avoidance of bullshit, while leaving any room containing a person who worships Trump.

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  5. pinklightsabre · · Reply

    I like your parenthetical diagnosis of our “president.” It’s that superstition thing, really frightening…I look forward to this chapter being over in a couple months. Happy to have been there for the Bruce discussion and that you’re part of our fun, silly group. I had plans to write more about that election period and the parallels with this record but I shied away from it, thanks for taking it on! Sorry you didn’t get The Band book in time, would have been curious to hear your take on that. Be well!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Bill, I did agonise a bit over this one. Attempting to weave the election, a rage at the Trump abomination I have come to understand but as yet am unable to dispel, Born In The USA and that entertaining and enthusiastic book club, and my ambivalence about the presumption of writing on a country I’ve never lived in and can never truly know. But sometimes you just have to put it out there, don’t you?
      Thanks for reading, mate.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. pinklightsabre · · Reply

        Dude I get that fully, on so many levels. And didn’t sense any of your agony so for that alone (and many other reasons), you pulled it off! I struggled myself too feeling compelled to write about our president and expel some of my angst about him, was very hard. You did in fact do it…so there you go, a testament to putting it out there. I got Apple Venus yesterday! And have one of the songs in my head this morning. S-H-I-T, is that how you spell me in your dictionary? Ha!

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Excellent acquisition, on every level. That’s amusing, Your Dictionary standing out like that. You might enjoy this piece from the VC archives…
          https://vinylconnection.com.au/2015/04/11/xtc-in-excelsis/

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  6. Sadly, I fell away from Springsteen after the release of Darkness on the Edge of Town. I didn’t know it yet, but I was initially snared by his Spector-esque Wall of Noise on Born to Run. As an angst-filled teenager, I could listen to that album again and again –much like I will sometimes put on Da Doo Ron Ron and play it five times in a row. I do like that wall of sound. After Born to Run, I really couldn’t get into his music. I read that Trump had been using Born in the USA as a rally anthem. Almost as funny as George HW Bush using Rocking in the Free World as his crowd pleaser. Sharing your post with the biggest SpringNut I know.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Certainly ‘get’ having a strong response the awe-inspiring wall-of-sound of the early LPs, especially Born To Run, Jeff. And of course you DO have to read BS’s lyrics to ‘get’ his message. Reagan stumbled at that fence too.
      Having bombarded Ms Connection with The Boss this last week, I invited her to listen to the title track of Born In The USA one more time, but reading the lyrics as she went. Then I did the same with My Hometown. Her response was broadly, “I’m not sure I like the music any better, but I appreciate the story-telling much more, and I get why you like him.” Good enough, eh?

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I like that consensus about the album not being to blame for having so many hit songs – sometimes the masses choose wisely!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Certainly in this case they chose enthusiastically, Geoff. Around 20 m copies, I believe!

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Nice one. I like Bruce, I admire his integrity and his vitality, I own a few albums, BITUSA soundtracked a chunk of my teen years and I liked the book, but I don’t totally feel/believe in Bruce somehow (the American one, not the Aussie one). I remain detached, despite myself. It’s a little bit of an oddity, because by nature I’m a worshipper when it comes to musical idols.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Fascinating observation, Joe. That word fits for me too, though I hadn’t actually connected it with the feeling. If BS dropped round my place, I don’t think I’d prostrate myself nor even be particularly overwhelmed. More like, Hey, great to meet you. Grab this rake and finish that pile of leaves then I’ll get us some beers.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thank you. I wish I believed a little more, at his best he is incredibly good and a force for good in the world …

        Liked by 1 person

  9. That’s another fine read, Bruce. And I’m definitely going to steal “the mammoth in the zoom” (but I’ll spell it with a capital ‘Z’).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. D’you know, Phil, I “umm-ed and ah-ed” about that Z, it being a brand name and all. In the end I opted not, despite the incorrectness, because of a reluctance to have product placement in the piece. How daft is that?

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      1. 🙂 Just as long as you don’t say tom-ay-to when you talk about that bright red salad ingredient about the size of a ping pong ball.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Rhymes with Po – tay – to, doesn’t it? 😉

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  10. Whenever someone wants opinion on this record I’m sending them here. Very well done!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Aaron. Don’t often travel down the maintstream but Bruce is a bit special.

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      1. I remember the first time I heard this album – a buddy across the street’s tinny little boombox speakers were making this wonderful noise… we immediately copied it to blank cassette so I could play it at home, and then I got my copy on my next Columbia House order Man those were the days. I first heard Beastie Boys that way too…

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Ah, cassettes. 🙂 Springsteen took a break from (what would become) BITUSA to hibernate and record Nebraska. He carried the “demo” cassette around in his pocket for ages while the band tried to capture the songs in the studio. Eventually he handed over the tape; “This is the album”.

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          1. I hadn’t heard that story, that’s so cool! He was probably worried about rejection because it was so different from USA. But OMG Nebraska. I cannot even begin to describe my love of that album…

            Liked by 1 person

  11. I rarely read anything about Bruce anymore, havent for years. But you being Bruce I had to (I read everything else you write). Good job fella, you hit some good chords. The other Bruce is a thinker and has a social conscience ( Along with a lot of other things that make up a human being). That’s as far as I’ll go.
    The album is a good one. Put him in the dough. His hard work got and earned him that. Like you said the album is full of great tunes. ‘I’m Going Down’ has been in my head lately because when it gets down to it he’s a rocker to the core. When he plays he doesnt have to do anything else. Like that clip you did a while ago on him and Zevon. That kind of sums up BS for CB. I’m out VC.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Right on, bro. Springsteen doesn’t sell anything when he rocks; he just is. You probably know this, but he sang a duet with Pete Seeger at Obama’s inauguration. ‘Nuff said.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I was just listening to his box set yesterday. He was rapping on his song ‘Gowin Up’ about how his dad wanted him to be a lawyer, his mom wanted him to be an author and he told them they would have to settle “For rock n roll”.
        I knew he hung out with Seeger but didnt know about that duet.

        Liked by 1 person

  12. PS Talk about great solo’s that move me. Clarence’s on Going Down is a killer.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. I immensely envy you the found community of folk willing to regularly gather to talk (nerd out) a bit about shared music interests. I have no such.

    Re that other Bruce, I was actually sent Born to Run in ’75 as the automatic selection of the month via my Columbia House Record Club membership after I failed to preemptively opt out. Never having heard of the dude, I promptly sent it right back. Later, I also saw Springsteen on the Born in the U.S.A. tour; mine was at Chicago’s Soldier Field in August 1985.

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  14. 365musicmusings · · Reply

    Good read! …Unpopular opinion time- not a fan of Springsteen. I’ve tried a few times with a few different albums. 🤷‍♂️

    Liked by 1 person

    1. We’re a broad non-church here, 365m. 🙂
      In fact, I’ve only really begun appreciating Springsteen since reading his memoir.

      Liked by 1 person

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