Perfect Sound Forever

Viva Vietnam

The History of the Political Battleground
Otherwise Known as Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the U.S.A."
by Ben Schwartz
(June 2011)

For years after Bruce Springsteen's 1984-5 Born in the U.S.A. tour, neighborhood kids on Halloween, dressed up in his trademark red bandanas, stopped by his house. When he opened the door they belted out his most famous chorus, "Born in the U.S.A.! Born in the U.S.A.!"

By that time, Springsteen had gone from critically acclaimed rocker with a handful of top 10 hits to his current status as household name. Born in the U.S.A. was the best selling album in America for two years running (1984-5). His 1986 follow-up, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band Live 1975-85 also sold phenomenally well. He was caricatured on The Ben Stiller Show, subject of a gossipy tabloid divorce, and inspiration for Cheech Marin's song and film, Born in East LA.

They all went for that big chorus, too: "Born in the U.S.A.." It was his acidly ironic retort to the indifference and hostility Vietnam veterans received on their return home. On hearing Springsteen's Born to Run in 1975, the rock critic Lester Bangs, who liked it quite a bit, once warned, "...his imagery is already ripe, and if he succumbs to sentiment or sheer grandiosity it could well go rotten." [Springsteen Reader, p. 77].

Well, was this it? Trick-or-treaters chanting his heartbreaker for candy? "They were kind of vague on the next lyric about Khe Sahn," Springsteen in Songs. That's the lyric where the song's vet talks about his buddy killed at Khe Sahn. To be fair to the kids, quite a few people, much older and much better educated, have also proven vague on the song's actual intent. Springsteen has called it, "The most misunderstood song since 'Louie, Louie.'" (Marsh, On Tour, p. 222) Born in the U.S.A. is rife with hard rock irony laid over the baby boom's endless nostalgia for its rock and roll youth. "Glory Days" and "My Hometown" are as such, and Springsteen has always been happy with how they were received. So, why did the national IQ drop so hard on "Born in the U.S.A.?"

On the song's release, the public almost immediately took what they wanted from it and never looked back. Its "misinterpretation" is now its history. At the iTunes store today, consumers are told that the song proves " can have a smash hit without everyone reading the words: the title track was momentarily hijacked by Reagan, despite its angry, mournful, depiction of a Vietnam Veteran."

That comment refers to the moment in the 1984 Presidential campaign when President Reagan name-checked Springsteen at a Hammonton, New Jersey campaign rally. Still, that comment is part of the problem. The iTunes copywriter presumes conservatives weren't angry about the war's end, or the treatment of vets. And then, Reagan never actually used the song. But who can blame people for believing it? At the iTunes Essentials "Campaign Songs" collection, it lumps "Born in the U.S.A." with Lee Greenwood's "Proud to be an American" and Al Jolson's "California, Here I Come."

For 27 years, the song has been a political monkey on Bruce Springsteen's back. Today, he makes his left-leaning politics clear, devotes concert time to explaining them, endorses and supports candidates, and politely asks Republicans not to use his music. Understanding the pop-political collision of 1984 means looking deep into the musical history, and developing political life, of Springsteen. It's the story of the path he chose to pop stardom, and how it continually draws to him the people he likes least politically, from 1980s Republican Presidents to interrogators at Guantanamo Bay today.

In 2011, we know Bruce Springsteen comes from working class New Jersey the way we know Abe Lincoln was born in a log cabin. It's part of our modern cultural literacy. At 7, he saw Elvis Presley on a 1956 Ed Sullivan family-hour variety show, a central moment in his life and music – for better and worse. As a teen, he stayed up late on school nights, listening to rock, writing down and memorizing top 20 songs the way other kids memorized baseball stats. By 1966, Springsteen played in local Jersey bands and made his first recordings with the Castilles. For the draft and Vietnam, Springsteen was declared 4-F, from injuries received in a motorcycle accident.

By 1972, in the midst of a singer-songwriter music trend, Columbia/CBS records' John Hammond signed Springsteen as his new Bob Dylan. It didn't take. It wasn't him. As his reputation grew and he followed his own instincts onstage, critics his own age saw in him a rocker embodying the leather-jacketed, teen rebel ethos of their James Dean youth. Creem's Dave Marsh, The Real Paper's Jon Landau, Crawdaddy!'s Peter Knobler and Greg Mitchell (who wrote the first-ever profile of him) all raved about Springsteen's retro-rock roots and grew close to him.

As early as 1968, Landau wrote of rock's drift into lifeless artiness and pretension. He cited as true rock the 1950s physical, emotional performances of Elvis and Little Richard over the conceptual self-importance of, say, The Beatles Magical Mystery Tour or anything by The Doors. In Springsteen’s circle, no one preached the rock aesthetic harder than Steven Van Zandt, who preaches it still on his Sirius radio channel, The Underground Garage. Their tastes were for (but not limited to) Phil Spector, Roy Orbison, Mitch Ryder, Chuck Berry, and above all, Elvis. As Lester Bangs summed it up in 1977 for the boomer musical cognoscenti, "We will never agree on anything as we agreed on Elvis."

Indeed, when Landau first saw Springsteen in 1974, he found his retro presence irresistible. He compared him to Berry, Sha Na Na, Dylan, and Brando, and offered up the most famous line ever written about Springsteen: "Last Thursday, at the Harvard Square Theatre, I saw my rock & roll past flash before my eyes. I saw something else: I saw rock & roll future and its name is Bruce Springsteen. And on a night when I needed to feel young, he made me feel like I was hearing music for the very first time."

While writing Born to Run, Springsteen talked of losing interest in Dylan after John Wesley Harding (1967) and the Rolling Stones after 1967-8. Instead, he endlessly played an Orbison tape he picked up from Mitchell at the Crawdaddy! offices. On Born to Run (1975), Jon Landau joined Springsteen as producer. Along with Van Zandt, they went about rolling back rock's '60's innovations to its core. They certainly weren't alone. With Vietnam and Watergate receding, escapist '50's nostalgia thrived. That leather jacket James Dean love, you could see it in the Ramones, Grease, Sha Na Na, The Lords of Flatbush (1974), the 1975 Happy Days pilot featuring Arthur J. "Fonzie" Fonzarelli, or novelist Richard Price's debut, The Wanderers (1974). Springsteen himself went on stage in leather and a King's Court Elvis Fan Club button, playing Mitch Ryder medleys. "The living culmination of 20 years of rock & roll tradition" is how Dave Marsh saw him.

"As the sixties fell apart rock and roll loyalists aggressively revived the street punk myth," wrote Ellen Willis, in a review of a 1974 Springsteen show. "Pure rock and roll," she noted, in the wake of self-consciously arty country, folk, and electronic hybrids, "became a symbol of protest for fans and performers who resisted the counter-culture's aristocratic bias." A "revolt against elitism," she called it, warning "there is a difference between middle-class kids who identify with street punks and the punks themselves. Since this difference was often denied, nouveau punkism generated its own brand of pretension and dishonesty."

That last is a rather prescient comment in light of the mass confusion to come on "Born in the USA." To be sure, Willis saw Springsteen as genuine. She admired his affection for outsider street life in songs like "Incident on 57th Street" and "Jungle Land," much as she did the New York Dolls' embrace of "gay-low-life." If even rock’s liberal intellectuals were in revolt against rock’s counter-culture "elitism," and preferred "tradition" – those two favorite GOP buzzwords – to Woodstock's "foppish trappings" (as Marsh called it) what of rock's conservatives?

The rollback spoke loudly to rock’s Republican fans. By the '70's, "pure" rock attracted Johnny Ramone, Ted Nugent, and Ronald Reagan's own in-house dirty tricks man, Lee Atwater – a fan of Southern Strategy race baiting politics and one time band mate of Elvis' mentor, B.B. King. Elvis himself showed up at a White House photo op with President Nixon to join the DEA. It's become an election year cliché that Republican politicians will campaign with rock music and liberal rockers will ask them to stop using their work [most recently in 2008, Sarah Palin using Heart's "Barracuda" and Senator John McCain using Orleans' "Still the One"]. George W. Bush, when asked about rock, said he was a Beatles fan until their "weird psychedelic period." That would be 1966-67, when Landau blew off The Beatles, and when Springsteen switched off Dylan and the Stones.[Maureen Dowd – 09/22/02].

When Springsteen knew the 1975 album was finished, the designated single was "Born to Run." The album’s endearing cover, featuring Springsteen and saxophonist Clarence Clemons, spoke directly to the sincere urban populist Willis saw in Springsteen. The music fit, conversely, Fonzie America perfectly, breaking Springsteen as a rock star. Greil Marcus described the album as sounding like "A '57 Chevy running on melted down Crystals records" (meaning he liked it). Once you hear Springsteen's Elvis impression singing "like a runaway American dream," you realize you're listening to The King backed by Phil Spector's "wall of sound." The album's homage moments include movies like 1958's Thunder Road or Roy Orbison. Like Spielberg and '50's sci-fi or DePalma and Hitchcock, Springsteen contemporized '50's rock for modern life. "Springsteen is not an innovator," wrote Lester Bangs, who liked the record, "his outlook is rooted in the Fifties; his music comes out of folk-rock and early rock 'n roll, his lyrics from 1950's teenage rebellion movies and beat poetry as filtered through Sixties songs rather than read."

Born to Run returns one to a pre-political, emotionally rebellious baby boom period, when Elvis was the most dangerous man on Earth. In Dave Marsh's Two Hearts, the best Springsteen bio we're likely to get in the Boss' lifetime, Marsh deems Springsteen "The American Incarnate." Writes Marsh, "he has become the first American hard rock hero since... well, I’ll argue, since Elvis himself." (Marsh, Two Hearts, p. 140-1). Given when Marsh wrote it, that hesitancy is understandable. Today, in light of Springsteen's accomplishment, it seems a less important legacy. Marsh dismisses British rock (because it's British), then for various impurities, folk-, soul-, acid-, and surf-rock. Hendrix is dismissed for moving to Britain. Tina Turner is not mentioned. Dylan gets discounted for lacking a "commitment" to rock. That is, the innovators of the '60's, the elites (if you will) who globalized, politicized, fused, diversified, intellectualized, feminized, or, depending on your retro tastes, diluted, the form past its lowest common denominator roots. Springsteen gets the Elvis crown because he was willing to look back and take it.

For his Born to Run follow-up, Darkness on the Edge of Town (1978), Springsteen pushed the retro rock fad harder, appearing on the cover as a sneering street punk who looks like he's about to get kicked out of the house for getting his girlfriend pregnant. It's Elvis for real, the one you wish hadn't gone to Hollywood or turned into a pill head. Lyrically, though, Springsteen expanded his horizons politically and intellectually in the opposite direction of his traditional musical tastes – progressive left.

Darkness includes "Factory" and "The Promised Land," empathetic takes on the blue-collar world Springsteen knew from home. In his 40-plus years of songwriting, there's not a lot of "fuck you" in Bruce Springsteen. He's never written a "Southern Man," a "Masters of War," a "Nowhere Man." Even his Tom Joad, on The Ghost of Tom Joad, is a de-radicalized, passive observer – not the cop killer Steinbeck left him at the finale of The Grapes of Wrath. Where others target, Springsteen writes about the targeted. His "beautiful losers," as they've come to be called, are there to break your heart, not kick your ass.

The sinking economy of the Carter years proved the perfect backdrop for Springsteen's masterpiece of downward spiral, "The River." While making Darkness on the Edge of Town (1978) and The River (1980), he grew more politically motivated. He played MUSE, the 1980 anti-nuclear power concerts. He read (among others, to be sure) Flannery O'Connor, Zinn's People's History of the United States, Commager and Nevins' A Short History of the United States, and Ron Kovic's Born on the 4th of July. He came to learn a lot about the vets return home and befriended Kovic and activist Bobby Muller. In 1980, he played a benefit for Muller's Vietnam Veterans of America free clinics, raising about $250,000 to save them. When Greil Marcus saw Springsteen in 1980, he recalls a show the night after Ronald Reagan's election. "I don't know what you guys think about what happened last night," Springsteen told an Arizona audience, "but I think it's pretty frightening."

That night Springsteen received a copy of Joe Klein's Woody Guthrie: A Life. It's almost as big a moment in Springsteen lore as seeing Elvis on Ed Sullivan. It's here a chunk of Springsteen's audience, like critics Stephen Metcalf and Fred Goodman, accuse Jon Landau of leading their Jersey punk astray. Only in America can you ruin a man by giving him a book. But, Springsteen has always had a contingent of "Bruuuuuuuuuuuce" fans that just want him to shut up and rock.

After the tour, Springsteen returned to Colt's Neck, NJ. He wrote out songs for his next album in his kitchen, recording them with a guitar and harmonica on 4-track tape player. While he did so, he listened to Woody Guthrie, Jimmie Rodgers, Roy Acuff and Johnny Cash – for him, bold ventures out of Top 40. If the pop world around him went synth, British 2nd wave, post-punk, and hip-hop, he pulled a '67 Dylan – a la John Wesley Harding during the Sgt. Pepper Summer of Love – moving to stripped down and minimal music. The album that resulted is Nebraska.

Springsteen delivered it as the nation's economy drifted from Carter malaise to Reaganvilles (the make shift camps filled with the homeless). Movies like Norma Rae and Coal Miner's Daughter won Oscars. Grittier blue-collar television like Hill Street Blues (1982) appeared. Norman Mailer wrote his Pulitzer-Prize winner The Executioner's Song (1980), adapted into a 1982 Tommy Lee Jones TV-movie. It tells the true tale of lifelong loser and killer, Gary Gilmore, who welcomed his death sentence. Sam Shepard's key cycle of plays, Curse of the Starving Class (1978), Buried Child (1978), and True West (1981) tore into middle-class families. Working class, struggling, bleak voices came out of the recession unlike anytime since the 1930's. Springsteen, always listening, stepped up as rock's observer.

Nebraska's title track opens on a Dylan/Guthrie-like harmonica, a first person tale of a condemned man, a la Gilmore, accepting his fate, relating his life along the glacially paced melody of Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land." Nebraska's characters are not beautiful losers, just lost. They don't complain, they don't demand change, protest, or analyze why this happened to them – meaning, Springsteen was no Guthrie. "I hate a song that makes you think that you are just born to lose. Bound to lose," Woody Guthrie once said, "I am out to fight those songs to my very last breath of air and my last drop of blood. I am out to sing songs that will prove to you that this is your world."

Greil Marcus saw Nebraska as inextricably linked to the Reagan era, as "the most complete and probably the most convincing statement of resistance that Ronald Reagan's U.S.A. has yet elicited." Marcus then describes the album's political void as evidence in absentia of its anti-Reagan mission, "a no that doesn't know itself. There isn't a trace of rhetoric, not a moment of polemic; politics are buried deep in stories of individuals."

That's one way to read it. A listener missing that subtle Guthrie homage in the title track, or not having an obsessive fan's interest in Springsteen's personal reading list, would easily miss it. That void meant conservatives at William F. Buckley's National Review praised Nebraska for its "libertarian cowboys." They read that lack of complaining and protesting as classic Stoicism. Anti-Reagan? Hadn't Springsteen written "Factory," "The Promised Land," and "The River" during the Carter years? That's the America that Reagan thought he was saving. Springsteen's empathetic, apolitical approach on Nebraska is the overture to the confusion to come with "Born in the U.S.A.."

Epic in scope, minimal in execution, Nebraska jumps from its title track to film noir desperation in "Atlantic City" to workplace rage in "Johnny 99," recounting a laid-off factory worker's isolation and frustration. Nebraska touches on cops, union workers, and one lone upbeat echo of Elvis, Open all Night. Elvis ...he shows up in Springsteen's music like St. Christopher medals in war movies, a lifeline to his pop roots. In 1982, Springsteen's portrait of malaise sold as well as a Carter speech collection. Springsteen now had Dylan's 1982 sales to match Dylan's musical courage.

Springsteen wrote "Born in the U.S.A." at Colt's Neck, but didn't feel it fit on Nebraska. It became the title track of an album conceived in the critical raves and commercial indifference of Nebraska. It's here that Springsteen got ambitious about Nebraska, saying, "I wanted to take that record and electrify it." What if they could deliver his down-the-middle hard rock sound but with the lyrical focus of Nebraska? That is, Elvis with brains, an Elvis who went to Memphis with Dr. King, not Hollywood with Ann-Margret.

If Springsteen listened to America, other people were, too: Michael Deaver, Peggy Noonan, Pat Buchanan, Roger Ailes, George Will, among others, on or aiding the Reagan media team. As Springsteen put Born in the U.S.A. together, they planned Reagan's 1984 re-election.

Like Springsteen, they too had been thinking about blue collar working people. In 1980, they dug into that long-time Democratic base by positioning themselves as the party of traditional "values," and set about rolling back '60's culture, feminism, unions, environmentalists, etc. They used the Southern Strategy – of wooing disaffected Southern whites still angry over the 1964 Civil Rights Act – by convincing them that welfare, entitlements, and taxes for government services hurt working class white people, not helped them. Reagan liked to remind these "blue dog" Democrats of his own Democratic past: "I didn't leave the Democratic Party. The party left me." For 1984, Reagan's team came up with the roll back's big slogan, one with a coincidental yet obvious parallel to Springsteen's Born in the U.S.A. , i.e., "It's morning in America."

Reagan also had something Springsteen lacked – optimism. He knew the power of what Guthrie said about hating songs that beat you down. He had been an entertainer a lot longer than Springsteen. A 1930's New Dealer and 1940's Hollywood union leader, Reagan had seen the appeal of FDR first hand and lived through the times Springsteen only read about. Reagan co-opted the language and imagery of FDR's New Deal, Kennedy (Marsh Two Hearts p. 483), and the GOP's favorite Dem, Harry Truman – a man who wanted to nationalize railroads and steel mills and integrated the armed services – yet talked like a no-bullshit cracker.

All that dustbowl stuff Landau and Springsteen liked? The Reaganistas liked it, too. Their "Morning in America" television ads feature strains of Aaron Copland's "Appalachian Spring" over "This Land Is Your Land" style visuals of busy, working, happy Americans. Copland was gay, Jewish, a communist – not your typical Reagan revolutionary. They had no more interest in where his music came from than Harry Truman's "give'm hell style." They just knew it sounded good to old school Dems.

Director John Sayles' "Born in the U.S.A." video and Reagan's television spots have opposite goals politically, but the overlapping imagery is striking. Blue collar workers, rolling vistas, workplaces (farms, factories), happy middle class homes – a sense of a golden age and happier times from both the Reagan and Springsteen camps. Indeed, the words "born" and "morning" both give a powerful sense of renewal. In Springsteen, you had a blue-collar liberal rocker with conservative musical tastes. In Reagan, you had a conservative President using liberal, blue-collar imagery, music, and political icons to sell a Republican agenda. And both Springsteen and Reagan were after the same demo, the working class voter-consumers of America.

Springsteen's Born in the U.S.A. tour launched on June 29, 1984 at Minnesota's St. Paul Civic Center during the build-up to the Republican National Convention held in Dallas that August. Springsteen designed Born in the U.S.A. as a pop smash from day one, but a worthy pop smash. His take on much of the music of Born in the U.S.A. is ironic – pumped-up hard rock played over the baby boom's melancholy entry into adult life. Springsteen feels "Glory Days" and "My Hometown" came off well, offering bittersweet takes on boomer nostalgia, a la The Big Chill (1983). The other song in which Springsteen plays hard rock off a melancholy maturity is "Born in the U.S.A.," and that approach is where the song's troubles began.

First, by 1984, Springsteen wasn't breaking news about the treatment of Vietnam vets. Let's not confuse 1984 with 1974. It was actually hard to be heard amongst the din of support for vets. As he had with Born to Run retro and Nebraska recession, Springsteen landed a zeitgeist bull's-eye. The Deerhunter (1978) and Coming Home (1978) had already competed for Oscars on their releases, representing right and left, respectively. In 1977, Kenny Rogers re-recorded his 1969 hit "Ruby, Don't Take Your Love To Town" about a returned vet disabled in "that crazy Asian war," agonizing over his wife cheating on him. By the time Nebraska arrived, the Reagan Administration had commissioned and unveiled Maya Lin's conceptual masterpiece, the black marble Vietnam Memorial Wall on the National Mall with its 50,000+ names of the dead inscribed on it. It's a simple, darkly elegant, stunning sculpture, the greatest work of art yet done on the war. The rush to embrace Vietnam vets was so urgent that the mall's World War II Memorial would not be unveiled until 2004.

America had mistreated its Vietnam vets, but by 1984, America knew it. The pop culture was rife with wronged vets, as angry and tragic as Springsteen's. Sylvester Stallone made First Blood (1982), from the 1972 novel, a lean revenge film about a drifter vet and former Green Beret (in red bandana, wearing an American flag) beaten as a vagrant by small town cops. He comes back to vanquish the town's police force, breaking down in tears over Agent Orange and dead comrades. By 1983, The A-Team debuted, starring Mr. T as the angry face of wronged veterans everywhere ...the trick-or-treaters at Springsteen's front door probably knew as much about vets from The Boss as they did from Mr. T.

The partisan question was who to blame, not if it happened. Conservatives used urban myths of anti-war protestors spitting on vets as a wedge issue (debunked in Jerry Lembcke's The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory and the Legacy of Vietnam) while liberals accused Republicans of callously disregarding veterans' medical claims with a walk-it-off-son attitude toward Agent Orange.

What Springsteen tapped into is one of the more enduring myths in our pop culture: the discarded vet. It includes Melville’s Revolutionary War vet Israel Potter, Civil War anti-heroes Frank and Jesse James, World War I's The Great Gatsby, movies Heroes for Sale, Roaring Twenties and The Best Years of Our Lives among many. It's not news to the public that vets get raw deals. Still, it's never less than shocking to read of the 1930s Bonus Army or the 2007 degradations at Walter Reed Army Hospital – and that's the emotional punch of "Born in the U.S.A.."

Springsteen originally recorded "Born in the U.S.A." on a 4-track with a guitar as a solo acoustic piece. Six months later, he recorded the electrified version with the E Street Band that fit its Chuck Berry-ish title. It opens with these downtrodden images:

Born down in a dead man's town
The first kick I took was when I hit the ground
You end up like a dog that's been beat too much
'Til you spend half your life just covering up
Faced with jail time or service, the vet chooses service. He returns to this:
Come back home to the refinery
Hiring man says "Son if it was up to me"
I go down to see the V.A. man
He said "Son don't you understand"
If one wants politics out of the song, anymore than they were on Nebraska, you'd have to ask why can't the vet get hired at the refinery? A liberal bureaucratic union? A Reagan recession slowdown? What is it the vet doesn't understand at the VA? Is it liberal big government's red tape or a GOP budget cut that prevents them helping him? As usual, Springsteen has no target. It's the targeted he wants you to think about.

In Born to Run, the kid takes off on his bike with his girl. Here, the vet says, with homage to Martha and the Vandellas, "I've got nowhere to run. Nowhere to go." Springsteen opens with his vet as beat down like a dog. At least he lets him leave with some Del Shannon dignity:

I'm a long gone Daddy in the U.S.A.
Born in the U.S.A.
I'm a cool rocking Daddy in the U.S.A.
Born in the U.S.A.
That much pride alone separates this vet from the sad sacks who populate Nebraska. It also adds to the listeners' confusion. True, some people didn't listen to the lyrics. For those who did, they'd be hard pressed to find anything to misunderstand. Why shouldn't anyone belt out that anthem as a thank you to vets? It's not the irony Springsteen intended, but he was a little late for that moment. Instead, the chanting was both Reagan-fueled and also genuinely primed by apologetic respect for vets – they were folk heroes by the early 1980's, their mistreatment part of their collective identity.

A left-leaning artist, populist lyrics, and conservative sound – no surprise Springsteen's subtle irony of lyrics, working against martial rock, did not translate as hoped. The question also becomes 'what did he expect?' Did he expect people to get it and not cheer his electrified masterpiece? To stand stock still and light candles for a song as rousing and rocking as the full band version of "Born in the U.S.A.?" "It seems to me that the fans have the saner response," wrote Vanity Fair's James Wolcott in 1985. "The thunderboom beat of 'Born in the U.S.A.' is more compelling than its case history about a small-town loser being sent to 'Nam to 'kill the yellow man' ...Besides, not everybody wants to be evangelized."

See Part II of the Springsteen article

Bookmark and Share

Check out the rest of PERFECT SOUND FOREVER