Perfect Sound Forever

Viva Vietnam


The History of the Political Battleground
Otherwise Known as Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the U.S.A."
Part II by Ben Schwartz

By the time Springsteen reached Maryland Capitol Center, on August 25, the album had sold 5 million copies, twice as many already as The River or Born to Run (Marsh's Two Hearts, p. 485). Annie Liebovitz's cover photo was already iconic: Springsteen, back to us, faces an enormous American flag, dwarfed by it, assessing it. As for pure sex appeal, the angle on Springsteen's butt was not lost on the audience (Springsteen himself chose it). He designed it to sell.

What brought Springsteen to Ronald Reagan's attention at the Capitol Center show is well-covered, top to bottom, in Marsh's Two Hearts. Max Weinberg and his wife Becky, a history teacher and fan of ABC's Sunday morning sparring partners George Will and Sam Donaldson, invited both men to the show. Will took them up on it and saw thousands of people, many waving flags, chanting "Born in the U.S.A.." This, typically, is where Springsteen's liberal fans huff that conservatives ignored the obvious – and they are completely wrong. Books on Springsteen by Eric Alterman, Marsh, Geoffrey Himes, and Fred Goodman happily pile on Will as ignorant, opportunistic, and, as Himes says, "Will-fully misleading" – i.e., a liar. A curse on all of them, as now Professor Will must be defended.

Indeed, Will listened closely to the ambivalent confusion Springsteen generated, writing: "I have not got a clue of Springsteen's politics, if any, but flags get waved at concerts while he sings about hard times." Will interviewed fans. They told him they liked Springsteen's "values." Will heard Springsteen use trendy auto industry buzzwords like "downsizing" and fans said Springsteen's rock was for "purists." As to Springsteen's energy on stage, Will opines "If all Americans--in labor and management, who make steel or cars or shoes or textiles--made their products with as much energy and confidence as Springsteen and his merry band make music, there would be no need for Congress to be thinking about protectionism."

Marsh chides Will for selectively listening to Springsteen, who introduced "Nebraska" that night saying, "It seems like one of the big problems we've got in the country today is people feeling isolated from their jobs, from their friends, from their government. You get a sense of powerlessness sometimes and ...uh...some people just explode."

Hearing that, a conservative might think of Reagan's speeches. He often railed about big government's distance from everyday people, until he snapped, "Ya Basta?" [had enough?]. That "cowboy libertarian" editorial from the National Review arrived August 10th, 1984, two weeks before Will saw the show. It praised Springsteen for rejecting the late '60's leftist largesse of the Stones and the Who (true, as Willis and Marsh and Landau and Bangs and Marcus would tell you) for the pop sounds of the early '60's. It then adds that Springsteen "writes about the working-class victims of the Rust Belt, but on his last two albums – Nebraska and Born in the U.S.A. – his heroes are invested with a cowboy libertarianism."

Conservatives saw Greil Marcus' "no that doesn't know itself" but read the silence their way. The Review also cites Steven Van Zandt's solo project that year for singing about Polish Solidarity and urban crime. Even a knowledgeable rock writer like Timothy White thought the album cover Springsteen chose turned him into a "puckish Patton." Will ducked out before Springsteen sang an awe-struck, archly reverential cover of "This Land Is Your Land," one lacking Guthrie's inspiring resilience. By 1984, it was a song depoliticized for decades for kindergarteners – although Springsteen eventually deserves some credit for giving Guthrie's anthem its muscle back, via his 2009 cover with Pete Seeger.

Springsteen's audience expanded exponentially during the Born in the U.S.A. tour. Most, like Will, had no idea who he was outside of his MTV-Rambo look. The pumped body, sleeveless shirts, backwards baseball caps, the ironic, apolitical lyrics – who wouldn't be confused? And when has irony ever been the best way to reach the American public? Springsteen went for middlebrow America and got it. Here, Eric Alterman jumps on Will with both boots: "It's as if he was vying for twin Pulitzers in chutzpah and ignorance!" Unfortunately, Will's only competition for that particular award is Alterman. For a political writer, Alterman is remarkably oblivious to why Springsteen peaked in popularity alongside Reagan. He sent out a large traditional values vibe, like the President's, that labeled him a nostalgist as much as Reagan. In writing about music, Alterman is equally oblivious in that by 1984, Springsteen played dinosaur rock.

As Born in the U.S.A. went platinum, cutting edge bands like Sonic Youth took to the stage in Madonna, Prince, and Springsteen shirts, as they said, "just to fuck with people." It scandalized the British music press, that, as guitarist Lee Ranaldo put it, they would embrace such "previously detestable mainstream characters." (Alec Foege, Confusion is Next).

When the early-mid 80's British 2nd invasion of androgynous synth bands arrived (Duran Duran, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, etc.) they were an affront to rock's strict constructionists, like Marcus and Marsh. Frankie Goes to Hollywood's hilarious decimation of retro rock, in their homoerotic 1984 cover of "Born to Run," was received in the U.S. as "sacrilege," as Simon Reynolds describes it in Rip It Up. "By 1985," he writes, "Springsteen was the figurehead of the New Authenticity, his Born in the U.S.A. imagery striking a power chord with the Anglophobic backlash against the flouncing gender-benders who dominated MTV." Springsteen lead a pack that included John Mellencamp and John Fogerty (riding the comeback success of a hit baseball song, "Centerfield"). "Flag wavers vs. fag-wavers" is how rock critic Joe Carducci saw it in Rock and the Pop Narcotic, adding, "What helped bring Reagan to power also helped bring these three unto platinum." Ellen Willis predicted as much in 1974 when she saw Springsteen embrace the anti-elitist street punk fad: "at its worst, it became an excuse for blatant male chauvinism and nihilistic trashing of every value and aspiration beyond (male) orgasm and (male) violence."

In 1984, Springsteen, by design, was as out of the loop on '80's hip-hop as he was late '60's Stones and Dylan. By now, Elvis worshippers were a punch line. "Elvis, a hero to most he never meant shit to me" rapped Chuck D on Public Enemy's 1989 "Fight the Power." To which Flava Flav adds, "Motherfuck him and John Wayne!" In 1984, to many, culturally and politically, Elvis = John Wayne = Reagan = The Boss.

Is that how Springsteen felt? No, definitely not. His lack of black fans has always disappointed him. Reflecting on this period, he told The Advocate in April 1996, "When I first started in rock, I had a big guy's audience for my early records. I had a very straight image, particularly through the mid '80's ...at that one point the country moved to the right, and there was a lot of nastiness, intolerance, and attitudes that gave rise to more intolerance. So I'm always in the process of trying to clarify who I am and what I do. That's why I wanted to talk to you." [Bruce Springsteen Reader, 213-5]

That direct rebuttal however, came much later. In 1984, he said little. After reading Will's column, the Reagan White House asked Springsteen for an endorsement. Springsteen declined. A week later, Reagan name-checked Springsteen in Hammonton, New Jersey. "America's future rests in a thousand dreams inside our hearts," Reagan said. "It rests in the message of hope in the songs of a man so many young Americans admire: New Jersey's own Bruce Springsteen. And helping you make those dreams come true is what this job of mine is all about."

If Team Reagan didn't care what Aaron Copland or JFK thought, why not co-opt Springsteen? In 1980, Springsteen said he thought Reagan's election "frightening." Here, in the midst of his leap at crossover stardom, he answered Reagan at a Pittsburgh show with another misinterpreted song, "Nebraska." The next night, Springsteen made a speech about the two Americas, of have's and have-not's, but he never named the President. Reagan himself was quite capable of parroting that kind of talk- his campaign stops and videos often featured fed up Johnny 99's who now voted Republican. Why Springsteen didn't stare down his millions of brand new flag-waving fans and tell them point blank what was up only he knows. If he wanted to avoid confusion, a word like "frightening" would have helped.

Democratic presidential candidate Walter Mondale assumed Springsteen's rebuff of Reagan meant an endorsement of him. Springsteen demurred, officially moving from frightened to silent. Certainly, a Springsteen anti-Reagan speech would not have changed history. In November 1984, Reagan scored the biggest Presidential election landslide in U.S. history, largely on the votes of working class white people and baby boomers – i.e., Springsteen fans.

Springsteen's tour moved on from Maryland, and Born in the U.S.A. remained the top selling U.S. album for 1984 and 1985. On this particular album, Lester Bangs was right. Springsteen's imagery did rot from grandiosity. Springsteen's own comments in Songs make clear he was not happy with the project or the reactions it received. Born in the U.S.A. is a fractured work. "Cheese," Greil Marcus called it. From its awful Boss Gets the Girl "Dancing in the Dark" video with Courtney Cox to the Van Zandt favorite "Never Surrender" (an anti-intellectual paean to teen rock rebellion that makes no sense in post-Nebraska Springsteen) to the Boss donning that grating workin' guy costume ... "cheese" is the word. The song "Born in the U.S.A." remains, for the artist and many of his fans, the most powerful, singularly redeeming moment of the whole episode. Its tour is the Elvis movie Springsteen never wanted to make. If Elvis had made a Vietnam movie, Born in the U.S.A. would be its soundtrack – Viva Vietnam.

"There was value in trying to connect with a large audience. It was a direct way you affected the culture. It let you know how powerful and durable your music might be. But it was risky and forced you to confront your music's limitations as well as your own," Springsteen wrote in his 1996 book, Songs. "I put a lot of pressure on myself over a long period of time to reproduce the intensity of Nebraska on Born in the U.S.A. I never got it... Born in the U.S.A. changed my life and gave me my largest audience. It forced me to question my music and think harder about what I was doing."



In 1986, the tour over, Springsteen set about then what he continues to do today, taking his song and his image back. First, the plumber outfit disappeared. Second, he dismissed the E Street Band. Over the next few years, he saw himself parodied on The Ben Stiller Show (basically as Elvis, helping out "little ladies," sticking up for po' folk, helping Lincoln write the Gettysburg address, punching out aliens). MAD magazine, reliably, offered "Porn in the U.S.A." Bob Dylan sent him up with "Tweeter and the Monkey Man" (1988, on the Traveling Wilburys debut). Cheech Marin's 1987 "Born in East L.A." parody appeared, a none-too-subtle reminder of Springsteen’s white fan base.

For his own reclamation efforts, Springsteen released his live album with a cover sans flags or bandanas, a five-CD retrospective. And after the sturm und drang of Born in the U.S.A., his next studio album, 1987's Tunnel of Love, avoided politics and social comment for the most part to celebrate his new, changed life.

On October 13th 1986, Springsteen performed "Born in the U.S.A." at Neil Young's annual benefit show for Northern California's Bridge School. He replaced the bandanas and denim with a simple black t-shirt and blue jeans. He tells the audience it's a song about "a snake that ate it's own tail." A moody guitar solo opens it and he uses an arrangement similar (one assumes) to his original "Nebraska" take on it. Chorus and all, it's purely mournful, and he drops the "long gone daddy" and "cool rockin' daddy" lines. He simply ends the song on "nowhere to run, nowhere to go," phrased so simply you don't even realize he's cut lyrics. It's an answer to the full band version and its pop reception. And yet, in cutting his last lines, it doesn't exactly sit right to leave vets bereft of hope.

From set-lists available on-line at Backstreets.com, one can see that Springsteen usually gives "Born in the U.S.A." a key spot – opener, closer, encore. On 1988's Tunnel of Love tour, he played it after Edwin Starr's "War," a truly anti-war song, to lead into his own song about war's aftermath. Sometimes it's lumped in with the crowd pleasers, "Dancing in the Dark," "Glory Days," etc, to send people home feeling they got their money's worth. Springsteen, to his lasting credit, never turned into one of those pop stars charging a massive ticket price who then refuses to play fan favorites. Depending on his mood, or whether he traveled solo or not, the arrangements over these years went back and forth between solo and full band. Overseas, Springsteen usually played it acoustic, killing any sense of jingoism.

During 1995-6's The Ghost of Tom Joad tour "Born in the U.S.A." shifted again from anthem back to a blues piece, as the Joad album was his bleakest since Nebraska. In 1996, he published Songs, in which his ambivalence about the Born in the U.S.A. experience is made clear, including his dislike for "Dancing in the Dark" and the anti-intellectual, adolescent "Never Surrender." He exorcized Elvis from his system during a 1996 Memphis visit, launching into a hilarious monologue of rock lycanthropy, "I Think I'm Turning Into Elvis":

I visited my mama's grave and I headed out to Hollywood and I signed a picture with MGM. I play a rebellious beach boy racecar driver who fucks a nun in the end. In the last scene I whip out my big guitar and show her a little Memphis-style kung-fu... I'm turning into Elvis and there's nothing I can do.

On tour, he called "Born in the U.S.A." "the most misunderstood song since 'Louie, Louie,'" adding, before he strummed his blues version, "but the singer gets the last word." (On Tour, Marsh, p. 220). In 2000, he paired "Born in the U.S.A." with his earlier Vietnam song, "Lost in the Flood" (as he did Starr's "War"), a pairing of war and its aftermath.

For those shows, especially with his introductions to the songs, yes, he probably made himself clear. But "Born in the U.S.A." proved to have a life of its own. As he paired it with "War," military cadets at the Colorado Springs Air Force Academy graduated to "Born in the U.S.A." with the Air Force Thunderbirds flying overhead. It's recalled with no Oh-The-Irony-of-It-All hand wringing in David S. Holland's Vietnam A Memoir: Mekong Mud Soldier. Cadet graduations are a moment of renewal for the military. After all, the military knows the cost of war better than anyone – it's their families, their sacrifice, their loss first – and yet, the next day, they put on the uniform and go to work. For them, sacrifice and patriotism go hand in hand, with no irony. Does the military simply not understand what vets go through as well as Springsteen? It's arrogant to think so, and their use of it is valid.

In 2001's Live From New York City, Springsteen plays "Born in the U.S.A." solo on a 12-string guitar. Here, a revisited opening riff recalls The Doors' "The End" as used in Apocalypse Now. To show how distant the lyrics still are from the "Bruuuuuuuuuuuce" contingent of his audience, Springsteen sings the entire first verse to only mild applause. When he gets to the "Born in the U.S.A." chorus, cheers erupt. Later in the same show, Springsteen and a reunited E Street Band sing a cappella on "American Skin (41 Shots)," Springsteen's multi-POV song about the killing of Amadou Diallo, an unarmed black man shot 41 times by the New York Police Department. The crowd starts clapping and stomping, like it's going to turn into "Born to Run." "We need it quiet up here," snaps Springsteen. Given the style of rock he epitomizes, he'll always have yahoos who just don't listen to what he's saying. To be fair though, at other shows, many did listen, or disliked it and booed.

After the World Trade Center attacks, 2002 saw Springsteen repurposing two songs, "My City of Ruins" and "Born in the U.S.A.." The first was originally written about industrial demise in Asbury Park, New Jersey, but after 9/11 it hauntingly captures the WTC's emotional and physical rubble. As for "Born in the U.S.A.," it's here Springsteen takes the irony out of it himself, now using its anthemic power as a slap in the face to the Bush Administration – as Woody Guthrie might have done it. The set ends on "My City of Ruins," "Born in the U.S.A.," and "Land of Hope and Dreams." Dave Marsh, in On Tour (p. 261), saw it as a sequence of "rising spirits," the opposite of Springsteen's 1984 use of it. If he transformed into an apolitical Guthrie for Nebraska, he now evolved into a secular Johnny Cash (sometimes with gospel chorus in tow) for post-9/11, perpetual-war America on The Rising.

The audience's desire for "Born in the U.S.A." as a song of patriotic renewal and solidarity after terrible loss now fit in perfectly with The Rising's response to 9/11. Unlike the partisan divisions of Vietnam, 9/11 brought a forth nearly worldwide emotional recognition of both loss and hope for the future. For that, "Born in the U.S.A." alternates perfectly between moods of loss and hope – although one has to think that only its misinterpretation could have brought this truly ironic repurposing. That is, had it never been embraced as a fist-pumping anthem in the first place, had it been taken solely with its ironic intentions in mind as intended, would it have the same pulsing impact when used as an anthemic hymn post-9/11? Its pop misinterpretation now made the song (again) into one of Springsteen's most dramatic moments. When he plays it, how he plays it, is now, always, great theater.

In 2002, National Review's Kevin Cherry wrote up Springsteen's New York shows after the WTC attacks. It appeared August 14th, just under a year after President Bush signed the Patriot Act, but before the Invasion of Iraq in March 2003. "Introducing the latter song," Cherry wrote, "Bruce warned that we were 'witnessing a rollback of our civil liberties.' Long a supporter of Amnesty International, Bruce's stating such a position is unsurprising. But 'Born in the U.S.A.' was no longer the folkish, bluesy acoustic version from the last tour; the keyboards and snare drum were in full effect."

Springsteen specifically saved his political commentary for the spot that lead into "Born in the U.S.A.." That chorus wasn't ironic at all anymore, especially at a time when criticizing Bush was deemed unpatriotic by many of his supporters. In 2002, "Born in the U.S.A." became a defiant hammer to reclaim patriotism. The futile war the vet recalls is now a warning of what's to come

In March 2003, one the eve of the Iraq War, Springsteen publicly called for a full debate to inform the nation. He said, "vigilance and responsibility comes with the turf when you're born in the U.S.A.." In Europe, he raised the stakes and repurposed the song again, introducing "Born in the U.S.A." with: "I originally wrote this song about the Vietnam War. I want to play it tonight as a prayer for peace." (On Tour, 269). In Providence, Rhode Island, he said: "I wrote this song in the early eighties about the Vietnam War. I would not want to have to write another one like it. I’ll send this out tonight as a prayer for peace, a prayer for the safety of our sons and daughters, the safety of innocent Iraqi civilians, and to add our voices to no war in Iraq." [http://www.backstreets.com/setlists2003R.html]

When the invasion began on March 19th, 2003, Springsteen switched to an acoustic version of "Born in the U.S.A.," summoning again the pure sorrow of it.



20 years on from Born in the U.S.A. , Springsteen gave his full, clearly stated support to the 2004 Kerry-Edwards Presidential campaign. At shows, Springsteen soloed on a country-blues cover of "The Star-Spangled Banner" before launching into the mournful "Born in the U.S.A.." If he was muted in his response to Reagan, he now offered what he likes to call his nightly "PSAs":
"The moment everyone's been waiting for...my Public Service Announcement! ...We remain a land of great promise. But it's time we need to move America towards the fulfillment of its promises that she's made to her citizens: economic justice, civil rights, protection of the environment, respect for others and humility in exercising our power at home and around the world. These core issues of American identity are what's at stake on November 2. I believe that Senator Kerry and Senator Edwards understand the important issues and I think they're prepared to help our country move forward. America is not always right. That's a fairy tale that you tell your children at night before they go to sleep. But America is always true. And it's in seeking those truths that we find a deeper patriotism. Don't settle for anything less."
That fall, Bush-Cheney won re-election and returned to Washington. On Springsteen's next tour, "Born in the U.S.A." received its harshest rendition. Solo, he belted it out through a bullet mic, using a stomping board, making it, by some accounts, virtually unrecognizable to all but the sharpest listeners. This is as much "fuck you" as Bruce Springsteen ever put into a song. It gave "Born In the U.S.A." once again a whole new emotional impact.

If Springsteen upped the ante in 2005, then 2006 saw the song thrown back in his face as a weapon. From detainees at Guantanamo Bay prison, it emerged that interrogators used "Born in the U.S.A." – his prayer for peace – to torture prisoners. "The Tipton Three," a trio of British detainees, told of having the song blasted at them daily. The trio's legal defense group, Reprieve, released the following statement from Clive Stafford Smith, on October 30, 2006:

The torturers' choice of tunes has been highly questionable. For example, Springsteen's 'Born in the U.S.A.' has been a favorite in the secret prisons, duplicating the mistake made by the Reagan campaign in 1984, when the Republicans thought the chorus would make a loyal campaign chant: "Born in the U.S.A.! Born in the U.S.A.!" Yet the ultimate message of the song is harshly critical, condemning war in Vietnam, and describing a veteran's desperate efforts to find work.
As if there were an appropriate song for torture ... or as if "Born in the U.S.A.," here misinterpreted from the Left, specifically condemns the war in Vietnam. Smith's outrage is appropriate, but does anyone think the interrogators cared about Springsteen's musical ironies? The assumption is always that those co-opting the song are "misinterpreting." By 2006, Springsteen was one of the war's most vocal and high profile critics and the song's misuses well known. Was it stupidity on the military interrogator's part, apathy, or a ridiculing of Springsteen's activism?

Say what you will of intelligence services, these are not people too stupid to understand a song. As we learned at Abu Ghraib, psychologically breaking down prisoners is their business. It's no secret that Rush Limbaugh enjoys playing the rock music of liberals on his show to annoy them. Of his theme song, the Pretenders" "My City Was Gone," Limbaugh has said: " ...it was icing on the cake that it was [written by] an environmentalist, animal rights wacko and was an anti-conservative song. It is anti-development, anti-capitalist, and here I am going to take a liberal song and make fun of [liberals] at the same time."

Listeners often just don't care what Springsteen intended. On March 10th 2007, Youtube poster "Matt5581" put up his own video of "Born in the U.S.A.." Editing his own personal war movie, Matt5581 set the song to images of military funerals, waving flags, real combat images mixed in with stills from Full Metal Jacket, Lee Greenwood lyrics written on paintings of eagles, Vietnam memorials ­– but not Maya Lin's black wall – a picture of a refinery boss (presumably, not giving a guy a job), a VA administrator (hoping you'll understand...). You might say Matt5581 doesn't quite get it. He's dumb, ignorant, whatever. Matt5581 offers you the following in his note space: "I am aware of the message Bruce Springsteen is really giving in the song, I put that aside to show support for America reguardless (sic)." Matt5581's video received 2,048,496 hits as of this writing. Springsteen and John Sayle's MTV video received 2,419,255 hits. It was posted 10 days before Matt5581's. [Matt5581's video has since been taken down by SONY at 3,004,998 hits].

In 2008, as Bush faded and Barack Obama headed for the DNC nomination, Springsteen notably played the song's full-band arrangement throughout Europe. In 2009, at an inaugural ball for President Obama, a party was thrown for his young staffers. Arcade Fire played as cell phone recordings caught a unique performance of "Born in the U.S.A.," the band's first time playing it publicly. Arcade Fire's arrangement is full band and string heavy. Its tempo builds in momentum, in quiet excitement. However, the chorus is muted, ham-stringing the song's power. The band looks humbled, not unlike the 1984 Springsteen, humbled by "This Land Is Your Land." It gives a clear sense of the song's iconic place in our pop culture.

Unlike any other version, Arcade Fire's feels beyond Vietnam. Arcade Fire is of a generation for whom Vietnam is history, not a living debate – not unlike the distance Obama tries to put between himself and the cultural wars of the baby boom.

How effective has Springsteen's quarter century of reclamation been? In March 2010, Fox News commentator Glenn Beck launched into a protracted tirade about "Born in the U.S.A.." After incredulously reading the lyrics he claims he blithely cheered for years, now all Beck can hear is a denigration of America. Naturally, he declares the song "anti-American." MSNBC's Dylan Ratigan quickly jumped on Beck. Inexplicably, he used Reagan's cynical 1984 co-opting of Springsteen as proof of Springsteen's pro-America cred – as wrong-headed a position as Beck's. And so it goes...

One year later, in March 2011, President Obama appeared at the annual Gridiron Dinner, an exclusive event for Washington, D.C. journalists and politicians where speakers deliver jokey monologues. Obama mocked the "birthers" who claim he was not born in the United States. As he took the stage, Obama stopped the playing of the President's traditional entrance music, "Hail to the Chief." He then danced to "Born in the U.S.A," offering a whole new useage for a whole new culture war.



Springsteen certainly wants his music to express his views, but he has grown accustomed to the public's co-ownership of it. In 2009, The New York Times pop critic Jon Pareles interviewed him during a rehearsal for his unfortunate Superbowl appearance, which followed an unfortunate exclusive distribution deal he signed with Wal-Mart. Of his music, he says:
"It's not just my creation at this point, and it hasn't been really for a long time," he said. "I wanted it to be our creation. Once you set that in motion, it's a large community of people gathered around a core set of values. Within that there's a wide range of beliefs, but still you do gather in one tent at a particular moment to have some common experience, and that's why I go there too."
So, the singer doesn't always get the last word. A little optimistic on Springsteen's part? Yes, sometimes he has to tell them to shut up, not shout "Bruuuuuuuuce" during his PSA's, or ask them not to use his song for Republican campaigns. But, he's reconciled himself to the odd mix of conservative sound and progressive politics he and his music represent. In "Born in the U.S.A.," he wrote a mythic American song. It's the baby boomer national anthem: conflicted, shredded on Vietnam, stridently ambivalent, loud.

Springsteen's arch fans cringe over the "misinterpretation" of this wide open to interpretation song. But nobody owns culture, just copyrights. Ron Kovic took his book's irony-laden title Born on the 4th of July from a lyric in George M. Cohan's ultra-patriotic tune, "Yankee Doodle Dandy." Springsteen's hopeless "Nebraska" took its melody from Guthrie's proud "This Land Is Your Land." Guthrie wrote that as answer to Irving Berlin's humble and grateful "God Bless America," a flag-waving thank-you song to the U.S.A. – for which the immigrant Berlin received hate mail, as bigots thought a Jew had no place taking his place among the culture of patriots.

Music, thankfully, outlasts such conflicts. As Vietnam becomes history, we'll see that Springsteen has written a permanent song. It's one Americans will play every 4th of July a là "When Johnny Comes Marching Home," "Yankee Doodle Dandy," "This Land Is Your Land," "America the Beautiful," or "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." As the immediate ironies and generational politics fade, it will signify American life, more than just an issue.

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