Friday, July 8, 2011

The Long, Strange History of 'Born in the U.S.A.'

The decision by conductor Keith Lockhart to include Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the U.S.A." as part of a patriotic medley at this year's Boston Pops Fourth of July celebration raised more than a few eyebrows, at least among Springsteen's legion of fans. The inclusion of the "patriotic" anthem as background music to countless backyard barbecues from coast to coast also testifies to the position "Born in the U.S.A." holds as perhaps the most misunderstood song in the history of rock & roll. 

Springsteen had returned home to New Jersey in late 1981 physically and emotionally exhausted. He had spent almost two years in the studio recording his fifth album, The River, and had followed the record's release with a long and arduous road tour.  While The River had been both a commercial and critical success, two years was  too long to record an album, Springsteen thought. He needed to find a faster way of bringing his songs to life; a more genuine and spontaneous milieu in which to create. Springsteen would later describe it this way:

“I told Mike [Batlan], the guy that does my guitars, ‘Mike, go get a tape player so I can record these songs.’ I figured what takes me so long in the studio is not having the songs written. So I said I’m gonna write ‘em, and I’m gonna tape ‘em. If I can make them sound good enough with just me, then I know they’ll be fine. Then I can play ‘em with the band.”

Batlan set up a four-track Teac cassette recorder in the bedroom of the house Springsteen was renting in Colt’s Neck. Then, on January 3, 1982, in Christopher Sandford’s words, “Springsteen settled on to a bedroom chair, turned on a four-track cassette deck and picked up his guitar.” Within three hours, according to Sandford, Springsteen had recorded his sixth album, as well as a good half dozen additional songs.

Eventually, Springsteen and the E Street Band went into the studio to turn the tape that had been recorded that day into an album fit for commercial release. A variety of mixes and arrangements were attempted; various embellishments and accompaniments were added, then subtracted. But nothing seemed to work. The songs seemed to sound better with just Bruce’s voice—raw, unadorned, accompanied only by acoustic guitar and an occasional bit of harmonica—than they did in full-band arrangements.   

In time, Springsteen and his manager, Jon Landau, decided to release most of the songs on the original demo as they were—“bare” as Springsteen described them. Reluctantly, the executives at Columbia Records, reassured by Landau’s promise that Springsteen’s next album would be a “real rocker” agreed. The album, Nebraska, was released in September 1982.

“On Nebraska,” Springsteen was “almost singing to himself,” Landau said later, “unusually softly” as though he were singing from some dark and frightened place within. He seemed a man alone in all the world; pondering the depths of existence, and not liking what he sees there. Staring off into the void of meaninglessness and despondency, Springsteen crafted a series of songs about people completely isolated from all those forces which keep men and women sane and give their lives meaning. Nebraska, Springsteen said, was about “what happens to people when they’re alienated from their friends and their community and their government and their job.” When these basic touchstones of life slip away, Springsteen said, the essential constraints of society become meaningless and impotent. Then, “anything can happen”—and the field becomes wide open to forces of mayhem and evil.

Meanwhile, Jon Landau attempted to follow through on his promise to the bigwigs at Columbia for a "real rocker" from Bruce for his next effort.  But the process of finally getting that album recorded would prove to be an arduous one. There were perhaps a half dozen full-band versions of songs that Springsteen had originally recorded acoustically during the at-home Nebraska sessions. These might form the core of the next album, Landau thought; but it was also necessary for Springsteen to get back in the studio with the band, and record additional material.

That was something Springsteen seemed reticent to do. In the period following Nebraska, “his heart was elsewhere,”  according to Dave Marsh. Instead of arranging for recording time at one of his usual venues back east,  Bruce had driven across country to Los Angeles. There, he had even had a recording studio constructed in the garage of the house he was renting, in which he continued to experiment with the kind of solo, acoustic work he had found so satisfying on Nebraska. Executives at Columbia were increasingly concerned that  Springsteen now was on one coast, while his manager—and his band—were on the other, more than 3000 miles away. They were afraid, Springsteen said, “about me making another record in my garage or in my bedroom or wherever I was makin’ it.” Finally in May 1983, at Landau’s insistence, Springsteen flew back east, and he and the band settled into the Hit Factory in New York to continue recording his seventh album.

There was one song on the Nebraska demo that Landau, among others, had not thought much of. It was a song about a Vietnam veteran, sung solo by Springsteen, accompanied by a defiant and haunting series of guitar chords, with a bit of Bruce’s screeching and moaning dubbed in as background afterwards. It “didn’t even seem like a particularly good song,” Jon Landau said later. It had something of an “alien” quality about it, he said, and didn’t quite come up to the quality of the songs that were eventually released on Nebraska 

Due to injuries received in a motorcycle accident in 1968 (as well as a convincing job feigning insanity during his pre-induction interview), Springsteen himself had narrowly escaped being drafted and shipped off to fight in Vietnam. But his opposition to the war had never faltered, nor had his concern for those who had been forced to go to war. He was also deeply moved by the book, Born on the Fourth of July, the autobiography of the paraplegic veteran Ron Kovic, who returned from Vietnam to become a leader of the antiwar movement. Springsteen wanted to do more to help those who had faced such horrendous conditions overseas only to return to severely diminished prospects at home.

Eventually he made contact with Bob Muller, a paraplegic ex-Marine, and head of the Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA). Springsteen agreed that his tour’s first show in Los Angeles in August, 1981 would be done as a benefit for Muller’s organization. “[Tonight] is the first step in ending the silence that has surrounded Vietnam,” Springsteen declared as the concert began.  It was time, he said, for a concerted effort in support of the families of the 55,000 Americans who had died in Vietnam—and in support of those who had returned from there, often maimed in body, mind, and spirit. The show raised nearly a quarter-million dollars, and, according to Muller, saved the VVA from disbanding. “Without Bruce Springsteen, there would be no Vietnam veterans movement,” Muller later declared.

Back at Colt’s Neck later that year, Springsteen had struggled to pour his feelings about Vietnam, and its veterans, into a song. His first effort, which he simply titled “Vietnam” had not been entirely successful. But the song did contain within it ideas that would abide: most strikingly the story of a Vietnam veteran who returns home but can’t find a job. The people he returns to at home profess sympathy for his plight, but do nothing to help him; his girlfriend has even run off with a singer in a rock & roll band! The narrator finally surveys the wreckage of his life and concludes that, even though he has returned from the jungles of Asia, his life is effectively over. “Now don’t you understand,” he asks himself, “you died in Vietnam.”

(To hear Springsteen's original "Vietnam" song, follow this link:

The song “Vietnam” was put aside, but Springsteen’s passion to do something to help the veterans persisted. He revised the song’s lyrics, honing them down to their basic ideas. The result was a much more direct and focused work which he titled “Born in the U.S.A.".

“Born in the U.S.A." could be narrated by the same veteran as in the earlier song, but now he speaks more forcefully and defiantly about his plight. There is no more whining over lost girlfriends and broken hearts. Rather, this veteran comes not so much to bemoan his own self-abasement as to hurl fire bolts of judgment against a society which doesn’t keep faith with those who serve it. America’s treatment of its veterans had been more than shabby, Springsteen believed. It had been a major betrayal of the social contract carved at the heart of the American ideal. It was, further, just one more manifestation of a society (and economic system) which increasingly seemed to treat people as expendable; which called upon them to do its dirty work, and pursue its morally questionable policies, but which simply discarded them, or ignored them, when they no longer served its purposes.

According to the rock critic Geoffrey Himes, Springsteen believed that “There was something wrong with a society which made a full life so difficult to achieve.” According to Himes, to Springsteen, “The Vietnam veterans were the most dramatic example of everyone who had been let down by the American dream and the rock & roll promise.”

From the song’s opening lyrics, it is obvious that the protagonist of “Born in the U.S.A." has had the deck stacked against him from the very start: He has not been born in some bucolic American suburb or typical American locale, but “in a dead man’s town” and his life has been on a downward spiral since the day he was born. So abusive has life been toward him that he compares himself to a frightened dog, cowering in fear from being beaten repeatedly. But still “I was born in the U.S.A.” the singer shouts repeatedly, at the top of his voice. Even after everything, he still seems proud to identify himself as an American, with all the pride and glory that is supposed to represent.

It is no surprise that this abused young man soon finds himself on the wrong side of the law and of society’s good graces. He commits some petty crime, so to avoid prison he joins the army and is sent off as a tool of American foreign policy. When his tour of duty ends, the soldier comes home—not to a hero’s welcome, but to no respect and no prospects whatsoever. He can’t find a job at the local refinery; even the Veterans’ Administration official (who is supposed to be his advocate, after all) just brushes him off. This war has cost this returned vet dearly: He is still haunted by his memories of fighting in the jungles of Asia, and the images of his dead comrade at Khe Sahn and the woman his friend loved have carved their places in his mind. Now, ten years after the war has ended, and in spite of the sacrifices he has made for his country, this veteran has absolutely nothing to show for it. He still lives his life “in the shadow of the penitentiary.” Life keeps drawing him down its road; but he knows now that it is leading him nowhere.

But he was “born in the U.S.A.” he reminds us again as the song nears its conclusion—singing the words of the chorus both defiantly and mournfully; both as a statement of pride for all this country has produced, for all of its dynamism and abundance; and as a statement of shame and rebuke from one of those denied any stake whatsoever in all that creativity and wealth.

{To hear the original acoustic version of "Born in the U.S.A. follow this link:

There was no mistaking the haunted and pessimistic tone of the original acoustic version of “Born in the U.S.A.” which Springsteen had recorded solo as part of the Nebraska sessions at Colt’s Neck. It had not made the cut for inclusion on Nebraska, but in May 1982, Springsteen had tried recording a more up-tempo and full-sound version with the entire band. One night after supper, he played the notes that would become the song’s evocative riff on the synthesizer for keyboardist Roy Bittan. He told the drummer, Max Weinberg, to “keep the drums going” even when the singing and the rest of the accompaniment ended, and gave brief instructions to the other band members as to their parts. Then, as Bruce remembered it, “We just kinda did it off the cuff… There was no arrangement.” By the second take, the band had recorded the song that would become the title track of Springsteen’s seventh album— by far the best-selling album of his entire career, and the record that would turn him into a mega-star.

The full-band arrangement—“turbulent” and “evocative” as Jon Landau called it —but also grandiose and brash and perhaps even histrionic—also helped to make “Born in the U.S.A.” perhaps the most thoroughly misunderstood song in the history of rock & roll.

Late in August, 1984, a couple of months into the Born in the U.S.A. tour, Springsteen appeared for four nights at the Capital Center, outside of Washington, D.C. In the audience for one of the shows was conservative columnist and pundit George Will, who had become intrigued by reports of the flag waving and other patriotic overtones that were said to accompany Springsteen’s recent concerts. After attending about half of one of the Capital Center shows, Will filed a column entitled “A Yankee Doodle Springsteen”, which appeared in newspapers across the country. In his column, Will spoke of how “flags get waved” at Springsteen’s concerts, and of how “the recitation of closed factories and other problems always seem punctuated by a grand, cheerful affirmation: ‘Born in the U.S.A.!’” Will implied that “all-American” and “patriotic” values like those modeled by Springsteen were just what the country needed to keep forging ahead.

A few days later, during a stop on his reelection campaign in Hammonton, New Jersey, President Ronald Reagan attempted to cash in on Springsteen’s enormous popularity in his home state. “America’s future rests in a thousand dreams inside your hearts,” Reagan told those who had gathered to hear him, “it rests in the message of hope in 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.”

Springsteen was livid. To see his work co-opted by the Reaganites—arch-conservative, pro-business Republicans who were, he felt, perhaps most culpable for many of the problems which people like those in his songs faced—aggrieved him severely. On September 22, at a concert in Pittsburgh, he introduced the stark and bitter “Johnny 99” by suggesting “I don’t think [Reagan’s] been listening to this one.” Springsteen added that he doubted whether Nebraska was one of the President’s favorite albums, either. 
Certainly, there had been much on Nebraska which might have made Reagan and Will—and their Republican cohorts—squirm. Indeed, had they listened even casually to the lyrics of "Born in the U.S.A." one doubts whether they would have embraced it (or its author) quite so eagerly. So, too, there was much on the rest of the Born in the U.S.A. album-- and in the works and words of Bruce Springsteen in general-- with which they would not have been terribly comfortable, either.

Jeffrey B. Symynkywicz is the author of six books, including The Gospel according to Bruce Springsteen. Copies may be purchased from or directly from the author at