"Born in the U.S.A." was the song that got me into Bruce Springsteen. I know that isn't a particularly earth-shattering revelation, countless people came to The Boss in a similar fashion. But I still remember mine, which has to count for something. When I got my first MP3 player at 13 I went on a downloading spree on the non-free Napster, filling my drab gray electronic stick up with whatever caught my eyes and ears. One song was Born in the U.S.A.'s booming title-track. If "Like a Rolling Stone"'s opening snare shot kicked open the door to Springsteen's mind, Max Weinberg's "exploding drums" left giant wood splinters in my brain. It wasn't just Weinberg's raucous playing though; it was Professor Roy Bittan's synthesizer riff which has hypnotic bile coursing through its Clarion veins. Hearing it now, I'm still not sure if he's striving for anthemic or stomach churning.
And then of course there's Springsteen, howling with a righteous hunger and indignation he's rarely returned to. More than any of those other elements, his voice is what drew me in. At 13 I had no idea why he was screaming. That utter desperation cast a spell on me though and when I returned to Springsteen several years later, this time for good; the crushing despair is what drew me back in. If the veins in Springsteen's face weren't popping out when he recorded the album version, it'd be easy to imagine. The cliché of doing (blank) "like your life depended on it" has rarely been as true in music as it is here. His wailing about going to "kill the yellow maaan" doesn't have anything to do with bloodlust or cultural imperialism, he's been backed into a corner and using the rifle in his shaking hands is the only way to get out.
If the 1984 album version of "Born in the U.S.A." is about desperation, the ‘82 acoustic version Springsteen cut for Nebraska is resignation incarnate. Gone are the massive drum fills and queasy synth lines. The seismic roar of Springsteen's voice is distilled to a ghostly whisper. "Righteous hunger" has ceded to starvation. Infamously Ronald Reagan's 1984 presidential campaign attempted to co-opt the song and sought The Boss' endorsement. Wholly unaware of the song's bitter resentment of blind nationalism and mistreatment of Vietnam vets, conservative columnist George Will went so far as to say of Springsteen, "He is no whiner, and the recitation of closed factories and other problems always seems punctuated by a grand, cheerful affirmation: 'Born in the U.S.A.! '" Had Will listened to Springsteen's intensely strummed offering first, he would've altogether abandoned any "patriotic" talk. No way could anyone point to jingoism in a line like "nowhere to run and nowhere to go," especially when there's nothing distracting you from the sentiment.
It's easy for some then to see the song's true colors and label Springsteen unpatriotic. While I find it incredibly dimwitted to do so, I understand it. Just like most don't want to hear their favorite sports team lambasted, they don't wish to see their country taken down either. Hearing Springsteen depict Veteran's Affairs as callous, "you" want to fire back at the charge. It's a department that does deeply important work and how dare someone criticize it. He's not criticizing V.A. callousness or American ineptitude after Vietnam out of hate though, but love. He had friends shipped off to the war. He got the same draft notice in the mail and had to take the same physical. While he was "fortunate" enough to fail, plenty of his friends weren't so lucky. This isn't a situation then he's unfamiliar with, he knows it all too well. When he frantically plucks guitar strings in the Tracks version and anxiously moans "I had a brother at Khe Sahn, fighting off the Viet Cong, they're still there, he's all gone" your heart falls out of your chest because its uncomfortably real. With "Born in the U.S.A." Springsteen wasn't speaking out of turn about a country that had given him everything; he was giving a voice to those who the country abandoned. It's not a condemnation so much as a correction. And the sparse 1982 demo version makes that painfully clear.
I hope everyone has a happy Fourth of July! Look for the blog to return in full-force on Monday.