Alongside the American flag, fast food, fundamentalist Christianity, and giant-sized SUVs, Bruce Springsteen is a name synonymous with the USA. If we each searched our memories we’d probably all have a vision somewhere of the man himself – bandana-clad, belting out the chorus to ‘Born in the USA’ while punching in the air, big drums pounding in the background. For a long time now Springsteen has been held up as the USA’s patriotic man of the hour. But what does The Boss really have to say about his homeland?
The album Born in the USA came out in 1984. Widely read as a piece of nationalistic sloganeering, it made Bruce as big as Coca-Cola, but closer inspection of the lyrics reveals a much more complex picture. The title track begins “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, and spend your whole life just a-covering up.” Cut to the bombastic chorus – “I was…born in the USA…” Though the rocked up delivery might be somewhat misleading, the overall tone of the song is borderline desolate. A Vietnam veteran returning to a country that has very little place for him. The last verse ends with “I’m ten years down the road. Nowhere to run, ain’t got nowhere to go.” Bruce himself describes the song as about a “spiritual crisis, in which man is left lost…It’s like he has nothing left to tie him into society anymore. He’s isolated from the government. Isolated from his family…to the point where nothing makes sense.” It’s a far cry from the patriotic anthem that many of us remember.
So, if Bruce Springsteen’s USA is not a macho gun-slinging, flag-waving, republican heartland, what is it? It turns out that this is rather a large question. Much of Bruce’s earlier work centred on his native New Jersey, but with a recording career that includes 16 albums in 37 years, he has covered a lot of ground. Springsteen specialises in stepping inside a character to tell a story. Empathy is his signal gift, and he describes the process of song writing as – “that old job of putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, while you’ve got a foot in your own shoe. And that’s how it works. I’m grounding this song in something I’ve experienced myself, that I believe I can write about.” Listening to Bruce’s albums is like travelling across the USA from the inside, and it is a surprisingly poignant journey.
Born to Run
Early in his career Springsteen seemed obsessed with cars, the road, and the need to escape. ‘Born to Run’, released in 1975, speaks of wholesale disenchantment – “In the day we sweat it out in the streets of a runaway American dream. At night we ride through mansions of glory in suicide machines.” Turnpikes, highways, and freeways all feature strongly in Bruce’s USA. The automotive imagery is potent – “Just wrap your legs ‘round these velvet rims, and strap your arms across my engines”. The song pleads with the audience to get out while they’re young. Destination unknown, it is the freedom of leaving that matters.
This song seems to encapsulate Springsteen’s vision of working class America. The narrator has married young, he is ‘working construction’ but jobs are scarce. All the things that seemed important have vanished right into the air. He is drawn again and again to the river where he remembers what it was like to be young, free, and bright with hope. Filled with an aching need to live up to the future’s promise, but tinged with the knowledge of dreams already lost, he asks the question – “Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true, or is it something worse?”
An acoustic album, Nebraska is Springsteen’s starkest ever recording. He inhabits the voices of some of America’s most marginalised: petty criminals, disillusioned gunmen, and the rural poor. “Down here it’s just winners and losers, and don’t get caught on the wrong side of that line.” Originally supposed to be just a demo, it was first recorded straight onto a tape-cassette. Bruce later admitted he carried the tape around in his pocket for a couple of weeks before realising that it was going to be the album. Bleak in tone, Nebraska could be seen as a road trip through the more isolated parts of the US. Nebraska, Wyoming, Michigan County, New Jersey, and Atlantic City all get a mention.
The Ghost of Tom Joad
Largely concerned with the plight of Mexican’s trying to cross the border into the US, it covers entirely new territory for Bruce. California, Texas, Ohio, San Diego, Sinaloa, Galveston Bay. Highway patrolmen and Mexicans; border crossing, drug running, and fruit picking. The complexity of illegal immigration is explored from many different angles. The drive to escape still haunts the album, but this time around Bruce’s not so sure it’s where salvation lies – “The highway is alive tonight, but nobody’s kidding nobody about where it goes …”
A response to the 9/11 attacks in the US, The Rising deals with grief and loss, but also with the resurrection of hope. Reportedly, Springsteen got the inspiration for the album a few days after the 9/11 attacks when a stranger in a car stopped next to him, wound down his window, and said – “We need you now.” The title track beseeches the audience to “come on up for the rising”, and was later used in several Democratic political campaigns. It was also the first song performed at Barack Obama’s Inaugural Celebration. Springsteen himself remarked on the distance the song had travelled – “If someone had told me in 2001 that ‘you’re going to sing the song at the inaugural concert for the first African-American president’, I’d have said, ‘Huh?’ But eight years go by, and that’s where you find yourself. You’re in there, you’re swimming in the current of history, and your music is doing the same thing.”
Travelling through Bruce’s America is travelling the back roads of a nation whose forefront as the world’s economic superpower is only just now on shaky ground. The song’s settings – dead-end small towns, blue-collar workers, discharged soldiers, unwanted immigrants, and vast stretches of highway – highlight a place reminiscent of John Steinbeck’s America. It is the underbelly of the American dream that Bruce Springsteen lovingly lays bare.
First published in get lost magazine, December 2010.