Man, do I love Bruce Springsteen, but mostly I like early Springsteen. Just ask Griz and they’ll tell you this. Some nights when I can’t sleep, I’ll often end up in bed just talking about early Springsteen while Griz, who hasn’t really listened to Springsteen all that much, will lay there beside me, trying to sleep, and after I’ve pattered on for a while about The Boss, his music, his band and how much I like his early work, but not so much his middle to later periods, eventually will remind me that they have no real opinion on Springsteen one way or another, and we have to get up in the morning and can I just please go to sleep.
But despite being a life long music fan, my love for Springsteen didn’t happen right away. In fact, it wasn’t until around 2018 that I really started to take a real deep listen to Bruce when, on a long ride home one dark night, I heard the song “4th of July, Ashbury Park (Sandy)” from his 1973 album “The Wild, The Innocent and the E Street Shuffle.” Don’t worry if you’ve never heard of it. It’s not one of his hits. But you should listen to it because it’s the one that made me a Springsteen fan, and its still one of my top favorite Springsteen songs On that night, I was struck hard by the poetry of his words, and the way he could craft an emotion. I listened to that song over and over again that night, allowing each of the colorful characters on the Jersey boardwalk to come alive in my mind, feel the loneliness of the heart crushed desperate young guy looking for love, and searching for a subtext within the broken hearts and corroded dreams.
Soon I’m exploring other Bruce Springsteen releases and taking a deep relisten to his 1975 masterpiece “Born to Run.” I’d owned the album for a long time, but now I’m really actually taking a deep listen and realizing that its less of a rock n’ roll album and more of a Great American novel put to music. Bruce Springsteen weaves words in a song like Jack Kerouac, Truman Capote or John Steinbeck weaves them on the page. His songs celebrate the people who make up the world that often go overlooked and uncelebrated. This isn’t music for the bohemians or bourgeois, but it plays as high art nonetheless.
I will go on record by saying that I truly believe that the ultimate rock song ever recorded is “Born to Run.” If a visitor from another land asked me what rock music sounded like, this is the song that I’d play for them. It’s a perfect mix of piano, guitar, saxophone, wordplay and Bruce’s powerful vocals, perfectly brought together in a musical orgasm. It’s everything a rock song should be and continues to be as relevant and timeless as the day it was released.
And then, of course, there is “Jungleland.” Bloody hell. The poetry and emotion which speeds to that incredible Clarence Clemons saxophone solo, where Bruce just backs off and lets Clemons play. My god, that song is the closest thing I’ve ever heard to pure perfection. It’s an orgy of sex, death, lust, bad luck, romance, betrayal, fast cars, angry men, decaying cityscapes, hope and regret, and when Bruce moves into the final act and sings about the anticlimactic death of the Rat, it has often moved me to real tears. I personally believe it’s the greatest nine and a half minutes ever recorded.
And this is the type of relentless sleep deprived rambling Griz will listen to until about three in the morning, when I finally get hit by a pillow and told to go to sleep. I swear, if I ever get smothered in my sleep it’s probably because I couldn’t shut up about Bruce Springsteen.
So, if I have a long history of listening to music, why has my love affair with Bruce Springsteen only been for a few years? I think its because my introduction to Springsteen, which I expect was most people my age’s first exposure to him , was 1984’s “Born in the U.S.A.” Bruce’s first hit album, and the one that turned him from a critical favorite to a rock n’ roll icon, is surprisingly his fifth album. His most commercial album, it was released at the height of the MTV era and was perfectly crafted with a pop radio sound not heard in his previous works (aka, the ones that I like the best).
But, even with all of that said, all critical comments aside, its one hell of a solid record! One of the most recognizable and beloved albums of the 1980’s, it sold more than 30 million copies worldwide and had five huge hits for Bruce – “Born in the USA,” “Glory Days,” “My Hometown,” “I’m on Fire,” and “Dancing in the Dark” (for a lot of us 80’s kids, we first fell in love with Courtney Cox when she danced with Bruce at the end of the “Dancing in the Dark” video, long before she brought Monica Gellar to life on “Friends”).
So, this era was my when my first exposure to Bruce Springsteen happened and, as a fourth-grade Canadian kid, I preferred Prince and Duran Duran and didn’t connect with “Born in the U.S.A.” I gotta admit, I still don’t really connect with “Born in the USA” now. I mean, I’ve relistened to it with new ears, and I’ve come to appreciate it as a finely crafted 80’s rock album and I understand how its an important album in the history of rock n’ roll, but at the end of the day, I guess I just prefer his earlier stuff.
But I can’t express enough just how massive this album, and especially the title track, “Born in the USA,” was when it came out in 1984. Anybody who was there will attest that you couldn’t escape this song. It was a force, and it was played everywhere, at every event, and that included Canada. I don’t know how popular it might have been in countries outside North America, but it was a monster hit over here. Everybody knew it, but not everyone seemed to understand it. Especially the Republicans and, most famously Ronald Reagan and/or his speech writers.
As a song, “Born in the USA” is a strange one. It sounds like a rock anthem. It’s a fast tempo with a pulsating beat and has a kind of rebel rousing chorus that is easy to remember and can drive a crowd to its feet. It sounds proud, strong, aggressive, powerful. But, like everything Bruce Springsteen does, there is something deeper within it below the surface. The juxtaposition of the emotion and the lyrics within its chorus is a true oxymoron. It’s a ruse. It creates a fake sense of nationalistic pride and, as a result, becomes a parody of banner waving, although that star spangled banner ultimately gets waved every time it gets played.
Actually listen to the song and its evident that “Born in the USA” is Springsteen’s well-crafted and potent critical analysis of America’s failed foreign policy, and the struggle of a generation of young men who were displaced by society after fighting in Viet Nam. “Born in the USA” is harsh, unforgiving, cutting and blunt. But you get a thousand excited people singing “I was Born in the USA! Born in the USA!” in a stadium together, the larger meaning of the song might be missed by someone who wants to hear their own thing.
And that was the case of American journalist George Will. Called “the most powerful journalist in America” by the Wall Street Journal in 1986, Will was a columnist for the Washington Post, as well as a political commentator for NBC News, and he was a member of Ronald Reagan’s political campaign in 1980. A highly regarded writer and intellect, Will is well respected and a superstar in the world of political jounralisim. However, he obviously didn’t know as much about music as he did politics.
I have no idea what a conservative newsman with strong ties to the Republican party was even doing at a Bruce Springsteen concert, but in September 1984 Will found himself at one of Bruce’s four sold out shows in Landover, Maryland. An epic tour which saw Bruce play 157 shows over four continents, it is one of the most legendary and successful rock tours of the 1980’s. Will, who admitted that he had cotton plugged in his ears, was probably a little out of place for this blue-collar crowd, but he got caught up in the fever and the excitement of the festivities and wrote about it in his September 13, 1984. Will wrote:
“I have not got a clue about Springsteen’s politics, if any, but flags get waved at his concerts while he sings songs about hard times. 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.!””
Well, he got the themes right, but it seemed Will missed the subtext and, especially, the irony that Bruce is going for. “Born in the USA” might sound like a pro-American battle cry, but it was anything but good natured or “cheerful.” Also, its not hard to figure out what Springsteen’s politics (if any) are. The man’s music reveals that he has left leaning politics, and he was pretty much everything the Republicans were not. But, whatever the case, George Will seemed to appreciate Springsteen’s showmanship, but he seemed to want to misrepresent him as a crusader or a nationalist.
Well, I don’t know if it was Ronald Reagan or one of his speech writers which saw Will’s write up (as a friend and confidant of President Reagan, it could have been either), but someone notices it and things got really stupid. You see, 1984 was an election year, and Ronald Reagan was running for his second term against Democratic candidate Walter Mondale. Scheduled for a stop in the town of Hammonton, New Jersey, known as the Blueberry Capital of the World, Reagan decides that he’d try to make an impression on the NJ voters by name dropping the most famous son of NJ he knew. To a surprised audience he said “America’s future rests in a thousand dreams inside your hearts. It rests in the message of hope in the songs of a man so many young Americans admire—New Jersey’s own, Bruce Springsteen.”
Now in 1984 we had no internet, or ways to quickly upload a song or google the song lyrics, but I would think that prior to referencing Bruce Springsteen’s music in a campaign speech about being “a message of hope” for America’s future, perhaps you should maybe take a deep listen to a few of his songs first. I seriously doubt that Bruce Springsteen’s albums were stacked somewhere between Ron and Nancy’s Mitch Miller or Pattie Page albums, but you would think that Hammonton’s local K-Mart would have had a copy of “Born in the USA” for sale, and that the campaign would kick back for the cost of it. But basically, what Ronald Reagan, whose administration had cut funding to social services radically so that they could increase military spending and stockpile weapons for the continuing aggression with Russia, was call Bruce Springsteen’s criticism on foreign policy and the treatment of veterans a “message of hope.” He possibly thought he was trying to sound “hip” to the young voters, but Ronald Reagan had just proved how hopelessly detached he was.
Of course, this blunder made headlines and critics both snickered and sneered at Reagan for his failed attempt to look cool. Rolling Stone Magazine wrote the campaign headquarters and asked them what President Reagan’s favorite Springsteen album was. They wrote back and answered, “Born to Run.” Well, unless James Last did a cover of that, I highly doubt Ronald Regan had ever heard it.
Of course, the news eventually got back to Bruce Springsteen. He didn’t make any major comment or statement on it immediatly, but he let the audience know what he thought in his own subtle and extremely potent way. In front of a packed audience in Pittsburgh, Bruce said “Well, the president was mentioning my name in his speech the other day, and I kind of got to wondering what his favorite album of mine must’ve been, you know? I don’t think it was the Nebraska album. I don’t think he’s been listening to this one.” He then launched into “Johnny 99.”
If you haven’t heard “Johnny 99” it’s one of Springsteen’s bleakest story songs. Inspired by the closure of the Ford Motor Plant in Mahway, NJ, which put thousands of men out of work in 1980, “Johnny 99” is about a distraught worker who can’t feed his family and, getting liquored up, shoots and kills a night clerk. When he goes to trial, he is sentences for a sentence of 99 years, but Johnny asks to be put to death instead. So, with unemployment soaring and cuts to social service programs throughout America, Springsteen dedicated his darkest song about a tragic American loser to Ronald Reagan.
Later, when asked by Rolling Stone about playing “Johnny 99” in response to Reagan’s comments, Springsteen stated ““I think people have a need to feel good about the country they live in. But what’s happening, I think, is that that need — which is a good thing — is getting manipulated and exploited. You see it in the Reagan election ads on TV, you know, ‘It’s morning in America,’ and you say, ‘Well, it’s not morning in Pittsburgh.’”
So, if Springsteen wasn’t a Ronald Reagan supporter, he must have been a Walter Mondale one, right? Well, not necessarily. In personal appearance Mondale would be cited as often saying “Bruce Springsteen was born to run, but he wasn’t born yesterday.” Later, Mondale began to say that Springsteen’s rejection of Reagan was an endorsement for him. This eventually got back to Springsteen’s manager Jon Landau who made a statement saying that Springsteen had not endorsed either Mondale or Reagan, and Mondale’s campaign issued a retraction of their claims.
Of course, with or without Bruce Springsteen, Ronald Reagan would beat Walter Mondale by a landslide and continued to be one of the most divisive presidents of his era.
This odd little event made international headlines and has become part of the 1980’s rock industry lore and an often repeated footnote in Ronald Reagan’s political legacy. So you would think that future politicians should have learnt from Reagan’s faux pas and leave “Born in the USA alone. Well some politicians, and especially those in the Republican Party it seems, don’t seem to leaarn In 1996 Bob Dole dusted off “Born in the USA” for his campaign against Bill Clinton and was promptly contacted by Springsteen to stop using the song. Later in 2000 Senator Pat Buchanan made a bid for president, choosing “Born in the USA” for his anthem. Again, Springsteen’s people asked him to stop. In both cases they did, but its just confusing why the song, with its clear cut subtext, would even be used in the first place. How can nobody be listening to anything beyond the song’s chorus?
Finally, in 2016, “Born in the USA” started to be played at Donald Trump rallies during his campaign against Hillary Clinton. This time Springsteen officially and publicly endorsed Hillary, and appeared alongside Jon Bon Jovi and the Obamas at a rally in Philadelphia where he performed “Thunder Road” and “Dancing in the Dark” – incidentally two songs not criticizing American foreign policy. At the rally Springsteen said:
“The choice tomorrow couldn’t be any clearer. Hillary’s candidacy is based on intelligence, experience, preparation, and on an actual vision of an America where everyone counts. Men and women, white and black, Hispanic and Native, where folks of all faiths and backgrounds can come together to address our problems in a reasonable and thoughtful way. … That’s the country where we will indeed be stronger together.”
After his endorsement of Clinton, “Born in the USA” was quickly pulled from Trump rallies, which was obviously what Springsteen wanted. Oddly enough, Donald Trump would not retort Springsteen’s endorsement until 2019 when, during a bizarre appearance at a rally in Minneapolis, Trump stated he didn’t care about celebrity endorsements in his upcoming campaign against former Vice President Joe Biden by saying ““I didn’t need Beyoncé and Jay-Z, I didn’t need little Bruce Springsteen.”
In an interview with CBS Morning, Gayle King asked Springsteen about Trump’s comments, and he replied “We are living in a frightening time. The stewardship of the nation ahs been thrown away by someone who doesn’t know what that means. The United States of America is in your care. Do you know what the stakes are? Do you know what that means? Unfortunately, I feel we have someone who doesn’t have a deep meaning of what it is to be an American.”
Well, in a tense election process, Joe Biden beat Donald Trump,. But it wasn’t the last that “Born in the USA” would get played before Trump left office. Do you remember when Trump, who was an adamant COVID-19 denier, suddenly got the disease and was in quarantine? Well, a mass of MAGA supporters showed up outside Walter Reed Medical Center where he was being treated and, aiming a giant sound system at the hospital, blasted “Born in the USA” at the building. Apparently they didn’t only not listen to the lyrics, they didn’t get the memo that Donald “didn’t need Bruce Springsteen” either. Nothing like a song about disenfranchised veterans and broken foreign policy by a Democratic supporting rock icon who has publicly supported Trump’s allies to say, “Get well soon!” Oh those MAGAs…..
Bruce Springsteen is one of the greatest, and his music can be anemotional journey and powerful anthem. His words are poetic, his characters are relatable and his music is intricate. His themes are universal and the songs have aged like fine wine. But if we learn something from this story, it is both easy and important to listen to the lyrics before using a song as a political campaign anthem, and “Born in the USA” could be the worst one of all. This 4th of July weekend, play it loud at the lake, at your cottage, at the BBQ, by the pool and at the fireworks display, but for Bruce Springsteen’s sake, understand the meaning of the song and raise a drink to the soldiers who made it back from Viet Nam only to find struggle in an American system that did not work for them. “Born in the USA” is their story, bringing them back into the American narrative. It never was, nor never will be, a campaign song for the politicians who don’t understand it.