Earlier this summer, my friends and I took a road trip that went from Massachusetts to Austin, Texas, with a million stops in between. I saw amber waves of grain, purple mountains majesty and, most importantly, Dollywood. On the very last leg of our road trip, from Philadelphia to New York (“Where the girls are pretty but they just want to know your name”) to either go home or see various significant others, we listened to Bruce Springsteen.
It was the perfect end to the Great American Road trip because Bruce is the Great American Songwriter. This fact is indisputable. While hailed as a New Dylan upon his start, Springsteen is able to capture a feeling that Dylan can’t. Dylan deals with the interior and cerebral, while Bruce tells a story. Each of his songs is a character study about a restless youth in a run down town with nothing to do but fall in love.
From the opening notes of “Born in the USA,” to the ending song, “My Hometown,” it’s entirely impossible to not feel passionate. The genius of Bruce, and Born in the USA in particular, is that this ambiguous sense of passion isn’t for one issue in particular but for living, in general, which sounds entirely ridiculous and cheesy and far too earnest but it’s also entirely true. Just try it. Listen to Born in the USA and try not love being alive. Even “being born in a dead man’s town,” as Bruce sings to open the album, doesn’t seem all that bad in the end just because you get to experience it all, just because, in the end you’re still a “cool rocking Daddy in the USA.”
Born in the USA was a strange evolutionary turn for Bruce. In 1982’s breathtakingly amazing Nebraska, he seemed to abandon his brothers in the E Street Band and set out on a path of stark minimalist beauty. But the boys in the band come roaring back with the polished Born in the USA and it’s their power that gives Bruce’s stories strength. Every song on the album sounds as if there is an army behind it and you can almost feel the band’s sense of camaraderie, which is only bolstered by Born in the USA‘s squeaky clean production.
Detractors may complain that the sound is too slick for the blue-collar stories that make up the album, but the production is not unlike Bruce’s own style of storytelling. An oft-lauded lyricist, Bruce has the ability to be poetic without being obscure. He sings what he means and leaves little to the imagination but puts it in such a way that it doesn’t matter that he is not dealing in complicated metaphors.
Yet, Bruce is far from mindlessly simple, as evidenced by the misappropriation of the title track for Ronald Reagan’s 1984 reelection bid. Reagan ignored the lyrics about a disaffected Vietnam vet, playing up the happy-go-lucky sounding chorus. There is sadness that pervades the record, even if the underlying music belies that melancholia. The stories speak of freedom, yet that freedom wouldn’t be necessary if there wasn’t also a need to escape. In “Darlington County,” Bruce sings of two friends who go to look for work, driving “800 miles without seeing a cop.” Bruce, as narrator, loses his friend along the way and, while hitting the open road with his girl, sees his friend “handcuffed to the bumper of the state trooper’s Ford.” Escapism is the goal, while being sidelined by reality is a constant threat.
But love is Bruce’s escape. In “Working on the Highway,” he sings of a man working on the chain gang for running away with the girl who “looked straight back.” It’s the idea of a better life that keeps him sane. “Someday mister I’m gonna lead a better life than this,” he sings. In “I’m on Fire,” a gorgeous song in stark contrast to the bombast of the rest album, it is only the girl that can quench his insatiable. “Only you can cool my desire,” he sings.
And as we sat in traffic on the New Jersey Turnpike, having one of those discussions that can only be had after a two week road trip, the four of us spoke about Bruce as if we knew him. We discussed what he would be like to hang out with, what kinds of jokes he would make, what beer he drank. And that’s the greatest thing about Bruce, and specifically Born in the USA. By listening to him you feel like you know. You can grow up in Worcester or Northampton or Philadelphia or Dickinson and simply by listening to Bruce, you know what it’s like to be a down and out kid in New Jersey just trying to get by. We, including the two males (one heterosexual, one not so much), concluded our Bruce-a-thon by deciding that we all wanted to sleep with him. My friend Tommy Button (who also claims he is going to move to New Jersey and live in a Bruce song) summed up the conversation, saying, “If you didn’t orgasm, it was because Bruce Springsteen didn’t want you to!” Right you are, Tommy, right you are.
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