Monday, June 30, 2014

Springsteen Reflections: Born in the U.S.A. (Guest Post)

To close out Born in the U.S.A. month, we're highlighting a post from the Legends of Springsteen archives. Below is a guest post from friend of the blog James Layman detailing his reflections on Born in the U.S.A., first published February 24, 2012.

Anyone familiar with the 1990 Dodge Dynasty can share with its hallmark characteristic: the engine was too powerful for the chassis, the handling, and indeed, the entire car. Any significant pressure on the gas would produce a vibrato so commanding that the steering wheel would shake. By the time you hit 80, the entire frame was trembling, threatening to self-destruct into a thousand smoldering pieces on the freeway.

I drove one in the spring of 2004, delivering pizza in North Jersey. I was seventeen.

While iTunes and digital downloads revolutionized music in the latter part of the last decade, something was lost in the subversion. Single hits now exist on their own, outside the context of an album, like single chapters in a book. Digital downloads may have ushered in the death of the narrative, so I feel privileged to have been part of the last generation of listeners to appreciate an album as a story. And “back then,” we all had a story - something encapsulating an age, a season, a mood, or a place. A freeze frame of a halcyon era we could never return to, but never really escape.

In the spring of 2004, my story was Born in the U.S.A. The album was a 12-track epic about making peace with the love, loss, disillusionment, and despair of a stark American era. I’ll admit I couldn’t relate to all of Springsteen’s characters - the plight of a Vietnam Veteran returning home or the deterioration of a young man’s hometown were foreign to me, especially at seventeen. But beneath Springsteen’s earnest and painfully wrought portrait of American life was the constant need to escape. Characters stayed awake at night talking about “getting out.” They drank too much, chased old flames, and raised hell in Darlington County - always dreaming of an open highway to greener pastures somewhere far beyond. The theme wasn’t just definitive of Born in the U.S.A., but of Springsteen’s entire catalogue.

I used to get out of work sometime around midnight, and drive the Dynasty down my block to where it met Route 17, a highway that ran from East Rutherford up through New York State. I traced the road back to where it met the horizon, clinging to a romantic notion of where it might lead. I had four wheels beneath my feet, nowhere specific to go, and all the time in the world to get there.

Come graduation I left, like most of us did. Many to college, some to the military, and others to God knows where. At long last, honoring the relentless pursuit of our own stories and our own endless roads. It’s a natural part of growing up I suppose - rumbling forward with a purpose too big for your hometown and a heart too powerful for your body, into the great and wonderful beyond.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Song Spotlight - "My Hometown"

Key Live Performance

This performance is taken from Bruce’s visit to the TODAY Show while promoting the Magic tour. It’s always fun to watch videos from Rockefeller Center and marvel over those lucky attendees getting to see such an intimate show. This video includes several inadvertently funny shots of crowd members singing along soulfully to the lyrics. I can only imagine that I look as silly as they do when I’m doing the same thing at a concert. It also features Bruce blatantly reading from the teleprompter around the 3:00 minute mark. But hey, he’s only human after all (even if it usually doesn’t seem so!). What I like most about this live performance is the way it conveys the solemnity of the song and then builds into an audience sing-a-long where Bruce compels the crowd to claim their own hometown ownership.

Key Lyrics

“I'm thirty-five, we got a boy of our own now
Last night I sat him up behind the wheel
and said son take a good look around,
this is your hometown”

The final lyrics of the song position it as one about ownership and loyalty, as the possessive attached to the hometown changes between the choruses. Prior to writing this post, I’d always associated the song with the third verse, never giving much consideration to the others. The third verse describes shuttered stores and lost jobs. It’s the verse you expect from Springsteen: an elegy for a small town that’s rotted away and the lament over a lost way of life. But that’s a reductive look at this song. “My Hometown” actually progresses smoothly through four distinct chapters. It begins with the narrator’s rose-tinted recollection of an idyllic small town. It then takes a turn into the socially conscious when racial turmoil arises in the mid-60s, leading to violence. In the third section, the hometown appears broken, and beyond repair. In the end, the narrator contemplates giving up on the town and moving away. But ultimately, he takes his son on the same drive that his father took him on, and tells his son, “this is your hometown.” For better or for worse, this is your hometown.


“My Hometown” may be the Born in the U.S.A. song I’ve listened to the least over the years. I frequently skip it when it comes on at random, and have never given it much attention. This has been my great discovery from revisiting the Born in the U.S.A. album for its anniversary. I can’t say “My Hometown” will make my must-listen list, but it will make it into rotation more frequently than it had before.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Song Spotlight - "Dancing In The Dark"

Key Live Performance

While there was certainly no shortage of live performances to choose from, it's been a staple of every live show since 1984, I was strongly tempted to just pick the music video.  It's not only Bruce's most iconic music video, it's one of the most iconic music videos ever.  But in the end I decided to pick a live performance because really no other shows how fun a Bruce concert can be.  All the house lights come up, and the crowd dances while singing along with every word.

Key Lyrics

"They say ya gotta stay hungry.  Hey baby, I'm just about starving tonight!"

When I wrote about John Legend's cover of this song, I pointed out how changing it from a synthesized pop song to a piano ballad put the attention on the lyrics.  And the lyrics to this song, aren't as happy as the music would have you believe.  They speak of a sad, and desperate man.  That said, no matter what version of the song is played, the lyrics are the strongest part of the song.


Much like the other six singles from this album, "Dancing In The Dark", is a staple of 80's pop and rock music.  It's Bruce's biggest single, and probably his most recognizable song.  Instinct says to go with "Born To Run" or "Born In The USA", but that music video might just nudge this song ahead.  His dance with Courtney Cox is what turned Bruce Springsteen from rock star into cross-over, pop culture icon.  Thank God he went with that version of the song instead of the original version of the video.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Song Spotlight - "Glory Days"

Key Live Performance

Sure, they cut a verse from this performance, but I feel Bruce truly gave "Glory Days" the performance it deserves at the Super Bowl back in 2009.  We have the lyrics changed up to make it more about football; we have an extended back-and-forth with Little Steve, and we have tons and tons of fireworks.  It completely fits the over-the-top nature of the album version of the song.

Key Lyrics

"Yeah, just sitting back trying to recapture
a little of the glory of, well time slips away
and leaves you with nothing mister but

boring stories of glory days"

As spotlighted before, "Glory Days" is one of those songs that is often misinterpreted due to its happy beat.  If you were just to read the lyrics of this song, you'd think it was a somber dirge from a man on the verge of suicide.  However, the musical accompaniment puts a completely different spin on the lyrics, and the song's narration takes a completely different turn.  Now, you get the feeling that, while the narrator is sad, he is also grateful for the life he led in the past.  It's a unique mix of emotions rarely found in songs played during the Super Bowl.  


Personally, I've never been a big fan of "Glory Days".  While I don't actively dislike it, it is probably my least favorite of Springsteen's major hits (again, the fans would seem to agree with me, as it only came in at 69th on the top 100 Springsteen songs).  Like "Born In The U.S.A.", the song is very repetitive and has been played so many times that I can't fathom a moment where I'd say, "You know what song I'm in the mood to listen to?  'Glory Days'!"  That being said, it is one of my go-to Springsteen karaoke songs, and is in one of my all-time favorite episodes of It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia.  This is why we've spent a month talking about this album: even the weaker songs have their bright spots.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Song Spotlight - "I'm Goin' Down"

Key Live Performance

The video quality certainly leaves a lot to be desired, but it’s so great that we have access to footage of Bruce performing “I’m Goin’ Down” during the original Born in the U.S.A. tour (and in New Jersey, no less). This performance not only captures the freewheeling rock ‘n’ roll energy of this fast beat party song, it also features a great preamble from Bruce. Not so much storytelling as it is pontificating, there’s a lot of resentment and cynicism in his description of what it feels like when love goes sour.

I used to watch this video and dream of seeing Bruce perform this song first-hand. I’ve since seen it twice. The first was at the Meadowlands on the Born in the U.S.A. night where the pre-determined nature made it feel a bit anti-climactic. The second time was more satisfying, a surprise at Wrigley Field during the Wrecking Ball tour. Thanks to having seen this concert footage, when Bruce declared that the next song was “for all the lovebirds out there,” I knew instantly what was coming.

Key Lyrics

“I remember back when we started
My kisses used to turn you inside out”

It’s a tale of lost love, but lyrics like these remind you what it’s like to fall in love, and why the absence feels all the more painful.


I contend that this is one of the happiest sounding sad songs of all time. Its buoyant, infectious melody can seem at odds with the sober, cynical lyrics. I suppose it works to remind the listener why we fall in love in the first place: that joyous exuberance that you can’t really articulate. It’s much easier to put into words how you feel when things are ending.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Song Spotlight- "Bobby Jean"

Key Live Performance

Taken from Bruce's iconic show at Hyde Park in 2012.  I've often said that "Bobby Jean" is Clarence Clemon's best solo, so it's ironic that I picked a performance without Clarence for the key performance.  I picked this one just because I love how into it the crowd gets with their choreographed wave side to side.  Jake Clemons does a great job honoring his uncle's legendary sax solo, and it shows just how beloved this song is.  More on that later.

Key Lyrics

"And I'm just calling one last time not to change your mind
But just to say 'I miss you, baby'.  Good luck, goodbye, Bobby Jean."

One of Springsteen's most iconic lines.  It's something every guy fantasizes about saying, to some girl.  It just sounds so cool, but no one could ever pull it off.  You'd sound like a total jackass if you did say it.  Don't believe me?  Ask Rory.  It's the basis for the entire movie High Fidelity.  Much like I said in my review of "Downbound Train", that very few guys wants to admit a girl broke his heart, and very few guys want to admit that there is a girl that immediately comes to mind when they hear this line.  It's what makes this album so special.  Bruce built his career by connecting with audience, but never more than he has with this album.  And perhaps, never more than with this lyric.


Shockingly, this was not one of the seven singles from this album.  I say shockingly, because when Bruce plays this live it's one of the biggest crowd-pleasers of the night.  It's the only song Bruce sings with it's own signature dance move.  I don't know when it started as it's not seen in any of the 80's performances, the song was mostly ignored during 90's when Bruce was away from the E Street Band, but when Bruce and the E Street Band reunited everyone just seemed to do it.  Like Rory said about "No Surrender", the fact that this song wasn't a huge single is a blessing.  It's not overplayed, and it keeps the songs special.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Song Spotlight - "No Surrender"

Key Live Performance

"No Surrender" has made it into recent tours with a full band accompaniment, however, the above performance is how it would normally be played at concerts.  This video begins with a nod to Steven Van Zandt, who pushed for "No Surrender" to be included in the album.  Steven's departure left Bruce alone, and he intensifies the feeling of loneliness here by playing it solo, with only his guitar and his harmonica to support him.

Key Lyrics

"I want to sleep beneath peaceful skies in my lover's bed
with a wide open country in my eyes
and these romantic dreams in my head"

It was difficult to pick just one set of lyrics from this song.  We've spotlighted other lyrics in the past, and there aren't many other lines that define the spirit of rock-and-roll more than "We learned more from a three-minute record, baby, than we ever learned in school."  However, whenever I listen to this song, these lyrics paint such a vivid image in my head.  I imagine myself about ten years younger, lying on a beach in south Jersey, with a beautiful girl next to me.  It's early September, and we know our summer fling is about to end, but for now, we are the the only people in the world.  However, that isn't what is happening in this song.  It is just what the narrator wants; it is merely a romantic dream.  The idea of dreams versus reality is the key feature of this song, and why, despite the difficulties in life, there is "no surrender".


This is one of the rare songs on Born In The USA that was, in fact, not a single, but it easily could have been (given that this song ranked 18th on the top 100 Springsteen songs, I'd say this is a popular opinion).  The upside for this is that the song was never overplayed; I still get chills whenever Bruce busts this out at concerts.  It is an incredibly powerful song, and easily one of Bruce's best.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Song Spotlight - "I'm on Fire"

Key Video

For this song, I eschewed the live performances in favor of the official music video. I’ve always wanted a reason to highlight this video, which in some ways is my favorite Bruce Springsteen music video. As far as I know, it’s the only video of his that doesn’t contain any instruments or lip-synching. Instead we see Bruce A-C-T-I-N-G! With the exception of his on-stage theatrics and storytelling, this is likely the closest we’ll ever get to see Bruce Springsteen act. Yes, he has a cameo in High Fidelity, but it’s more of a direct address. This video features facial expressions that are meant to convey inner emotions. In the end, he’s not doing that much. But for what it’s worth, I think he’s pretty good in it. It’s also worth noting that celebrated indie filmmaker John Sayles directs the video. He shoots it almost like a David Lynch movie, with mysterious lighting and shadowy set design that perfectly complement the song’s uneasy feel.

Key Lyrics

“Hey little girl is your daddy home
Did he go away and leave you all alone
I got a bad desire
I'm on fire”

There are very few lyrics in this song, but each one is incredibly powerful and instantly memorable. But if you have to isolate one set of lyrics, it’s hard not to go with this bold opening. The song grabs you by the throat and lets its intentions known with no ambiguity. I remember one time asking my Mom what she thought was the most memorable Springsteen song. She quickly responded, “I’m on Fire”. I was surprised to hear this and when I asked her why, she referenced the song’s fierce sexuality. That was quickly the end of that conversation. But I can see what she means.


This is one of Bruce’s most beautiful sounding songs, and simultaneously also one of his creepiest. It sounds so haunting, like the feverish dream the narrator references. It’s the kind of song that appears deceptively simple on the surface, but burrows into your psyche and never leaves. I have to side with my Mom, this is one of his most memorable songs.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Song Spotlight - "Downbound Train"

Key Live Performance

I'm not sure when this video is from, which is a shame because it captures this song perfectly.  Judging by the look of Bruce here, I'd put it at circa 2002-3, during The Rising Tour.  Last week, I bemoaned about how much I disliked "Cover Me".  It was my least favorite song on the album, and in my bottom five of all time for Springsteen songs.  Well, this week, it's the exact opposite.  This is my favorite song on the album, and in my top five Springsteen songs ever written.  It's one of the best examples of Springsteen's storytelling; a depressing downward spiral all set to the tune of a great guitar riff that perfectly catches the melancholy lyrics.  

Key Lyrics

"She just said 'Joe, I gotta go.
We had it once, we ain't got it anymore.'"

There were so many choices for lyrics in this song, as lyrically this is some of the best work in Bruce's career.  I went with these lyrics because the song is written in a first person perspective, and there's something so universal about this line.  We all have been in these relationships, whether they've lasted one date or years, where it seemingly comes out of nowhere that one person just doesn't seem to feel the same way.  It's a punch in the gut, and is usually accompanied by the rest of your life crumbling at your feet.  Bruce captures this perfectly in this song and the result is a beautiful, introspective song.  Most guys won't admit it, because they haven't literally lost their job and their significant other back to back, but there's something relatable to these lyrics.  They don't want to sound like drama queens, but every guy has had some girl break his heart and then the rest of their life seems to go to hell too.  Guys just nod their head along thinking to themselves with their body language saying "I hear you, brother."  


Well as much as I love this song, I was shocked to find out that Springsteen biographer, Dave Marsh, did not like it at all.  Marsh called it "incredibly sloppy": "the weakest song [Springsteen]'s released since the second album, ... incredibly sloppy ... The protagonist's three jobs in five verses are only symptomatic of its problems."  Well, he's certainly entitled to his opinion, but I couldn't disagree more.  As far as the song is "sloppy", it's not at all.  It's unique sound, gives the song it's urgency to the protagonist's feelings.  And I'm not alone, I've been lucky enough to hear this song live a few times and it always is a huge crowd-pleaser.

Like many other songs from this era, it's roots are in Nebraska.  The demo version  of this song doesn't come close to doing the song justice, and I'm so glad Bruce took the time to perfect the music to go along with these lyrics.  I just cant imagine hearing this song any other way.  

I think part of the reason I love this song goes back to my roots as a fan of metal and hard rock music.  I could easily see this song being covered by a metal band, specifically Metallica.  I would love to see James Hetfield playing the opening guitar chords, with a little more distortion, maybe sped up just a little bit, and then hearing Lars and the rest of the band kicking in and rocking out.  Much like they did when they covered Bob Seger's "Turn The Page".  And as much as I would love that, no matter how unlikely it is, it will never top the original.  It's that good.  

Monday, June 9, 2014

Song Spotlight - "Working On The Highway"

Key Live Performance

I feel that this performance perfectly encapsulates "Born In The U.S.A." era Bruce.  Here, we see the Boss in all his 80s manliness, drenched in sweat and making a ton of "Bruce Faces" with every guitar break.  This video not only sums up why people loved him at the time, but also why people would hate him as well: he's insanely popular, he's dancing with his band mates, he's referring to himself as "The Boss", and he's loving every minute of the song.

Key Lyrics

"In my head I keep a picture of a pretty little miss
Someday mister I'm gonna lead a better life than this"

Like "Downbound Train" and "Born In The U.S.A.", "Working on the Highway" was originally written for Nebraska, at that time called "Child Bride".  Some lyrics, such as those spotlighted here and those in the bridge section of the song, harken back to the song's dark roots.  However, I am glad Bruce revised the song to make it more upbeat, giving it an edge of sardonic humor reminiscent of "Sherry Darling".


"Working on the Highway" is a very strong song that is lost in a sea of fantastic songs, and would probably have gotten more recognition if it has been on, say, The River.  However, unlike many of the hit songs from this album, it hasn't suffered from listener fatigue, as it is a rare play at concerts or on the radio.  I would recommend sneaking this song onto a few playlists you might have (i.e. for pregaming or doing housework) as you'll find yourself pleasantly surprsied when it pops up.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Song Spotlight - "Darlington County"

Key Live Performance

This is one performance I am very excited to say that I saw first-hand. I remember observing the audience’s enthusiasm for this song and feeling like I was witnessing a resurgence in appreciation for the Born in the U.S.A. album. At a Springsteen concert, you’ll frequently see the audience become jubilant when a less frequently heard track from Born to Run or Darkness on the Edge of Town is dealt out. For a while, it felt much more rare for a Born in the U.S.A. b-side to make it into the rotation.

What makes this performance for me is the parade of girls in pink hats that take the stage around the four-minute mark. The girls coming on stage always feels like the natural materialization of the song narrator’s horn dog agenda. I’m always amazed that when fans get pulled on stage, and they some how have a general sense of how to behave and how to dance.

Key Lyrics

“We drove down from New York City
Where the girls are pretty but they just want to know your name”

I’ve previously compared this song to a Raymond Carver short story (, and that’s what I love so much about the song - the lascivious undercurrent and the sinister sting at the end (Wayne being handcuffed while the narrator drives away).


I consider “Darlington County” the hidden gem on Born in the U.S.A. There is so much of this song to enjoy, and so many layers to the story it tells.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Song Spotlight- "Cover Me"

Key Live Performance:

Just a few quick thoughts before I begin.  Born In The USA is my favorite Bruce album.  It's not even close.  Besides Guns N' Roses' Appetite For Destruction, it's probably my favorite album of all time. It's what introduced me to Bruce, and laid the ground work for my fanaticism today.

So it's ironic, for my first foray into Born In The USA month, I will be tackling my least favorite song on the album, and one of my least favorite Springsteen songs ever, "Cover Me".  The song is not played too terribly often, but not completely unheard of for Bruce to put it on a setlist.  Live videos on YouTube were easy enough to find, but there was not too much variety.  I went with this video, because it was professionally shot in HD, and I didn't want to use the 1985 Paris edition because I will be going to that concert a lot in future posts this month.  The crowd reaction seems to be exactly what mine would be if I was there, "Awesome, Bruce is playing a song he doesn't play that often!  Crap, it's 'Cover Me'."

Key Lyrics:

"This whole world is out there looking to score,
I've seen enough, I don't want to see anymore."

I never really noticed how repetitive the lyrics were in this song.  The song isn't terribly complex, it's just about Bruce looking for an ideal girl.  For some reason this girl needs to offer constant protection and Bruce just repeatedly asks for someone to cover him.  I mean what girl wouldn't be turned on by that proposition?  I do somewhat like the above lyrics, and think it would work better in another song.  There seems to be a sincerity in that line, that the rest of the song lacks.  He's not just trying to act like a victim to attract a girl to his bad boy persona.  He's not in it just for a cheap thrill or a one night stand.  He really needs to be covered.  For what?  I have no idea.  But consider this line the one silver lining, in a rather abysmal song.


One of the seven Top-10 hit singles from Born In The USA, "Cover Me" peaked at #7 on the charts in the summer of 1984.  Shockingly, there is no music video for this song, which is pretty insane for a Top-10 hit in 1984.  Music videos were essential to popularity, and the fact that Bruce had a Top-10 hit without the aid of music video really speaks volumes about how huge Bruce really was in the summer of 1984.

I guess what I hate the most about this song, is that it sounds like with minimal tweaking this could easily have been a disco song.  I HATE DISCO!  It wasn't until researching this song for this post, that I realized Bruce wrote the song for Donna Summer.  So the disco-esque beats are somewhat understandable.  Springsteen's manager, Jon Landau, convinced him the song was a hit and he should hold on to it.  It's hard to argue with Landau considering the song was a big hit, but I really wish Springsteen would have followed his instinct and just let Summer have the song.  There's so many great songs from this writing era that I would have rather seen on this album, including "Cynthia", "Shut Out The Light" and my personal favorite unreleased Sprinsteen song, "Unsatisfied Heart".  There are plenty of others too, but you get the point.  I promise the rest of my posts for this month will be much, MUCH more positive.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Song Spotlight - "Born In The U.S.A."

Key Live Performance

Well, here we are folks, with the song that started it all.  And, as with most Bruce songs, it is difficult to find just one "key" live performance.  However, I've decided to spotlight one performance from the not-to-distant past.  For the last 30 years, "Born In The U.S.A." has had quite a history, from being played too much, then being banished from all live shows, then to showing up only in more somber arrangements.  Now, it seems the song is getting its proper due: it has been played at roughly a third of his shows this year.  Seeing how this song was ranked 33rd on the top 100 Springsteen songs, I feel that's an appropriate amount of play.  It is good to see that, after 30 years, that Bruce can still perform with the same raw passion that inspired the song.

Key Lyrics

"Had a brother at Khe Sahn
Fighting off the Viet Cong
They're still there he's all gone.

He had a woman he loved in Saigon
I got a picture of him in her arms now."

I always enjoyed the slant rhyming that is used throughout the song.  It's subtle but consistent; from the opening rhyme of "town" with "ground" to finishing with "road" and "go".  I may be reading too much into it (but god knows I wouldn't be the first to do that with this song), but the slant rhyming could be seen as trying to fit things together that don't quite work, which is how the Vietnam soldiers would feel returning to their home lives.

The spotlighted lyrics above are the closest thing that this songs has to a "bridge" section.  All the verses until this point were written with two sets of couplets, but here, lines begin to disappear.  The first part misses one line, and the next section removes yet another.  By shortening the verses, Bruce heightens the drama of the song.  At first listen, the "missing" lines may create curiosity to go back and listen to the song again.  On further listens, we truly realize the emotional weight being carried here, as the "missing" lines aren't missing at all, but are moments of silence.


While it may not be Springsteen's best song, "Born In The U.S.A." is easily his most famous song.  It has been discussed and dissected from every possible angle (heck, there's even a delightful spoken word version of it by Glenn Beck).  Personally, it's a song that I "re-discover" every few years; most of the time, I never want to listen it, but every once in a while, it'll come up on my iPod and realize how fantastic it is.  The lyrics are powerful enough to work with slower versions and not sound corny.  The music, admittedly, sounds incredibly 80s with the preeminent synthesizer, but the hook is catchy enough to keep the song stuck in your head.  While it's unfortunate that "Born In The U.S.A." may be the only Springsteen song many people can name, it is still a good representation of the themes of Springsteen's music.