Born to Run (2016)
BORN TO RUN
BORN IN THE USA
Some books, a few scattered guitar picks, and a harmonica rack jostled with the crumbs of the afternoon’s lunch, crowding my notebook for space. I shifted my weight and sat my stockinged feet up on the carved lion’s-claw base of the oak table I’ve written at for twenty-five years. An antique lamp laid dim light on the only other object on the tabletop, a film script. It’d been sent to me by screenwriter and director Paul Schrader. Paul had written Taxi Driver, and had written and directed Blue Collar, two of my favorite films from the seventies. I strummed a few chords on my sunburst Gibson J200, paged through my notebook, stopped and murmured a verse of a song I had under way about returning Vietnam vets. I glanced over at the unread script’s cover page and sang out its title; I was “born in the USA.”
I copped “Born in the USA” straight off the title page of that Paul Schrader script. The script was a story of the trials and tribulations of a local bar band in Cleveland, Ohio. The film would later be released as Light of Day, featuring my song of the same name, my polite attempt at paying Paul back for my fortuitous and career-boosting theft.
The Hit Factory. I counted off; I had lyrics, a great title, two chords, a synth riff, but no real arrangement. It was our second take. A marshall wash of sound poured into my headphones. I started singing. The band watched me closely for an on-the-fly arrangement and Max Weinberg gave his greatest recorded drum performance. Four minutes and thirty-nine seconds later “Born in the USA” was in the can. We set down our instruments, walked into the control room and listened to lightning in a bottle.
More than ten years after the end of the Vietnam War, inspired by Bobby Muller and Ron Kovic, I wrote and recorded my soldier’s story. It was a protest song, and when I heard it thundering back at me through the Hit Factory’s gargantuan studio speakers, I knew it was one of the best things I’d ever done. It was a GI blues, the verses an accounting, the choruses a declaration of the one sure thing that could not be denied . . . birthplace. Birthplace, and the right to all of the blood, confusion, blessings and grace that come with it. Having paid body and soul, you have earned, many times over, the right to claim and shape your piece of home ground.
“Born in the USA” remains one of my greatest and most misunderstood pieces of music. The combination of its “down” blues verses and its “up” declarative choruses, its demand for the right of a “critical” patriotic voice along with pride of birth, was too seemingly conflicting (or just a bother!) for some of its more carefree, less discerning listeners. (This, my friend, is the way the pop political ball can often bounce.) Records are often auditory Rorschach tests; we hear what we want to hear.
For years after the release of my biggest-selling album, come Halloween, I had little kids in red bandanas knocking at my door with their trick-or-treat bags singing, “I was born in the USA.” I guess the same fate awaited Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” around the campfire, but that didn’t make me feel any better. (When Pete Seeger and I sang “This Land Is Your Land” at President Barack Obama’s inauguration, one of Pete’s requests was that we sing all of Woody’s controversial verses. He wanted to reclaim the song’s radical text.) In 1984, add to this an election year, a Republican Party intent on co-opting a cow’s ass if it has the Stars and Stripes tattooed on it, sitting president Ronald Reagan cynically offering thanks for “the message of hope in songs of . . . New Jersey’s own Bruce Springsteen” on a campaign swing through the state and, well . . . you know the rest. Conversely, the first guy I played the finished version of “Born in the USA” for was Bobby Muller, then president of the Vietnam Veterans of America. He entered the studio and sat at the front of the console, and I turned up the volume. He listened for a few moments and a big smile crossed his face.
A songwriter writes to be understood. Is presentation politics? Is the sound and form your song takes its content? Coming off Nebraska, I’d just done it both ways. I learned a hard lesson about how pop and pop image were perceived, but I still wouldn’t have made either of those records differently. Over the years, I’ve had an opportunity to reinterpret “Born in the USA,” particularly in acoustic versions that could not be misconstrued, but those interpretations always stood in relief against the original and gained some of their new power from the audience’s previous experience with the album version. On the album, “Born in the USA” was in its most powerful presentation. If I’d tried to undercut or change the music, I believe I would’ve had a record that would’ve been more easily understood but not as satisfying.
Like my previous albums, Born in the USA took time. For the follow-up to Nebraska, which contained some of my strongest songs, I wanted to take its same themes and electrify them. The framework of that idea, along with many of Nebraska’s subtexts, can be found beneath the surface of “Working on the Highway” and “Downbound Train.” These songs both began their lives acoustically on that Japanese Tascam demo recorder.
Much of Born in the USA was recorded live with the full band in three weeks. Then I took a break, recorded Nebraska and didn’t return to my rock album ’til later. “Born in the USA,” “Working on the Highway,” “Downbound Train,” “Darlington County,” “Glory Days,” “I’m on Fire” and “Cover Me” were all basically completed in the very early stages of the record. Then brain freeze settled in. I was uncomfortable with the pop aspect of my finished material and wanted something deeper, heavier and more serious. I waited, I wrote, I recorded, then I waited some more. Months passed in writer’s block, with me holed up in a little cottage I’d bought by the Navesink River, the songs coming like the last drops of water being pumped out of a temporarily dry well. Slowly, “Bobby Jean,” “No Surrender” and “Dancing in the Dark” joined my earlier work. The rains had eventually come. By that time, I’d recorded a lot of music (see disc three of Tracks), but in the end, I circled back to my original group of songs. There I found a naturalism and aliveness that couldn’t be argued with. They weren’t exactly what I’d been looking for, but they were what I had.
The wait was worth it. Those last songs were important pieces of my record’s final picture. “Bobby Jean” and “No Surrender” were great tributes to the bonding power of rock and my friendship with Steve. “My Hometown” would be an important bookend to “Born in the USA,” capturing the racial tension of late-sixties small-town New Jersey and the post-industrialization of the coming decade. Then, very late to the party came “Dancing in the Dark.” One of my most well-crafted and heartfelt pop songs, “Dancing” was “inspired” one afternoon when Jon Landau stopped by my New York hotel room. He told me he’d been listening to the album and felt we didn’t have a single, that one song that was going to throw gasoline on the fire. That meant more work for me, and for once, more work was the last thing I was interested in. We argued, gently, and I suggested that if he felt we needed something else, he write it.
That evening I wrote “Dancing in the Dark,” my song about my own alienation, fatigue and desire to get out from inside the studio, my room, my record, my head and . . . live. This was the record and song that’d take me my farthest into the pop mainstream. I was always of two minds about big records and the chance involved in engaging a mass audience. You should be. There’s risk. Was the effort of seeking that audience worth the exposure, the discomfort of the spotlight and the amount of life that’d be handed over? What was the danger of dilution of your core message, your purpose, the reduction of your best intentions to empty symbolism or worse? On “Born in the USA,” I experienced all these things, but that audience can also let you know how powerful and durable your music might be, and its potential impact upon your fans’ lives and the culture. So you take those steps tenderly, until you reach the chasm, and then you jump, for there is no steadily inclining path to the big big time. There is always that engulfing abyss where each traveler measures his next move, questions his motives. So, move with spirit, but be aware that along with the thrill and satisfaction of exploiting your full talents, you may find the clear bounds of your music’s limitations, as well as your own.
My Born in the USA songs were direct and fun and stealthily carried the undercurrents of Nebraska. With my record greatly enhanced by the explosiveness of Bob Clearmountain’s mixes, I was ready for my close-up. Onstage, this music swept over my audience with joyous abandon. We had hit after hit and in 1985, along with Madonna, Prince, Michael Jackson and the stars of disco, I was a bona fide mainstream radio “superstar.”
Sometimes records dictate their own personalities and you just have to let them be. That was Born in the USA. I finally stopped doing my hesitation shuffle, took the best of what I had and signed off on what would be the biggest album of my career. Born in the USA changed my life, gave me my largest audience, forced me to think harder about the way I presented my music and set me briefly at the center of the pop world.