Bruce Springsteen on ‘Born in the U.S.A.’

by Larry Rodgers – Jun. 4, 2009 11:22 AM
The Arizona Republic

June marks the 25th anniversary of the release of Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” album, the work that catapulted him to rock superstar status.

The New Jersey rocker had broken through to mainstream America nine years earlier with his “Born to Run” album, but it was not until hit the gym to get buffed up and showed off his rear end in Annie Leibovitz’s famous cover photo for “Born in the U.S.A.” that he became an American pop icon.

The video of Springsteen performing “Dancing in the Dark” and pulling a “random fan” (pre-“Friends” actress Courtney Cox) onstage to tango made the singer an MTV mainstay.

Here are some insights into the album, courtesy of Springsteen’s 1998 book, “Songs:”

Genesis – In 1981, Springsteen was asked to write some music for a film by Paul Schrader called “Born in the U.S.A.” One day, when Springsteen was working on a song titled “Vietnam,” he glanced at the script and sang the title. He intended to use the song on 1982’s “Nebraska” album, but ended up using it as the title song for his 1984 CD.

Somber stuff – While politicians and sports teams have attempted over the years to use the album’s title track in a rah-rah, patriotic sense, Springsteen says that wasn’t his intent.

“The lyrics dealt with the problems Vietnam vets faced when they came home after fighting ‘the only war that America ever lost,’ ” Springsteen writes. “In order to understand the song’s intent, you needed to invest a certain amount of time and effort to absorb both the music and the words.”

Trick or treat – “For years after the release of the album, at Halloween,” Springsteen says, “I had little kids in red bandanas knocking on at my door . . . singing, ‘I was born in the U.S.A.’ They were not particularly well-versed in the ‘Had a brother at Khe Sahn’ lyric.”

That line drives home the song’s serious side: “Had a brother at Khe Sahn, fighting off the Viet Cong / They’re still there, he’s all gone.”

Double-edged sword – Springsteen writes about the contrast between the stark, acoustic “Nebraska” album and “Born in the U.S.A.,” full of the energetic pop of songs like “Glory Days,” “Cover Me” and “No Surrender.” Some fans who love “Nebraska” think he got too commercial with “Born in the U.S.A.”

“On one hand, I’d learned how pop and pop image is perceived,” he says. “On the other hand, I wouldn’t have made either of those records differently.”

Mixed feelings – Springsteen perhaps adds fuel to the debate about the two albums when he writes that he feels “Nebraska” contains some of his strongest writing, while “Born in the U.S.A.” didn’t necessarily follow suit.

” ‘Born in the U.S.A.’ (the song) more or less stood by itself,” he writes. “The rest of the album contains a group of songs about which I’ve always had some ambivalence.”

Making the cut – Springsteen says he planned to keep “No Surrender” off the album because “you don’t hold out and triumph all the time in life.”

“You compromise, you suffer defeat; you slip into life’s gray areas.”

But his longtime right-hand man, guitarist Steven Van Zandt, convinced Springsteen otherwise.

“He argued that the portrait of friendship and the song’s expression of the inspirational power of rock music was an important part of the picture,” Springsteen writes.

Single focus – When producer Jon Landau suggested that Springsteen needed a strong single for the album, the singer wrote “Dancing in the Dark,” with some trepidation.

“It went as far in the direction of pop music as I wanted to go – and probably a little farther,” he writes.

But he also remarks, “My heroes, from Hank Williams to Frank Sinatra to Bob Dylan, were popular musicians. They had hits. There was value in trying to connect with a large audience.”

Ramifications – Despite what he calls the “grab-bag nature” of the album, Springsteen acknowledges its powerful effect on his career.

” ‘Born in the U.S.A.’ changed my life and gave me my largest audience,” he writes. “It forced me to question the way I presented my music and made me think harder about what I was doing.”