Two of my friends had finally scored. They had been standing outside of the Carter Barron Theater in Washington, DC every evening during that July week in 1975 hoping to find somebody willing to let go of a couple tickets to see Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. It had taken them all week, but they had managed to find tickets to the last show. I had purchased mine weeks earlier after standing in line for most of a night.
Bruce and his band weren’t yet the larger-than-life phenomenon they were to eventually become. Indeed, he could still claim to be the working stiff’s rocker. His lyricswhile always convincingwere still being drawn from the band’s common experiences. These were experiences they shred with their (then) mostly East Coast audiences. The local FM radio station in DC had been playing the single “Born to Run” from the group’s forthcoming album as often as they could all summer. In addition, the station had obtained some acetates of a couple other tunes from the album of the same name and were playing the shit out of them, too. Bruce was about to break loose. He was going national.
That was all unimportant, though. What was important was the music and the words. Springsteen’s lyrics weren’t transcendent or decadent. Unlike the Grateful Dead’s Workingman’s Dead or The Band’s repertoire, his songs weren’t about a land that harkened back to the days of the pioneers. Nor did they tell of an ideal Woodstock Nation like that found in Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s Deja Vu and the rest of the Dead’s songbook. They certainly weren’t frivolous like the disco then hustling its way onto the national dance floor nor pseudo-surreal like the progressive rock of Pink Floyd or Yes. No, Bruce sang about lives lived where one knew that when s/he grew up s/he was going to go to work at some shit job just to pay the bills. Either that, or end up in jail trying to avoid such a life.
Still, there was a tinge of hope in the songs on Born To Run. This hope is implicit in the title song. “Baby this town rips the bones from your back,it roars, It’s a death trap, it’s a suicide rap, We gotta get out while we’re young `Cause tramps like us, baby we were born to run.” Climb in your car, find a lover, and get on the road. That was the answer. Of course, as the song continues, we discover that “There’s no place left to hide.” This means, of course, that we probably never will get out of the death trap that our destiny has set for us and the best we can do is just run, even if there’s no place to go.
If one recalls, 1975 was the year that the US military lost in Vietnam. The president was Gerald Ford, who was there because he promised to pardon the previous occupier of the White House for all crimes he might have been convicted of. The lie had been exposed for the cheap charade that it was. There was no morality at the top. Even the government’s supporters were admitting what was so obvious to the rest of us. This country was run by a bunch of self-serving crooks that would stop at nothing to keep their power. If this was the case, then what was wrong with running your own hustle, especially if it’s for love? This is exactly the scenario in “Meeting Across the River.” A pair of young wannabe gangsters is hoping to finally make the big score, but only if they don’t screw up like they usually do. Of course, if they screwed up, they would have to answer for it, unlike the guys at the top. Everything on this album is ultimately for love. This is the one true salvation in a world where nothing is as it seems. So jump in.
Such is not the case on Springsteen’s other master work, Born In the USA. Love has run its course by the time this album is through. Desolation and despair are the just as likely results of adolescent hopes and infatuations. Growing older has only made life more desperate. Running has only brought us to an abyss even greater than those we faced back in our years fresh out of high school when the world was falling apart but our lives were still fresh. From the burned-out and bitter Vietnam veteran whose song opens the album to the working class hard luck cases in the songs “Working On the Highway”and “Downbound Train,” running has only brought them closer to the end. There is no hope at the end of the trail, only more running and the back seat of a black-and-white.
Despite the overriding despair, some of the songs still ache for even a trace of hope. Hope in the simple things, like refusing to surrender or something as seemingly silly as changing ones looks. Any hope one finds, however, is based on the slimmest of premises in a world of shadows and liesa world made even more false in the fake morning light of Ronald Reagans presidency. Born In the USA (the album and the song) spell out the shallowness and hypocrisy of 1980s America, whether its in the dead-end life of a veteran of Americas war on the Vietnamese or the dead-end lives of young guys from Manhattan heading to Jersey for the Fourth of July (with one of them ending up handcuffed to the bumper of a state trooper’s Ford.) In an ironic twist, Mr. Reagan actually used the song Born In the USAas a backdrop to a couple of his re-election campaign rallies in New Jersey before Springsteen demanded that he stop. While its not surprising that Reagan’s workers didn’t understand the nuances of the song, the fact of its brief appearance in the Reagan campaign belies that campaign’s very shallowness. (In a similar show of right-wingers not “getting” this song, a group of pro-war students here in Burlington, VT blared the chorus this past winter from their car stereo in a vain attempt to drown out an antiwar rally.)
The last time I saw Springsteen and the E Street band in concert was in September 1985. He was playing a two-night stand in Oakland Coliseum. I had obtained a ticket through pure luck: some friends had found one on the ground as they walked through the Coliseum parking lot from the BART train stop. I happened to cross paths with them and they handed me the ducat. The show rocked from beginning to end. Towards the end of the second set, Springsteen introduced the Woody Guthrie song “This Land Is Your Land” with a request that we leave a couple bucks with the folks in the lobby who were collecting money for the homeless shelters and food banks that were springing up like mushrooms after a rain in Mr. Reagan’s America. Then he told the audience which United States it was that Woody had been writing about when he wrote that tune. In so many words, it wasn’t the America that Mr. Reagan was working for. It is, however, an America that is always there, even in the darkest of times.
RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground.
He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org