PRINT November 1984


America’s future rests in a thousand dreams inside your hearts. It rests in the message of hope in songs of a man so many young Americans admire: New Jersey’s own Bruce Springsteen. And helping you make those dreams come true is what this job of mine is all about.
—Ronald Reagan,
September 19, 1984.

THERE’S A LINE FROM a Bruce Springsteen song so fierce I’ve never been able to get past it: “Take a knife and cut this pain from my heart.” I hear “The Promised Land” on the radio, instinctively turn up the sound, forget what’s coming—and once that red moment arrives, whatever follows only chases its echo. Listening to Springsteen’s voice takes you out of yourself: it connects you to the singer and to everyone else. Hell is not other people. The world is suddenly remade into a utopia of what it would mean to speak so plainly and be understood so violently, a utopia in which one immediately loses one’s way. Driving, you could run into a tree. Shaving, you could cut your throat.

A couple of years ago Springsteen put the knife in and left it there; then he stood still and watched the wound rot. That was Nebraska, the guitar and vocal LP he’d recorded in his living room. The record began in the voice of Charlie Stark weather, the number-one mass killer of the ’50s, on the night of his execution; then it got worse. Save for two tunes in which the singer pleaded for the deliverance of hearing the right song come off the radio at the right time, the album described, it felt out, it transmitted the collapse and the corrupt ion of all values. The final number was called “Reason to Believe”; Springsteen and I once joked about the way critics had fallen over themselves in a rush to assure their readers that this last word testified to their hero’s unbroken optimism. “At the end of every hard-earned day,” he had sung, “you can find some reason to believe.” Especially if you don’t see what you’re looking at, or listen to what you hear. The situation from which Springsteen had gleaned his moral was this:

Seen a man standin’ over a dead dog
Lyin’ by the highway in a ditch
He’s lookin’ down kinda puzzled
Pokin’ that dog with a stick
Got his car door flung open
He’s standin’ out on Highway 31
Like if he stood there long enough
That dog’d get up and run

Remember Time magazine’s special issue on “National Renewal,” the one that followed Ronald Reagan’s election to the presidency? Not only would Carl Sandburg rise from the dead to sing the song of humming factories, the very grass would grow greener beneath your feet. Time read the signs correctly: the newly empowered had bided their time, and what they had waited for was nothing so trivial as a change in regime, but the chance to create a whole new epistemology, a whole new set of rules governing what it meant to live and die. Springsteen had read the signs as clearly; Nebraska was his response.

His 1984 album, Born in the US.A., was a full blown “rock” record. It came forth as a triumph, all metaphors in place, an instant number-one hit. It reached me as a piece of cheese. The record was a retreat; it replaced refusal with malaise, with a merely disillusioned acceptance, an acceptance that had no ironic cutting edge. The car door flung open in Nebraska’s “Reason to Believe” was a fragment that made the whole scene real, and reduced one’s sense of belief to a belief in the stick in the man’s hand. On Born in the US.A., the eye and ear for detail that animated Nebraska drifted into a contemplation of motifs.

You could see what was wrong with Born in the US.A. when you turned on the television this summer and saw Springsteen in his first in-the-flesh video, live on stage in Saint Paul at the start of his 1984 tour, singing his number-one single “Dancing in the Dark.” On record, the song is about blind faith and struggle; here, as the comic Bob Goldthwaite put it, Springsteen looks like a member of Up with People. He looks made up. Moving across the stage in seemingly choreographed, marks-on-the-boards jerks, he grins like a supperclub singer doing “Gloomy Sunday” while communicating boundless love for the crowd. One is made to see a wide-eyed girl pressing against the stage; Springsteen takes her hand, lifts her up, and dances with her as the video fades out. From show to show, he really does this—but this girl is too cute, and the routine makes something that actually happens into something that could never happen. The next time you pay your money, enter a hall, and see Springsteen sing his songs, it will make you think the woman whose hand he takes is a plant.

All in all, as the songs from Born in the US.A. took their turns on the radio, I would rather have heard the Beaver Brown Bind imitating Springsteen on the soundtrack to Eddie and the Cruisers than Springsteen imitating himself. Then “Born in the U.S.A.” came on—not the album, just the title cut. Written and recorded about the same time as Nebraska, the song is the testimony of a Vietnam veteran. “Born . . . in the U.S.A.," Springsteen sings over and over; drummer Max Weinberg provides a single thudding beat for each word. Born in the U.S.A., born in the U.S.A.—a lot of writers have complained the song doesn’t go anywhere. What was it supposed to do, provide a solution to the national debt?

Precisely. The song is about the refusal of the country to treat Vietnam veterans as something more than nonunion workers in an enterprise conducted off the books. It is about the debt the country owes to those who suffered the violation of the principles on which the country was founded, and by which it has justified itself ever since. In other words, the song links Vietnam veterans to the Vietnamese—or rather (because when he is on, Springsteen personalizes everything he touches), one veteran tries to make that link.

In Joe Klein’s well-researched and thoughtless new book Payback: Five Marines After Vietnam, the story begins with an account of an appalling 1967 battle between American Marines and North Vietnamese regulars as it was. experienced by Klein’s five subjects. It ends in 1982 with a hypnotist leading one of the five to finally remember what happened during the battle, to achieve catharsis. “You know,” the ex-Marine says when the moment is over, “I wonder if any of the North Vietnamese are in hypnosis, reliving the same battle . . . ” This possibility seems never to have struck Klein, and when it presents itself he does not wonder how the Vietnamese version of the battle might read, let alone try to find out—a gesture one might think could have occurred to him even before he witnessed the ex-Marine’s revelation. In Klein’s book, the Vietnamese are only the enemy, a cipher, and because zero times five is zero, the wealth of biographical detail Klein has amassed falls away, leaving the story meaningless. Springsteen’s veteran shouts at an unseen judge, “Sent me off to a foreign land/To go and kill/The Yellow man.” He was, he knows, sent off to kill a cipher, and he knows that he was sent as a cipher. The furious irony in his voice, ten years building, turns the racist phrase inside out and makes both ciphers real.

Springsteen begins “Born in the U.S.A.” with a great scream. Not only does he maintain it throughout the performance, he somehow modulates it, makes it talk, so that each shift of line and rhythm somehow tells a whole truth. It’s not easy to maintain a scream, and a scream is the hardest voice to inflect. I don’t know how Springsteen does it; it may be that Weinberg’s monolithic drumbeat gives the most imperceptible shift in Springsteen’s voice tangible power. "I had a brother/wham/At Khe Sahn/wham/Fighting off/wham/the Viet Cong—They’re still there/wham/He’s all gone”—this is a series of negations that says more about the rightful loss of the war than any page in Klein’s respectable book.

The song moves on like a landslide. It carries the tension of clandestine communication in a Stalinist country, the power of the argument paradoxically multiplying in a country where no censorship is necessary; Springsteen keeps screaming, and as he does, he catches, for the only time on the album, details as quick as any on Nebraska. With every line Springsteen increases the pressure. The song never does explode. “I’m a long-gone daddy in the U.S.A.,” the singer says finally, as Springsteen’s scream takes on a hint of syncopation, of fun—“I’m a cool-rocking daddy in the U.S.A.”

Cool rocking—the ability to respond to the right song at the right time, coming off the radio without warning. It is easy to believe that little else is left. The one truth on the album Born in the US.A. is that to take a knife and cut the pain from your heart you must be prepared to leave the knife in. And anyway it is already there.

Greil Marcus