Sunday, September 12, 2010

Alternate Born in the USA

When Bruce Springsteen put out his enormously successful Born in the USA album in the summer of 1984, I was waiting for it. “Dancing in the Dark” had come out a month earlier, and I grew to like it after being initially put off by the 80s synth sound. I still recall putting the album on for the first time, on release day, and feeling blown away by the title track, and much of what followed. It was that summer’s album, endlessly playing my homemade cassette copy on the Sparkomatic in Dad’s Yellow Hornet station wagon, driving around with the beautiful Born Again before she was born again. It was a good summer.

But some things don’t age so well. That girl was gone a year later, in more ways than one, and over the years, I’ve come to realize Born in the USA has real problems as an album. You can hear what the problem is: what Springsteen was convinced he wanted at the time, mass superstardom, how he geared the album to invite that level of celebrity into his life … was not what he wanted, which he found out later, and that desire was at odds with who he was. Not his image … working-class hero, friend to the blue-collar man, etc. Who he was … a guy from Jersey who never had a job as anything but a musician, had played his ass off all his life, carved out a beautiful niche for himself as a respected and successful recording artist, but pushed himself into a role that was far from his simple desire to do what he had been doing. Born in the USA now sounds like a bloated attempt to achieve mass fame.

It helps to understand the history and recordings leading into the album, to hear the kernel of an idea he had, to put out a solid album of shorter rock songs to follow up the starkness of his all-acoustic Nebraska album – sort of a rock-and-roll addendum to that album’s folk leanings, with the same concise, no-frills lyricism. It wouldn’t have made him a superstar, but the album he could have put out would have been his best. I listen to the music around that album, the stuff that has never made it out officially, and can hear a much better album that would have been completely true to who he was as a musician and worked out just fine with his image.

But, producer Jon Landau seemed to insist on superstardom, and Bruce went along with that desire. “Dancing in the Dark” was an addendum to the end of the sessions when Landau noticed they didn’t have what he felt was a blockbuster first single for the album. So, he made Bruce write one, complete with teen-friendly synthesizer backing and beats, tailored to the production values of the time. This song should not be on the album: it should be what it is, a single. Bands used to release singles all the time that weren’t on albums, and this is surely one of those cases.

But that wasn’t the only song that shouldn’t have been on the album. “Cover Me” is among Springsteen’s worst songs: b-side material at best, a song he should have given to someone else. As it was the second song on side one after the title track, everyone involved obviously thought it was a gangbuster track that would blow the roof off. Even that first time I heard it, I thought it was a bad song. I was too young then to hold it against him, but what was he thinking? (Aside from the obvious, that he had let himself be talked into throwing more contemporary-sounding material on an album instead of sticking to his creative guns.)

And there are a few other songs on the album that I would have made b-sides. Songs that are now considered Springsteen classics, but for my money, are just a little too bloated or playing too hard into image-mongering:

Downbound Train: I know people who swear by this song, but I just don’t quite get it. This would have been a b-side. A great b-side, too. (I could have been talked into putting this on the album.)

No Surrender: Cheesy stuff. He had earlier cut a song called "Where the Bands Are" that’s simply a better executed version on the same theme of recalling what it felt like to be a kid playing in a band. A better song all around. This is a b-side. “Blood brothers on a stormy night with a vow to defend”? Man, come off it. This is deep-dish sicilian with extra cheese.

Bobby Jean: a great song. For me, this was the keynote song of the album for a long time. Better than a b-side, too – I’d have saved it for the next album. (If you’re familiar with Springsteen’s outtakes, there are any number of songs around each album that are just as good as what he chose to put out, but didn’t for reasons known only to him.)

I’m Going Down: this song has b-side written all over it. How a song like this made it onto a serious album, knowing the songs he had sitting in the can that he didn’t use, I have no idea.

Glory Days: a good song, but wouldn’t have made the cut. For one huge reason: Bruce describing a fastball – a common baseball term for the pitcher throwing his hardest, fastest pitch – a “speedball” – which is something made of heroin and crack cocaine that a drug addict snorts or smokes. There are no “speedballs” in baseball. How in the hell did anyone in Springsteen’s camp not know this? How did he, purportedly a lifelong Yankees fan, not know this? Did people know this and not have the balls to approach him and Landau, and say, “Bruce, there are no speedballs in baseball.” It’s not a bad song – would have b-sided it, or saved for another album.

What’s left? A core of strong, short songs (some that were better in their original form before Springsteen greatly altered the arrangements), along with a slew of outtakes from the home-made demos he made that, you can tell, must have been his original concept of putting out a twangy, rockabilly-style album, without the calculated image mongering that floats through most of the above-noted song. I’m going to list each song, in order, to my Alternate Born in the USA, with accompanying youtube clip when possible (or MP3 download otherwise) so you can hear how this would have come across … save a lot of these songs are demos and would have sounded even better as finished product. But, here goes. And the album is now titled Your Hometown, not Born in the USA.

Side 1 Track 1
Lyrics from this song eventually appeared in “Born in the USA” and the b-side “Shoot Out the Light.” He should have stuck with this original track as it communicates a rawness not present in the final product (in which much yelling and forceful singing was made to replace this original subtlety). And it conveys the image of the song’s protagonist being a ghost and not knowing it, being told by the factory foreman, “Son, you died in Vietnam.” He should have kicked off the album with this exact track, more polished of course and tightened up without the lyrical stumbles, as he was clearly feeling his way through the demo. Jimmy Cliff has a song called “Vietnamthat feels like what Springsteen was going for with this early take. It works so much better than the song “Born in the USA.” I loved this song at the time, but can live without it now.

Sidenote: Much was made of Ronald Reagan trying to appropriate this song for his own political purposes in a speech of his from the time. Springsteen’s response was that Reagan had no idea what the song was about, otherwise he wouldn’t have quoted it in such context. Well … with a video for the song that featured Bruce looking as if he had just come off swingshift at the sewage treatment plant, and the fist-pumping arrangement he laid on this song, I’d wager most of the fans in the stadiums he played for on the ensuing tour were getting the same limited message Reagan’s speech writers did. Which was a catchy chorus that played into any number of “Burn This One” t-shirt American stereotypes, with Bruce pumping his fist triumphantly in the air in the video. The album cover was Bruce as working-man standing in front of a huge American flag. My take? Don’t expect everyone to understand your message when you’re playing around with massive images that existed long before you were famous and will be around long after you're gone.

Side 1 Track 2
Darlington County
I would have seen this song as being in competition with “Glory Days” and chose this song instead. A rollicking, fun-sounding song that’s really about two big-talking-but-broke guys from the North headed South to look for work, only to have one of them hand-cuffed to the bumper of a state trooper’s Ford. Could be the best song on the album. This is Springsteen at his best: writing unassuming, straightforward rock songs that have a deeper message woven through the lyrics.

Side 1 Track 3
Another straight-ahead rock song about a farmer sitting in the Sugarland bar while his life falls apart around him. There’s such a great sense of forward motion on the song when that rhythm guitar kicks in. Springsteen was equaling his heroes (John Fogerty, Chuck Berry) with songs like this, and it’s a strike against him not to recognize it. He put a piece of tripe like “Cover Me” on the album and left a song this good off? Shit. Totally senseless.

Side 1 Track 4
Delivery Man
Again, simple song about a truck driver having an accident on the road, save his cargo is chickens, and all that implies in terms of chasing them down afterwards. Sounds stupid? Simple? The music makes it works – that twanging sound of early rock, the echo applied to the vocals, just a great little song that works on every level. I can hear myself listening to this in a car on the interstate late at night and feeling at one with the world.

Side 1 Track 5
The Big Payback
Another stripped-down rock song about a guy who sees himself as never catching a break in life (“the big payback”). It occurs to me there wouldn’t be a lot for the rest of the band to do on these songs. There wasn’t anything for them to do on Nebraska, and limited duties on his more sedate (and apparently solo) follow-up album, Tunnel of Love. Clarence would have been shaking a lot of maracas and not playing much sax. Maybe this should have been another solo album, with the concept of a more fleshed-out, electric follow-up to Nebraska? That would have worked for me. Give Roy Bittan and Clarence a break. No horn sections either. But instead we got the headband, buff biceps and big, blowzy choruses.

Side 1 Track 6
Stand On It
This was a b-side that was better than some tracks on the album. Tight, ass-kicking rock song that gets it done. Again, much like Chuck Berry simply describing what he sees in his American life, Bruce does much the same with unassuming songs like this that work just as well.

Side 1 Track 7
Shut Out the Lights
Listeners would say … wait a minute, parts of this song appeared in “Vietnam.” Exactly. Wraps up the first side with a slow-take on the same Vietnam Vet having the same bad time, save the song’s tone now suits its message. This was a b-side – again, inexplicably. A better song than many that were on the album. The running theme of this piece!

Side 2 Track 1
Don’t Back Down
This would have been the first single – just a great little pop song that would have worked just as well as “Dancing in the Dark.” Again, when the rhythm guitar kicks in on the second verse … that sort of stuff is priceless in rock and roll. The subtle little moments that make all the difference between a good and great song. Same title as a great Beach Boys song, too.

Side 2 Track 2
Working on the Highway
Nothing magical or deep here. A simple song about a guy who works on the highway. A rock song. Calls to mind any number of early rock greats, like Buddy Holly or Bobby Fuller. That’ll be the day when I die. I fought the law and the law one. When I looked straight at her, she looked straight back. I know what he means … you do, too. This isn’t rocket science: it’s rock and roll.

Side 2 Track 3
TV Movie
Another b-side that … oh, I think you get the picture by now. Springsteen would later write a bad song called “57 Channels (and Nothin’ On)” – this was a better attempt at looking at life through the skewed lens of television. TV movies are always worse than real movies, which is a nice little dig this guy takes at himself and how he sees his place in the world. Oh, and the song rocks?

Side 2 Track 4
Pink Cadillac
The best b-side Springsteen has ever put out. Should have been on the album. The double entendre in the song makes for fantastic rock and roll, taps into the myth of car songs and twists it around perfectly. Did I mention the song rocks?

Side 2 Track 5
Johnny Bye-Bye
I didn’t have this youtube version … which is even better than the already solid b-side from that time! This is just a great song about the death of Elvis Presley. For the 10,000th time, this should not have been a b-side. Are you gathering that when I finally heard all these bootleg versions and b-sides Springsteen chose not to use for the final Born in the USA album mix, I was shocked and dismayed? To me, that period from the Nebraska album, where many of these songs took root, leading into the Born in the USA sessions, Springsteen had stripped his songwriting down to its essence, which was describing how he saw America in the most basic, easy-to-understand terms possible, yet imbuing each song with a deeper, darker meaning that made clear his underlying sense of distrust for where the country was headed at the time. He got no better than this as a songwriter, and was miles above any songwriter at the time. There may have been times before and after this time period where he wrote more impassioned and daring songs, but in terms of basic songwriting, this was his golden age. The best rock and roll, the most elemental of it, sounds so much easier than it is to create.

Side 2 Track 6
I’m on Fire
Along with “Darlington County,” a song that was pretty damn good as-is on the album. “I’m on Fire” appears to be one of those few “high lonesome sound” rockabilly tracks that made the cut with him and Landau … when the whole fucking album should have been all of these songs that took the basic concept or rock and roll as Springsteen knew it (a lonely kid growing up in the 60s and a musician taking his place in the pantheon in the 70s) and pushing it forward. “Dancing in the Dark” was a pop single made solely to provide a hit. “I’m on Fire” is Springsteen being true to himself and channeling the best of his musical heroes. This would have been the second single from the album.

Side 2 Track 7
Your Hometown
The title track of the revised album. Yes, it’s the early version of the big ballad “My Hometown" that closed the Born in the USA album. This version, simply stated, blows the doors off the big ballad Landau and Springsteen chose to go with. Much the same lyrics. Same message. It just sounds so much better without the crappy 80s synth keyboards and hammy ballad touches of the final version. This version kicks ass. In a song that’s about getting one’s ass kicked through life. This is how life is … you get your ass kicked, and you keep rolling. You don’t stop to have a big spotlight pick you out onstage and try to make other people cry with your story of woe. Fuck that. Life kicks your ass. Life kicks everyone’s ass. Your hometown is dying. You don’t feel so hot yourself some days. But what is there to do, but keep chugging along the way this song does?

That’s it. A vastly different album, one that rocked twice as hard and long as the final product, had no bombastic/cynical hits aimed at teenage kids in the 80s, and stayed true to the artist’s vision of rock and roll as he knew and practiced it. Springsteen would be slightly less well known now as a result, but he’d have an album to his name that would be known for being rock solid from one end to the other, made no apologies, asked for none, and would be remembered today as the best album he ever put out. As it stands, he’ll be reissuing a deluxe version of that album (Darkness on the Edge of Town) this holiday season, and I’ll surely be buying it as it’s stacked with the kind of outtakes noted above. This should have been the one.

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