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Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Born in the U.S.A.’ Turns 35

Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” marks its 35th anniversary this June. The American rock icon’s seventh studio album was met with massive commercial success upon release, featuring seven top-ten singles; it was certified as a three-times platinum record within a year of its release, and has sold over 30 million copies just since 2012.

Working with remnant recordings from sessions off of his then-previous record release, “Nebraska,” Springsteen reunited with the E-Street Band and producer Jon Landau to assemble his most pop-infused album since “Born to Run.”

In “Born in the U.S.A.,” Springsteen pooled a flourishing gamut of themes and ideas explored in previous records: The poignant depths of the human spirit on the verge of collapse from “Nebraska” (1982); the hardship of lost love and heartbreak from “The River” (1980); and the eminence of one’s roots and upbringing in “Born to Run” (1975).

In honor of the album’s anniversary, here’s a deeper dive into a few key songs that, 35 years later, have stood the test of time, and carry themes as relevant today as they were in 1984.

Born in the U.S.A.

The eponymous opening track, “Born in the U.S.A.” sets the tone for the album, kicking off as the most anthemic rocker in Springsteen’s discography since “Born to Run.” Set against a backdrop of red, white, and blue, it’s easy to see why the album’s title track is oft misinterpreted as either a paean to patriotism and America or as an anti-war harangue.

In fact, it’s neither of the two. If anything, it leans closer to the upbeat celebration of Americana than its browbeating. In standard Springsteen style, the song is a story, telling the tale of a wounded combatant who, at no choosing of his own, was sent off to fight in Vietnam and then returns home to find his town left hung out to dry.

Come back home to the refinery

Hiring man said “son if it was up to me”

Went down to see my V.A. man

He said “son, don’t you understand”

There’s a widespread consensus now that the Vietnam War was largely a tragic boondoggle. It isn’t a controversial position. And Springsteen, in his lyrics, doesn’t focus on the vagaries of Vietnam; he instead lends his voice to the neglected and abandoned veterans of the conflict.

No Surrender

Springsteen’s affection for the downtrodden veterans of Vietnam has its reprise on the opening track of the record’s B-Side (the flip-side of the record), “No Surrender.” The track ties the album back to its namesake theme.

Well, we made a promise we swore we’d always remember

No retreat, baby, no surrender

Like soldiers in the winter’s night

With a vow to defend

No retreat, baby, no surrender

The song “No Surrender” is about camaraderie and staying true to oneself in the face of adversity. Springsteen communicates this idea soulfully:

Now on the street tonight the lights grow dim

The walls of my room are closing in

There’s a war outside still raging

You say it ain’t ours anymore to win

I want to sleep beneath

Peaceful skies in my lover’s bed

With a wide open country in my eyes

And these romantic dreams in my head

Once we made a promise we swore we’d always remember

No retreat, baby, no surrender

Blood brothers in a stormy night

With a vow to defend

No retreat, baby, no surrender

Life is unpredictable. But even in the thick of battle, amid raging war when all one wants to do is go to sleep and dream of a more idyllic era, one has to stay true to himself and to those around him. No retreat, baby, no surrender.

Downbound Train

Toward the end of the album’s A-Side is one of Springsteen’s darkest and most melancholy tunes: “Downbound Train.” A drumbeat to deprivation and hardship, the song’s lyrics paint a bleak picture of economic anxiety.

I had a job, I had a girl

I had something going, mister, in this world

I got laid off down at the lumber yard

Our love went bad, times got hard

Now I work down at the car wash

Where all it ever does is rain

Don’t you feel like you’re a rider on a downbound train

The song follows a middle-class worker who loses his job and watches his life spiral down into penury — on-board, as Springsteen dubbed it, a downbound train.

Bobby Jean

Bruce Springsteen’s retrospective on life fills the grooves of the album’s B-side. With “Bobby Jean,” Springsteen tackles heartbreak and loss of friendship. The song’s malleable lyrics lend themselves to a slew of settings. Recovering from the slums of a breakup with your high school sweetheart? The song’s first verse channels this cliché.

Well, I came to your house the other day

Your mother said you went away

She said there was nothing that I could have done

There was nothing nobody could say

Me and you, we’ve known each other ever since we were sixteen

I wished I could have known

I wished I could have called you

Just to say goodbye, Bobby Jean

Growing up, if you had a childhood friend you felt was the only one who truly understood you and shared your interests, then the grief of losing such a friend is immeasurable. Springsteen captures that sorrow seamlessly in the latter verses.

Now, you hung with me when all the others

Turned away, turned up their nose

We liked the same music, we liked the same bands

Now, we went walking in the rain,

Talking about the pain that from the world we hid

Now there ain’t nobody, nowhere, nohow

Gonna ever understand me the way you did

Maybe you’ll be out there on that road somewhere

In some bus or train traveling along

In some motel room there’ll be a radio playing

And you’ll hear me sing this song

Well, if you do, you’ll know I’m thinking of you

And all the miles in between

And I’m just calling you one last time

Not to change your mind, but just to say I miss you, baby

Good luck, goodbye, Bobby Jean

Glory Days

Of the next song, “Glory Days,” Springsteen said, “The first verse actually happened. The second verse mostly happened, and the third verse, of course, is happening now.” Springsteen’s lyrics transport the listener back to his halcyon high school days. Most importantly, the lyrics serve as a reminder that nostalgia is a powerful drug that blunts the painful realities of the present.

Well there’s a girl that lives up the block

Back in school she could turn all the boy’s heads

Sometimes on a Friday I’ll stop by

And have a few drinks after she put her kids to bed

Her and her husband Bobby well they split up

I guess it’s two years gone by now

We just sit around talking about the old times

She says when she feels like crying

She starts laughing thinking bout

Glory days, well they’ll pass you by

Glory days, in the wink of a young girl’s eye

Glory days, glory days

My Hometown

The album’s coda is among Springsteen’s finest compositions: A wistful ballad you can listen to with your eyes closed, as the transcendent lyrics transport the listener to his childhood town. Springsteen masterfully alludes to the treasured childhood memory of most: The first time being hoisted behind a seemingly giant steering wheel of a car.

I was eight years old and running with a dime in my hand

Into the bus stop to pick up a paper for my old man

I’d sit on his lap in that big old Buick

And steer as we drove through town

He’d tousle my hair and say “Son, take a good look around

This is your hometown.

In “My Hometown,” Springsteen circles back to his roots which he fervently fought to flee in “Born to Run.” “This town rips the bones from your back; it’s a death trap, a suicide rap. We gotta get out while we’re young; cause tramps like us, baby we were born to run.” But he doesn’t stop there. In the same song, Springsteen tackles racial tensions and conflict, before returning to another of the album’s key themes: Economic anxiety.

In ’65 tension was running high at my high school

There was a lot of fights ‘tween the black and white

There was nothing you could do

Two cars at a light on a Saturday night

In the back seat there was a gun

Words were passed, then a shotgun blast

Troubled times had come to my hometown

To my hometown

Now Main Street’s whitewashed windows and vacant stores

Seems like there ain’t nobody wants to come down here no more

They’re closing down the textile mill across the railroad tracks

Foreman says “These jobs are going, boys

And they ain’t coming back

To your hometown.”

With “Born in the U.S.A.,” Bruce Springsteen crafted a cohesive, unified pop-rock album. Though not his best album (that spot is forever reserved for the venerable “Born to Run”), “Born in the U.S.A.” made “The Boss” a worldwide superstar, sending Springsteen to the summit of his commercial success. Though no other album of his would ever reach such stardom, Springsteen can always look back to 1984, smiling, and thinking ‘bout glory days.

Follow Harry Khachatrian on Twitter.

Writer’s note:

Here is the writer’s personal comprehensive ranking of the top 10 Bruce Springsteen studio albums:

1. Born to Run (1975)

2. Darkness on the Edge of Town (1978)

3. The Wild the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle (1973)

4. Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. (1973)

5. Nebraska (1982)

6. The River (1980)

7. Born in the USA (1984)

8. The Rising (2002)

9. Tunnel of Love (1987)

10. The Ghost of Tom Joad (1995)

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