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Bruce Springsteen: America and the Dream (Part One)

Updated on January 5, 2013

Author's Note: When I composed this, the essay came out to nearly 3100 words. I have decided to publish this in 2 parts. The Second part is available on the link below.

“We were driving across the desert, driving to Nevada, …[We] came across this house on the side of the road this Indian had built…… [there was] a sign that said ‘this is the land of peace, love, justice and no mercy’

Bruce Springsteen, spoken song introduction

Passaic, NJ September 19, 1978


To many casual music fans, Bruce Springsteen , is known by four or five of his biggest songs. He is a grubby, denim clad, raspy voiced rocker who is quite entertaining but not much more. To conservative pundits, he is just another left wing entertainer. To some liberal elites he is their troubador. He is a musician whose message echos their agenda for this country.

While Bruce Springsteen is all of these, he is also a patriot. From his first album in 1972, Greetings From Asbury Park, NJ, his music has been filled with a sense of love for America, it’s people, and their struggles to obtain and then hold on to the elusive “American Dream” His music is infused with what his biographer, Dave Marsh, has termed a “sense of place” . From the Jersey Shore, to the Southwestern Deserts, the steel mills of Youngstown, Ohio and the streets of Philidelphia, the American land is set as the backdrop for the dramas of ordinary people fighting for the promise of America.

The Cover of the "Born to Run" album 1975 Cover taken by Eric Meola Courtesy of Columbia Records
The Cover of the "Born to Run" album 1975 Cover taken by Eric Meola Courtesy of Columbia Records | Source
The Cover of "Darkness on the Edge of Town" 1978 Cover photo by Frank Stefanko Courtesy of Columbia Records
The Cover of "Darkness on the Edge of Town" 1978 Cover photo by Frank Stefanko Courtesy of Columbia Records | Source

Bruce’s politics are undoubtedly liberal and many left wing pundits over the years have concentrated on the negative in his work. Taken together the body of his work is hopeful and encouraging. He is not (and never was) an America basher and he certainly is not a flag waving, “my country right or wrong” jingoist. Many of his songs just present the facts and he lets the listener make their own opinion of the situation. Much of his work involves people who are badly shaken but still manage to maintain a reason to believe.

A perfect example is one of his most popular, yet misunderstood songs. In the full band version, the chorus of “Born in the USA” makes the song sound like a jingoistic anthem. But it is really the story of a very disillusioned, and beaten down Vietnam veteran who has returned to the USA only to find that the country has turned their back on him, his service and his sacrifice. But by the end of the song, Bruce’s vocals, which were pure rage earlier in the song, have softened. While the veteran is still angry, deeply disappointed and hurt, there is still a glimmer of hope.

Born to Run

Although by 1975, Springsteen had released two good albums, Born to Run established Bruce as a bona fide American rock and roll artist. It introduced the listener to American icons that would be a staple of his music for years to come, girls, fast American muscle cars, and the open highway. Born to Run was naïve and glorious. With it’s production heavily inspired by Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound” it was, as rock critic Greil Marcus called it, “a ‘57 Chevy running on melted down Crystal’s records”

The album cycles through a day. It goes from the early morning invitation to freedom of “Thunder Road” through the late afternoon of “Backstreets” (a great, poetic, melodramatic tale of love and betrayal), through the early evening heat of the title tune and then onto nighttime and “Jungleland” (and the failure to escape).

The title tune, “Born to Run” is clearly one of the best rock songs ever recorded. Nearly every song Bruce has written in the 38 years since can be traced back to this work in some fashion. It is a song of the quest for freedom, love and the “runaway American Dream”:

Someday girl, I don’t know when

We’ll get to that place where we really want to go

And we’ll walk in the sun

But ‘til then tramps like us

Baby, we were Born to Run

######

Darkness on the Edge of Town

Due to management problems, Springsteen did not release another album for three years. When he released his next album in 1978. He was older and wiser. He had come to realize that a person could not simply run away to achieve his dreams and, as he later put it “I realized that home wasn‘t out there, it was someplace inside of me“.

Darkness on the Edge of Town was Bruce’s fourth album and, in my opinion his masterpiece. The production on this album is much more raw and leaner than that of Born to Run. It is, as Bruce himself claimed, his first “adult” album. The “characters” on this album are, as Springsteen put it “weathered, older but not beaten“.

“Badlands”, a vicous rocker kicks off the album. In many ways it represents the tone, feel and meaning of all of Bruce’s music. A concert mainstay, this anthemic, fist pumping tune has been played at nearly every E Street Band show since it was released in 1978.

Badlands, you gotta live em everyday

Let the broken heart stand as the price you gotta pay

We’ll keep pushin’ til it’s understood

And these Badlands start treating us good

“Racing in the Street” is a ballad that tells the story of a street racer and the cost of your dreams to you and to other people. It is chock full of American icons, Muscle cars, girls, highways (“I got a ‘69 Chevy with a 396“).His girl does not share his dreams and is miserable. He promises to “ride to the sea and wash these sins off our hand” It ends with a mesmerizing instrumental coda led by Roy Bittan’s piano. The coda fades out on the record, but performed live it increases to a series of climaxes. It is the E Street Band at it’s best.

In his book Songs, Bruce spoke of the characters on Darkness…as being “unsure of their fate, but dug in and committed”. Songs like “Prove it All Night”, “Something in the Night” and the title song contribute to the feel of the album. But nothing exemplifys the album’s tone more than “The Promised Land”

“The Promised Land” is a spare, anthemic rocker and like “Badlands” which opens the album, it is a concert favorite. It opens with a harmonica intro which gives way to ringing guitars and crashing drums. Bruce sings it like a man possessed and determined to make it despite the roadblocks that are in his way. He declares “Mister, I ain’t a boy no I’m a man and I believe in the promised land” with a religious fervor. But it is the last verse that exemplifies guts, perseverance and determination:

There’s a dark cloud rising from the desert floor

I got my bags packed and I’m heading straight into the storm

Gonna be a twister to blow everything down

That ain’t got the faith to stand it’s ground

Blow away the dreams that tear you apart

Blow away the dreams that break your heart

Blow away the lies that leave you nothin’ but lost and broken hearted

When rock great Pete Townshend heard Darkness… he said the album wasn’t about fun, it was about “fucking triumph”. That’s a fact that can’t be debated!


TO BE CONTINUED



CORRECTION


The photo on the cover of The Promise was taken by Eric Meola, not Frank Stefanko as previously credited. The name of the photo is "Rattlesnake Speedway". Stefanko took the photo on the cover of the Darkness on the Edge of Town album. Meola also took the photo on the cover of Born to Run.

This mistake was totally the author's fault and I apologize for any incovenience or distress this may have caused. 7/10/2012

The Cover of "The Promise" an album of "Darkness on the Edge of Town" outtakes. Released 2010. Great Photo by Eric Meola showing Bruce on a desert road, with  a classic American car and growing storm clouds.courtesy of Columbia Record
The Cover of "The Promise" an album of "Darkness on the Edge of Town" outtakes. Released 2010. Great Photo by Eric Meola showing Bruce on a desert road, with a classic American car and growing storm clouds.courtesy of Columbia Record | Source

Born to Run Live 1975

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    • billd01603 profile image
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      billd01603 4 years ago from Worcester

      everyone has their own opinion

    • billd01603 profile image
      Author

      billd01603 5 years ago from Worcester

      Thanks Jools. I'm glad you really enjoyed the Hub. Thanks for commenting, sharing and pinning

    • Jools99 profile image

      Jools99 5 years ago from North-East UK

      Billdo1603, this is epic! I just loved it. I am off to read part 2 now. I am only just getting into Springsteen now so this is well timed for me. Voted up, shared and pinned.

    • billd01603 profile image
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      billd01603 5 years ago from Worcester

      Thanks for reading Cecelia

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      Cecelia 5 years ago

      I haven't listened to Bruce for a while. I used to love his music. Reading this makes me want to listen to him again.

    • billd01603 profile image
      Author

      billd01603 5 years ago from Worcester

      Hi Frank, Sorry about this mistake. I have made the proper changes and put a correction in the article.

    • profile image

      Frank Stefanko 5 years ago

      The photo of Springsteen on the dirt road, with storm clouds in background was taken by Eric Meola.

    • billd01603 profile image
      Author

      billd01603 5 years ago from Worcester

      Hey nakmeister, Thanks for reading! I hope you get something new out of the music. I plan on publishing part 2 sometime this week. I'll let you know when I do

    • nakmeister profile image

      nakmeister 5 years ago from Lancaster, UK

      Really interesting hub, I'm only familiar with Springsteen's top few hits. This is an interesting background to him and his albums, will go and listen to some of his music now.

      Be sure to post a comment on here when part 2 is written, then I'll go read that too.

    • billd01603 profile image
      Author

      billd01603 5 years ago from Worcester

      Hey Thanks for reading Lynn. His music has been the soundtrack of my life since I first heard him in 1978. I too prefer the live versions of his music to the studio versions. This is just the first in a few on this subject that I plan to write over the next few months.

    • profile image

      Lynn S. Murphy 5 years ago

      He is my absolute favorite. He has a way with words and I love the drama of the vocals and music. I have seen him in concert and he gives his all, and he was my kids first concert experience. (I find I love his live versions better than the originals because he grew into the music and storytelling i.e. Jungleland and Lost in the Flood). He has generational fans without reinventing himself. Can't wait for the next hub.