Bruce Springsteen, Born in the U.S.A. (1984)

BornInTheUSAsinglecover

Artist: Bruce Springsteen
Title: Born in the U.S.A.
Description: single; track, Born in the U.S.A.
Label: Columbia
Release date: 1984
First heard: 1984

When, in Springsteen on Broadway, the man who wrote Born To Run and Thunder Road and Racing in the Street reveals to his invited theatre audience that in fact he did not run (“I currently live ten minutes from my home town”) and couldn’t even put his bandmate’s car’s stick-shift into first gear when they drove cross-country to do their first out-of-town gig, he grins. He is grinning at his own self-image. After a pause, he adds, “That’s how good I am.” You’re in the palm of his hand.

Against the bare-brick facade of the Walter Kerr Theatre in New York – the Big Apple a faraway emerald city that nobody Springsteen knew growing up in the boondocks of Freehold Borough in New Jersey had ever visited – he does something he also confesses that he never did before: work for five days a week.

“I’ve never seen the inside of a factory and yet it’s all I’ve written about,” he smiles. “Standing before you is a man who has become wildly and absurdly successful, writing about something of which he has had absolutely no personal experience. I made it all up.” And again: “That’s how good I am.”

I’ve been immune to the Boss for as long as I can remember. I never actively disliked him. I just didn’t feel any pressing need to have him in my record collection. A friend at college with more catholic taste turned me on to I’m On Fire, but it was mostly the “freight train running through the middle of my head” that grabbed me in my own wilderness of self-mythology. I’m pretty sure I intuited that the song Born in the U.S.A. wasn’t anything other than an anti-war anthem when I heard Max Weinberg’s artillery-fire retorts on the snare and sensed fists being clenched and air being punched, but they weren’t really my style. (I’d seen enough Vietnam War movies to know what the tough guy in denim and axle grease meant when he sang, or hollered, of being sent off to a foreign land to “kill the yellow man”.)

Over the years, Bruce and I have largely crossed paths only tenuously. I loved Streets of Philadelphia. I read the reviews of The Ghost of Tom Joad and wondered if it was time yet? The Rising, his rapid response to 9/11, ought to have been up my street and was, theoretically. But whatever it was I was listening to in 2002, it wasn’t him. (I looked it up: my Top 5 albums of 2002 were Where The Wild Things Are by Karen O and the Kids, Born Like This by Doom, My Way by Ian Brown, Goffam by Jim Bob and Forget The Night Ahead by The Twilight Sad. So.)

Then I saw him own Glastonbury in 2009, a pit-stop on his year-round Working on a Dream Tour. The Pyramid Stage was headlined for old folks: Neil Young on the Friday, Bruce on the Saturday and token 40-year-olds Blur on the Sunday. He played 25 songs that warm June night, five of which I knew well enough to mouth the chorus to (plus two of the covers), but a more important thing happened during that magic hour: I got him. Seeing an artist of world renown along with thousands of other people who haven’t necessarily paid to see him or her (the headliners were announced after the tickets had sold) is a great place to do so. Bruce knew he had to work hard for his money. Many of the audience couldn’t sing along and didn’t cheer the first note of every tune. The amazing thing was that I felt I knew the songs I didn’t know. That’s how good he is.

He did Born to Run and The River and Glory Days and Dancing in the Dark, so I wasn’t exactly locked out of the love-in, but he omitted Born in the U.S.A., which I found myself yearning for in the dark and wondering if it might close the show. Here was a pasture where his hymn to the fallen and his reclamation of the flag would not be misinterpreted, and what would those drums sound like?

In its from-the-womb guise for the parent album, recorded at the Power Station in New York in April 1982, produced by Jon Landau, Chuck Plotkin, Bruce and Steve Van Zandt, it opens proceedings at such a high, keening pitch of ambition, as raw as a jug of eggs and pushing against the ceiling from the first blah of Roy Bittan’s synth riff and the inaugural crack of Weinberg’s tree-trunk stick on snare, surely it will have nowhere to go for the remaining four and a bit minutes? It’s peaked too early. Bruce is shouting at the top of his voice from the first stanza:

Born down in a dead man town
The first kick I took was when I hit the ground
You end up like a dog that’s been beat too much
Till you spend half your life just covering up

Born in the U.S.A.
I was born in the U.S.A.
I was born in the U.S.A.
Born in the U.S.A.

If not a lucky town (although nowhere in particular packs its own punch and dead men do wear plaid), Springsteen was born in a lucky country, a lucky panorama, a lucky landscape. He’s a lucky songwriter and storyteller to have been by accident of gene born in the United States of America and with an innate understanding of what that means. (His father, he tells us on Broadway, still regarded a nursed “morning beer” as “the breakfast of champions,” before passing on in 1998, aged 74. One pictures a Schlitz?)

It takes a few hours to drive from one coast the United Kingdom of Whatever to the other, and aside from towns turning into hills then hills back into towns, it’s little wonder our inspiration tends towards introspection, nostalgia and terms and conditions. It is glorious that our island would produce Half Man Half Biscuit and Dusty Springfield, William Shakespeare and EL James, Alfred Hitchcock and Banksy, but you still ultimately have to make your own entertainment here. When Bruce broke out of his youth and discovered what lay beyond the walls of New Jersey (almost literally – he speaks in his memoir of being “walled in by God” ie. the Catholic school, the church), he was filled to the brim with ideas and wasted not one of them as they were road-tested into legend.

At around the four-minute mark of the definitive recording, a strange, immutable thing happens: Weinberg seems to submit to the gods of drumming and allows his hands and sticks to be puppeteered by some higher force, as if this song, its intent, its power and its glory are circuited into a higher realm. This songs begins at a sociopolitical and actual pitch that lesser men after the same affect might build up to. Result: it’s impossible to disentangle the actually iconic pose of Bruce – with his guitar arm in the air, that ripped knee-slit in his work trousers and the stars and stripes rendered in duct-tape strips behind him – from the art it promises. Same goes for the concert promo clip, assembled and shot through with footage of working men coming and going to work by John Sayles, although the black headband hasn’t worn as well.

Born in the U.S.A. was just one among seven top 10 hits mercenarily taken from the album, which changed the Springsteen optics for life; the new Boss was not the same as the old Boss. He was Michael Jackson now. Madonna. Aretha. Elvis. Bono. Prince. Bowie. Sinatra. Crosby. Doris Day. When I interviewed the impressively self-aware Jon Bon Jovi for the NME in 1989, he knew that Michael Jackson, Madonna and U2 were bigger than he was, and accepted it with grace. He didn’t mention Bruce, who came from the same neck of the woods. I suspect of the two New Jerseyites, Bruce spent less time doing the Forbes arithmetic, although both he and Jon had written songs that were bigger than they were.

Back at the boards of Walter Kerr a decade after my Glastronautical epiphany, in much more intimate surroundings with not a single casual bystander in the house, and Springsteen almost apologises for the “long and noisy prayer” he’s been reciting. He explains, “I wanted to rock your very soul. I hope I’ve been a good travelling companion.”

He has, not least on his best song, and without moving more than a few feet. That’s how good he is.

Sly & The Family Stone, Family Affair (1971)

Sly-family-affair

Artist: Sly & The Family Stone
Title: Family Affair
Description: single; album track, There’s A Riot Goin’ On
Label: Epic
Release date: 1971
First heard: circa 1970s

How are you with hand-me-downs? Have you spent any considerable time in secondhand clothes? Were you an Oxfam hipster before the term “vintage” legitimised the wearing of a dead man’s shoes? Have you driven a used car that smelt of a sales rep’s nicotine habit? Would you eat off a dining companion’s plate? Did your chewing gum lose its flavour on the bedpost overnight? If your answer to any of these is yes, then you’re probably a fan of There’s A Riot Goin’ On, one of the down-and-dirtiest LPs ever made and all the more legendary and essential for that. Even the flag on the front is grubby.

The sixties are dead. It’s on America’s tortured brow that Mickey Mouse has grow up a cow. Sylvester Stone, the man who fused psychedelic rock to funk and soul, is behaving erratically. He’s in with the Black Panthers and gangsters. He’s been missing gigs. It’s two years since the Family Stone’s last hit, Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin). The violin case he carries with him? Full of coke and PCP, by all accounts. But Sly has a plan. He’s holed up, like a horny Brian Wilson, at The Plant in Sausolito, or at his home studio in Bel Air, and he’s recording like crazy while his pet monkey tries to make sweet love to his pet dog, by all accounts. He’s making his own Exile On Main Street, whether consciously, unconsciously or otherwise.

Though hailed, and rightly so, as a pop classic, There’s A Riot Goin’ On (its title an answer to the question posed by Marvin Gaye: What’s Going On?) is pure filth. The Funk courses through its every capillary. The sound is muddied and muffled, like there’s fluff permanently on the needle. And yet it sings! It zings! it brings! It soars! It punches through the fog of punished magnetic tape! For an ideas-clogged meisterwerk, it even concealed two three-minute chart hits to soothe the record company’s savage breast – not to mention shipping half a million in its first year of release after summiting Billboard in its own, flag-draped right. The most decisive of the pair was Family Affair, tucked away on side one, track four. (The featherlight follow-up Runnin’ Away, a blueprint for all of De La Soul, is side two, track five.)

Amid all the gung-ho experimentation, jazz freewheeling, freakouts and yodeling, Family Affair feels as honed and polished as a diamond. There’s nothing here to frighten the horses: a clicky beatbox beat, a steady rubber-band bass, some Rhodes swirls from Billy Preston, Rose Stone’s repeated, magic-hour refrain (“It’s a family affair/It’s a family affa-ai-ai-air“), overlaid by Sly’s oak-smoked tones, riffing. The cumulative effect is akin to actual black magic; though hooky, singsong and populist in construct, it’s suffused in black history and as liable to crack as Sly’s voice. What went into the making of this record is right there in the grooves: the insomnia, the introspection, the self-medication, the peek over the lip of insanity, the whole superfly soap opera with that revolving door for fragrant female auditionees whose tryouts were committed to tape and then recorded over by the next candidate, by all accounts. This is why the grooves overfloweth.

Out of all the drug-taking, love-making and forsaking arises a social conscience every bit as vivid as the one that beats beneath Bobby Womack’s Across 110th Street or Marvin’s Inner City Blues, and achieved in fewer words.

One child grows up to be
Somebody that just loves to learn
And another child grows up to be
Somebody you’d just love to burn

Mom loves the both of them
You see it’s in the blood
Both kids are good to Mom
“Blood’s thicker than the mud”

Quite the chronicler. For a man whose vision must have been permanently clouded by what the actor Steven Toast would later rhyme with Children In Need, Sly’s perception was keen. And was there ever a more hopeful vignette than this?

Newlywed a year ago
But you’re still checking each other out, yeeeeeeaaaaaahhh!

For a song whose instrumentation actually sounds as if it’s in the process of tripping over right the way through, Family Affair is in full control of its faculties. It might not pass a breathalyser, but you’d want it at your birthday party. Head in the clouds, brain in its pants, a fist raised to black power and the other hand up an available skirt – this is sex, politics, social change and happy hour in one hit. Nobody wants to blow. Nobody wants to be left out.