Written by Wilson Towne
Unlike some of my peers, I never really listened to Springsteen before taking Craig Werner's class at UW Madison -- "Bruce Springsteen's America." My parents were fans of the Boss, but he and the E-Street crew took a back seat to David Bowie, U2, The Clash, and R.E.M.
Honestly, I never could gauge the meaning and depth of issues that Springsteen wailed about. Like many Americans, I was caught up in the misinterpretations around "Born in the U.S.A.," thinking it was simply an expression of unabashed American pride. Basing my view of Springsteen off of the patriotic fantasy that many Americans had of "Born," I (wrongly) believed that Bruce Springsteen was a jingoistic tool.
It wasn't until the 2004 election, when musicians were shooting cease and desists like machine gun bullets, that my parents addressed my misinterpretation and told me to read past the lyrics that everyone associates with the song. And read I did.
Got in a little hometown jam
So they put a rifle in my hand
Sent me off to a foreign land
To go and kill the yellow man
Powerful stuff. It's a wonder that it took Glenn Beck this long to call the song "anti-American," especially considering it fooled our former President Ronald Reagan in 1984. If it wasn't for the political hype surrounding the socially conscious Wrecking Ball, Springsteen might have gone right on misleading the pundits and politicians. Maybe Beck was confusing Bruce Springsteen and his plain-talking wails for Ted Nugent, another musician from the working-class, whose un-apologetic, conservative views make him a frequent quest of Glenn Beck's and Fox News.
Although at some times Bruce may dress and sound like Ted, don't make the mistake of thinking Springsteen shares his ultra-American views. Even the cover of Born in the U.S.A., which shows Springsteen facing an American flag, is done in a reflective, almost introspective, manner. Instead of implicitly sanctioning the actions of the United States by posing with the flag, Springsteen is entering into a dialogue with the American public, asking them about Vietnam, "Is this what you want our country to be associated with? Is this really the America we live in? Can we do better?"
If Springsteen should be associated with any musician it should be Woody Guthrie. Guthrie, no stranger to fighting oppression, slapped the slogan "This Machine Kills Fascists" onto his guitar. Springsteen has some deep similarities to Guthrie who played licks from his guitar and lived the life that John Steinbeck wrote about in The Grapes of Wrath, which influenced Springsteen was so heavily that he made an album titled after Steinbeck's hero, The Ghost of Tom Joad.
Springsteen sings about working class struggles in the same manner as Guthrie, and to me the only difference is electricity. Just as Guthrie struggled with unionization and labor rights during the dust bowl, so does Springsteen in a manner more contemporary to the cold war, and post Vietnam America. Maybe if Ronald Reagan, and Glenn Beck had the chance to hear the acoustic, "Born in the U.S.A.," which was recorded for but not included on Springsteen's Nebraska, they would've understood the haunting lyrics so similar to Guthrie's that decry the treatment of veterans.
So far my re-introduction with Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street band, which takes place at a time of political and economic battle in Wisconsin, has focused on the labor and class struggles his characters face. And most importantly, I pay attention to the goddamn lyrics.
Wilson Towne is a freshman at the University of Wisconsin-Madison studying History and Philosophy. He declares himself "a newcomer to Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band," but is eagerly awaiting Steve Van Zandt's return to Lillehammer.