Geoffrey Himes approaches Born in the U.S.A. as an album compiled from the many tracks recorded during the period 1981-4, describing how the selection came together but also examining the songs that ended up elsewhere, especially those on Nebraska. The book opens with Springsteen at home in Colt’s Neck trying to write about a man returning from Vietnam, and broadens this to bring in his background, the draft and Springsteen’s approach to the subject through research. Beginning here in the book, also, is the shift manifested in songs like ‘Born in the U.S.A.’ and ‘My Hometown’ towards sticking around (or coming back) and dealing with the reality of the town, not hitting the road for the unspecific promise of something better - a shift Himes seems to appreciate.
The development of Springsteen’s songwriting is handled nicely, first in a discussion of influences and a move from wordy Dylan-influenced lyrics to a shorter, sharper and more populist style, which is very present on Born in the U.S.A. Intertextuality is kind of a running theme, but it’s the focus of an excellent later chapter on Springsteen’s relationship to reading - no interest in anything at school, kicked out of college, and yet unsatisfied with his life following the same path as his father’s, and so he became a reader in pursuit of information. (Film comes in here too, notably John Ford as well as John Huston’s Wise Blood.) Flannery O’Connor was not only an influence, but appears in short story titles borrowed for songs, plain language and literary devices. Langston Hughes pops up too. Also, his ability to write personal songs that aren’t autobiographical and yet have an abundance of earnest credibility, something that bears repeating even though it’s evident in the songs.
The literary lyrics apparently struck African-American audiences as corny, and there’s a segue into discussing how this frustrated Springsteen, and how he began letting sex and syncopation into the songs. In addition to writing for rhythm and blues singer Gary U.S. Bonds, he’s also writing a song for Donna Summer during this period, and there’s a nice quote about how “[Summer] could really sing, and I disliked the veiled racism of the anti-disco movement”. One of my favourite songs on the album, ‘Cover Me’, was written for Summer initially before he was persuaded to keep it, and in it there’s an audible departure, for sure.
The prose is persuasive, authoritative and staying away from personal narrative. Himes has evidently combed through mountains of interviews with Springsteen and the band, and quotes are interspersed to support arguments and provide first-person perspective. It’s very accomplished as a style, and so it’s jarring to run across one section that’s arrestingly strange in the specificity of its conjecture:
‘I’m on Fire’ marked new territory for Springsteen; never had he dealt so directly with sex. He had often written about romantic relationships, but those songs often seemed variations on his songs about male/male friendship; they were more about honesty and loyalty, cars and records, than they were about erections and foreplay. But here, when the singer asks if the woman’s other boyfriend “can do to you the things I do,” he’s clearly talking about clitoral stimulation, not the latest dance step. Springsteen had obviously been listening to Prince a lot, and black pop would exert an increasing influence on his songwriting in this 1982-84 period.
So. I don’t think there’s anything markedly different between the level of innuendo and intention here (recorded 1982) and in ‘Prove It All Night’ (1977) - it’s not about dancing either - and “clearly talking about clitoral stimulation” seems like an odd stretch. The tone of the song is much more about sex than machismo, especially the drawn-out spaces between lines, but it’s not a total departure. (There’s good news for fans of the infantilisation in ‘Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)’, mind.)
One argument in the book that led me to think differently about Springsteen’s work is the framing of ‘Glory Days’ as comic and that Born in the U.S.A. lets in both serious and comic songs, unlike the sober, earnest Nebraska. I’d never read ‘Glory Days’ as poking fun at its subjects - people who peak in high school and spend their lives looking back - but it is, and quoting Springsteen saying that it “took the key line from ‘Rosalita’, “someday we’ll look back on this and it will all seem funny” and turned it into a whole song”, it’s doing this in the same world the serious songs occupy.
Himes makes a case for Born in the U.S.A. being the best album Springsteen made, and one of the book’s delights is the appendix of brief album reviews in which the others are considered on their merits. (It’s an articulate, heartfelt argument that I appreciate even though I don’t agree and remain with Nebraska and Darkness of the Edge of Town, which he describes fairly as being short on variety. Born in the U.S.A. is the pre-90s Springsteen album I listen to least, though, and I’ve considerably more time for it now.)
The final chapter is threaded through a Springsteen concert, taking in the question of patriotism, conservative columnist George Will and Ronald Reagan’s misreading and misappropriation of the title track. Aside from Nebraska (recorded without the band), Springsteen had been touring like crazy for years and so it seems balanced to have the live act as a coda to a discussion of the albums. I had been watching tor a mention of the album art - I didn’t expect the book to explore it, but I doubt I’m the only one for whom the cover clarified things in the morass of teenage sexual identity - and Himes gets to it here in relation to the gigantic flag and ‘subversive’ image, brief and to the point.
There’s two flaws in the book for me. One is the structure, with the chapters taking thematic variations but without a clear stated remit or even a subheading where the focus is on a given song, and blurring into déjà vu as a result. The second is related, and it’s the frequent paragraphs of a dozen or more song names, charting which recordings from which sessions were going on which album with a meticulousness that would have merited an appendix instead of being impossible to parse. In spite of these issues, it’s a thorough, considered look at the album and this point in Springsteen’s career, and it’s particularly worth reading if you’re a Springsteen fan - no matter which kind of Springsteen fan.