There aren’t many exact dates in my life where I can tell you where I was. Hell, I’m not sure where I was last Tuesday, let alone a random day in the 80s. When I was a kid I can remember my mom telling me she could remember where she was the day John Kennedy was shot… for the record, she was pregnant with me, ironing in her living room and watching ‘Days Of Our Lives’ when the network broke in to announce the sad news. I don’t have any of those momentous geopolitical days in my life where I remember where I was… I do vaguely remember I got up late and came downstairs to find that the Challenger had exploded…but I don’t remember much other than that. All that said, I know exactly where I was on June 4th, 1984.
It was summer time and I was home on break from college. In the summer, us folks who grew up in “olden times” had to find a summer job. I did a lot of different jobs, from temp work to bus boy to light construction. The summer of ’84 was a happier summer for me than the summer of ’83. In ’83 I’d gone through an embarrassing breakup and spent the summer as a man of leisure or more appropriately a man about town…the ladies of Kansas City were helping me grieve, with my eternal gratitude. By ’84 I was well past all that heartbreak and was desperately in need of money to fuel my beer and vinyl habits. My oldest and dearest friend Doug had a line on work… his father owned a small company that installed scoreboards and more importantly, built tennis courts. I was hired to help on the tennis court construction. Utterly difficult, filthy work in the hot sun, but it was an honest day’s work, unlike what I do now, and at the end of the day you didn’t really worry about the job, again unlike what I do now… Like the Cure, I submitted my unanswered prayers for rain every day… Every night after work I had to soak in hot tub to get all the grainy, hardened tennis court surface to slowly melt from the hair on my legs… it was that or pull out all of the hair on my leg with the tennis court goop. I’m a guy so I found that too painful… hats off to you ladies who pluck, shave and otherwise eradicate hair… but I digress. I was, in all senses of the word, a working stiff.
But on Monday, June 4th in 1984, and I don’t recall why, we weren’t out on a job. For some reason our foreman, I’ll call him Norman, had us working in the warehouse yard. We were moving large 55 gallon barrels of sludge around so they looked to be in some semblance of order. For some reason Norman put me in the giant one-ton truck and had me go pick up sand at a local quarry. I was instructed to hurry back and then he’d let me go to lunch. I can remember being in the cab of the one-ton, driving down Pflumm, headed back to the warehouse when the DJ on our local radio station, KY102 came on and said, “We just got the new Springsteen album and we’re going to put it on now…” This was huge to me… I’d been anticipating this record for weeks, since the single “Dancing In The Dark” had come out… I knew somewhere in Wichita, my college roomie Drew was equally anticipating this moment. When the first song “Born In The USA” came over the tinny speakers in that truck I got goose bumps and tears welled up in my eyes. The anguished cries of a Vietnam vet, who never turned his back on his country, although it seemed his country had turned its back on him, was one of those, music-hits-my-lower-brain-stem moments that bring me back to the turntable. After work, as filthy as I was, I drove straight to the nearest record store and bought the album. It was a big day.
The album by the same name, Born In The U.S.A was Springsteen’s biggest selling album. It’s the record where everything changed. The album spun off at least 7 singles, and sold a kajillion copies. This was where those of us who were in the relatively small (especially in Kansas) clique of people who liked Springsteen had to share him with the rest of the world. This album was Springsteen’s manager Jon Landau’s greatest dream. Making Springsteen a name that was uttered along with Michael Jackson, Prince and Madonna. Me, I liked Springsteen already, this was just gravy. Springsteen managed to merge a modern sound, complete with synths, into his core sound seamlessly, a thing a lot of 70s acts had struggled with. Many believe that’s why the album was as popular as it was. Naturally I have a different theory. To understand why this album was so popular, you have to step back and look at Springsteen’s career up to that point.
When Springsteen released Born To Run he was christened the new Dylan, the savior or the “future of rock and roll.” He was on the cover of both ‘Time’ and ‘Newsweek’ the same week. The hype was almost too much. But then he ended up in a legal battle with his manager Mike Appel that drug on and on. He toured incessantly through 1976 and 1977 on tours dubbed “The Chicken Scratch Tour” and “The Paying the Rent Tour.” One has to wonder why there wasn’t a “Paying the Legal Fees” tour but I wasn’t there to consult with. Finally Springsteen made what was considered a come back in 1978 with Darkness On The Edge of Town an album that had harnessed his anger and frustration about his legal battles with the energy and feel of punk rock to great success. It had very little to do sonically with Born To Run, but it succeeded.
In order to publicize his return in 78, Springsteen allowed several radio stations in LA, NY, San Fran, and elsewhere to broadcast his concerts over the radio. These concerts were widely bootlegged and helped build Springsteen’s legend as a live act. Springsteen returned relatively quickly in 1980 with a double album, The River, which while uneven, to me was always the rightful successor of Born To Run. With all the hype of the bootlegged 78 concerts, they say that more people slept out for tickets on The River tour than actually saw him in 78. My friend Brewster was apparently on the bandwagon and bought 2 tickets but never asked me to go… It’s my belief that Shakespearean betrayal is what caused his family to move to Houston, in shame. It was the only honorable thing to do short of cutting off a finger. By the time The River tour concluded Springsteen was huge… he was on the cusp of superstardom. So what’s he do… he releases, in 1982, the spartan, demo-sounding, acoustic record Nebraska. There might be more dour, depressing music out there, but one would have to go to some hippy coffee shop to find it. It was a shock. I get it, it’s a masterpiece, but it’s not an album you put on at a party.
If you take Nebraska out of the equation, it was actually a full 4 years between studio albums for Springsteen, much like the lapse between Born To Run and Darkness. The reason Born In The U.S.A. was such a smash, was the simplest reason – pent up demand. Yes, it’s a kick ass album, but the guy had been away for four-fucking years. That was an eternity back then. Especially for guys my age, who were too young to see the Darkness tour, we just had to settle for the bootlegs. Some of us had sadly missed The River tour – thanks Brewster. We were dying for new music from the Boss… we were dying to actually see this myth, this legend in concert. Which, we all did on this tour, I might add.
The album itself is amazing. Although I will admit I’ve always had a problem with the sequencing. The title track, which starts the record, is one of the greatest things Bruce has ever recorded. Max Weinberg’s drumming is monumental. He keeps the whole thing together. That leads us into another single, the great “Cover Me.” The next two songs, however, “Darlington County” and “Working On The Highway” both tell the same story. Both are about a guy working construction who gets busted for messing with underage girls. Although “Working On the Highway” was a great rockabilly song vs “Darlington County”‘s anthemic approach. The first ballad, and the second best song on the album, “Down Bound Train” also ends with the protagonist in jail. The 80s were a dark time… But again, the next song, which concluded side one is another ballad, ‘I’m On Fire.” Spread it out Bruce….
Side two starts with two songs about Little Steven. The recording of Born In The U.S.A. was fraught with it’s own Shakespearean drama… Springsteen’s side kick, Little Steven who always advocated for the music was pitted against, Iago, er I mean Landau who was advocating for a big, commercial record. Eventually Little Steven split for a solo career. Springsteen obviously wrote “No Surrender” and the next track, “Bobby Jean” about his dearest friend, Little Steven, who had left the band. The rest of the side 2, is a little better sequenced, finally ending on the beautiful ballad “My Hometown.”
Born In The U.S.A ended up being the titanic album that Landau and, it would appear, Springsteen wanted. The enormous fame and attention dwarfed anything Springsteen had experienced before… one might argue the success changed the trajectory of his career… but for this working stiff, on a hot June Monday, it was a game changer, so much so, I know where I was that day. It really is one of the greatest albums of all time.