8 februari 2012

Rock Your English! (11) - Waarom de tekst van Bruce Springsteen's 'Born In The USA ' briljant is

Buffi Duberman's vorige blogpost over de briljantie van Ed Sheeran's tekst voor 'The A Team' was een absolute Hit alhier. Zonder twijfel de bestgelezen post van dit kwartaal (dank je, Michiel!) en aanleiding om een fikse stapel blogtips te delen. Van wat Buffi tot haar grote genoegen meemaakte, kunnen namelijk meer mensen profiteren. Je vindt Buffi als @rockyourenglish op twitter en op Facebook. Eerder zette ze Nederlandse songwriters op hun plek, had het over de 'th'-klank, de V en F in I Lof You Fairy Much, je songteksten (en nogmaals), ambities, breien en gaf je een gratis worksheet. Vandaag doet ze een bewezen succes dunnetjes over (blogtip!) met een analyse van Bruce Springsteen's 'Born In The USA':WAVE IT?! BURN IT!
Buffi: 'I was at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and if you’ve never been there – GO. It’s in Ohio. Well worth the schlep. Huge place, full of magic, learned a lot. For example, that Les Paul, the man behind the guitars, actually invented the neck-worn harmonica holder. At the age of 10. After he had been playing the guitar for 2 years. They had it in a display case. It was made out of a coat hanger. When I was 10, I was using a coat hanger too. For lots of things. Like hitting my brother.

On the top floor of this gorgeous building, there was an extensive Bruce Springsteen exhibition celebrating his life and his work (which are one and the same, if you ask me). I was like a kid in a candy store; gazing at everything reverently in super slo mo. I’ve admired the Boss lyrically for ages. I stood, mesmerized, watching an interview with him (I mean a DVD. He wasn’t there in person, because if he was I would have grabbed the first pair of stonewashed jeans I could find, cut off all my hair lickety-split, and yelled ‘I’m Courtney Cox 2.0 – let’s dance!’).

One thing he said in that interview really hit home. I remember writing it down to share with my students in songwriting class. Since I’ve somehow expertly managed to lose that piece of paper, I’ll have to paraphrase. The Boss said that he started writing lyrics on the first page of a notebook. And what you finally hear is the 200th page. He goes through an entire notebook per song – revising, reviewing, rationing subtracting, shaping, scraping, sharpening, slanting, filling, filing, until he’s satisfied. Until the song is satisfied. What you hear on the radio is page 200, not page 1. People tend to forget that. A LOT. Let this column serve as a gentle reminder.

I want to dissect one of his greatest- the brilliant ‘Born in the USA’ for 2 reasons: 1) Because I was. And 2) Because so many people have no clue as to what this song is actually about. It’s the classic example of getting hooked on the chorus and not taking the time or effort to dig deeper and find out what’s really going on in a song. (However, in Rebecca Black’s Friday, there’s no need to even scratch the surface. Save your mining skills. Please.)

Born down in a dead man's 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

Opening verse – first 2 words. Born DOWN. BAM! Amazingly strong contradiction. As one who has been blessed twice with the power and the magic of birthing, this hit hard. Nothing about new life should be DOWN. But of course if you’re in a “dead man’s town”, I guess that’s par for the course. There’s no life there, even for the newly-born. And although he starts with birth, there are no women to be found. Hm.

Second line – when he was born, there was no one to catch him. He “hit the ground” – there was no safe place to land. And to make matters worse – he got “kicked”. Of course he means this figuratively – that his first encounter with pain was the minute he was born – and that paints a picture of what’s to come.

I guess being a dog kind of sucks, lyrically. According to the Beatles, you work a lot (Hard Day’s Night). Mötley Crüe says ‘Just beat me, just bite me, just break me, treat me like a dog’ in Treat Me Like The Dog I Am. And if Bruce knows you, you’ve probably been beaten a lot. Defenseless. And getting used to the pain. The last line in this verse speaks for itself. It’s unclear if he means the first half of your life, or the second, or just the amount of time in general, but it’s a pretty dismal perspective, no matter how you slice it.

Then the chorus kicks in, and listeners who don’t mine start waving their flags. U-S-A! U-S-A! If they had taken a moment to really listen to the first verse, they would have considered burning them:

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.

What you see above is most definitely not what you get.
Second verse:

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

If you get in a ‘jam’, you’re not trapped in Alice in Wonderland-y marmalade quicksand; it means you’re in trouble. You messed with the wrong people. ‘Hometown’ – no local heroes to be found here. As a result (evident by the ‘So’) they sent you off to war. Somewhere far, far away. To defend the honor and the glory of your fine, fine country. They put a rifle in his hand. He didn’t ask for it. He didn’t ask for any of this. The ‘yellow man’ is a derogatory term and here it refers to the Vietnamese. Yes, It’s that place; it’s that time. Look at the contradiction in this verse between ‘hometown’ and ‘foreign land’ – I feel the naïveté, and I can sense his youth, his fear. Can you? Could you when you heard it? Or only just now? Still want to wave that flag? Then we jump back into the chorus. The anger rises. Feel it? Next verse:

Come back home to the refinery
Hiring man says "Son if it was up to me"
Went down to see my V.A. man
He said "Son, don't you understand"

Aha. He survived the war. But it’s far from over. He returns to his small hometown, and tries to find work. He starts with the refinery. This could be referring to an oil refinery, a gas refinery, or any other kind of processing plant. It doesn’t matter. What does matter is that it’s menial, dirty, low-paid work. And there’s none available, at least not for him. The ‘hiring man’ passes the buck – it’s not his problem – he would hire him, sure he would, but there’s no work for him there. And he calls him ‘Son’ – again, a reference to his youth. Still jobless, he goes to see the V.A. man – did you know what this was referring to when you heard it? Did you take a second to look it up? It’s short for Veterans Affairs – the branch of the US Government where veterans are ‘looked after’ – receiving benefits, medical attention, etc. And there he goes, after serving his country, only to be told by the same people who sent him away in the first place, that there’s nothing they can do for him. Notice how the ‘Son’ is reinforced here, and his innocence/ignorance is emphasized with ‘Don’t you understand’.

I had a brother at Khe Sahn fighting off the Viet Cong
They're still there, he's all gone
He had a woman he loved in Saigon
I got a picture of him in her arms now

He lost a brother, a fellow soldier, a friend in the war. The next line says it all – he fought the war and the war won. The friend that he lost was in love with a local there, and we can ascertain from the final line in this verse that she sent him a photo of them together. That’s all that he’s got left. Next verse. Fast forward.

Down in the shadow of the penitentiary
Out by the gas fires of the refinery
I'm ten years burning down the road
Nowhere to run ain't got nowhere to go

Do you know what a ‘penitentiary’ is? It’s a hardcore prison. It’s for the big boys. A subtle example of full-circle storytelling here – as we know in the second verse that he got in trouble (at least) once before. There, in the shadows, in the fire (great visual imagery here – the shadow and the fire) of the refinery – we’re lost. It’s 10 years later, and he’s still hopeless. He’s stuck and there’s nowhere to go. And there are thousands upon thousands just like him. There’s not much more I can add to the brilliant simplicity of this lyric. There’s no perspective, no future.

This song ends with the chorus, and you can hear him seething:

Born in the U.S.A.
I was born in the U.S.A.
Born in the U.S.A.
I'm a long gone Daddy in the U.S.A.
Born in the U.S.A.
Born in the U.S.A.
Born in the U.S.A.
I'm a cool rocking Daddy in the U.S.A.

If you’re ‘long gone’ – then there’s no turning or coming back for you. You’re lost. And does the ‘Daddy’ refer to the fact that he might have children by now? Kids he needs to feed and support? With no money and no perspective for the future? And that the cycle just might be unbreakable? I don’t know. In the 1950’s and 1960’s, ‘Daddy-O’ was the equivalent of today’s ‘dude’. And as far as the ‘cool rocking Daddy’ part goes – I have no idea, actually. I’m pretty sure it’s sarcastic. Occasionally, when performing this live, Springsteen ends with the ad-lib ‘Oh my God, no’ again and again.

I dedicated a lesson to this song recently because I was sick and tired of so many young people jumping around singing this song with a smile. I hope now that people hear not only the WHAT but the HOW and the WHY behind these lyrics.

God Bless America.
And God Bless the Boss.

P.S.: If this shizzle rocks your boat, check out Woody Guthrie (who was also a huge influence on Springsteen and Dylan) and his song This Land Is Your Land, highly misunderstood over the years to be a celebration of America, when it actually was written as a critical response to Irving Berlin’s God Bless America.'

Dank voor weer een mooie uiteenzetting, Buffi. Keep 'em coming!

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