On the occasion of Father’s Day, which also syncs up with the season that is most suitable for long humid nights of Springsteen on the speakers, which also happens to kick off the time of year we lost Dad a few summers ago, I get to thinking about this piece written by good friend and frequent Inverted Soapbox dropped-name Barry Schwartz three years back. The piece first ran in the now-defunct Stylus, a densely talented, scrappily vibrant but under-appreciated web music mag that was tragically truncated well before its energies had run out, where Barry was writing about Born in the USA for a regular Stylus feature looking at the “why” behind albums that sold 10 million+.
Not only is this one of the best things Barry has ever written (disposing of passive-aggressiveness here to say: BARRY SHOULD STILL WRITE MORE), it’s one of the best things I can ever remember reading about fathers and sons; something that hits the rare balance of poignancy and anthropology. It kinda rips me up a little bit.
I’m guessing I can run the whole thing here since Stylus is now just a rotting husk (original link here) on the interwebs not even relegated to a proper 404 burial. Thanks to Barry for this one and the implied consent to republish here. And thanks to Dad, for all his great Vietnam stories, and for being the kind of guy Springsteen wrote about, just trying to do right by his family. Happy Father’s Day:
|By: Barry Schwartz
Published on: 2007-05-08
The Diamond is an apt name for albums certified for 10 million + sales by the Recording Industry Association of America. Each entry in this series will pose the question: why should we separate art from commerce?
Most likely I don’t know your father, but the laws of average suggest he’s probably a lot like mine. Mine’s named Mark; he’s from Syosset, Long Island; married his high school sweetheart when he was 20; commuted to the city everyday until he was 40, owning and operating a bridal gown business with his father on 38th and Broadway. In the early ’90s the garment industry went completely to hell so now he sells Toyotas.
Of the 100 albums that have been certified “Diamond” by the RIAA (roughly 10 bajillion copies) my father owns 50 of them. That’s obscene. He doesn’t know how to buy songs off iTunes, let alone download illegally, but he just bought his first iPod. As of press time its library looks kind of like this:
I’d say on any given day since 1975 my father has listened to “Thunder Road” at least once. It’s his theme song. There are always 5 CDs in his truck. Three are Bruce Springsteen. The other two are Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours and something by Boz Scaggs. Needless to say my father and I are very, very different people (when we aren’t exactly the same), still, I can’t help but feel he probably knows something I don’t.
There are a lot of reasons for why I like Bruce Springsteen, but really, I like Bruce Springsteen because my dad really likes him. Bruce is what we share. As a result, his music has evolved into the prism through which I understand and relate to my father. Simple as that.
But why does he like it?
Musically, Born in the USA is among Springsteen’s poorer records; only three songs truly stand out: the anthemic “Bobby Jean,” “No Surrender” and, of course, “Dancing in the Dark,” all three of which are still desperately gasping for air beneath layers and layers of horrifyingly awful ’80s production values.
But absolutely none of that matters.
Born in the USA has sold 15 million copies. My father owns two of those. Two years after its release in 1984 Columbia released Live/1975-85, a 5-disc box set, which has since gone on to sell 13 million units. There are 12 songs on Born in the USA; more than half of them are singles. He wasn’t just playing sold-out arenas; he was and continues to play sold-out stadiums traditionally dedicated to the sport of professional football for weeks at a time. We know that too.
But how in the hell does that happen?
If Born to Run is about a choice (submission or transcendence, flannel suits or electric guitars), Born in the USA is its sequel. It’s nine years later. 1984. Conservatism. Reaganomics. Star Wars (the movie and the strategic missile defense program). The Cold War. The Butter Battle Book. This is its context.
But Born in the USA is, at its essence, a record about fathers and sons. Once again we’ve been faced with a choice: Do we repeat the sins of our fathers? Maybe we’ve chosen the same path, but that doesn’t mean we have to make the same mistakes that almost destroyed his generation: “A lot of guys went and a lot of guys didn’t come back. And the lot that came back weren’t the same anymore.”
Perhaps it’s worth noting that most people have more important things to do than blog, let alone write, let alone write songs. The majority of Bruce Springsteen’s audience, the people he writes about, people like my father, rely on Bruce to be the creative one—not just to entertain them but to share their story. At the height of the 1980s these people are in remarkable abundance.
In the years following Born to Run Springsteen dedicated the thematic concerns of his music to the stories of those who didn’t make the choice he made. Darkness on the Edge of Town, The River, Nebraska: all of these records are about those who stayed behind, those who went to war, those who chose the path-most-traveled. But that’s what the troubadour is. The griot. Great artists don’t just tell their story, they tell your story.
Born in the USA speaks directly to the nobility of those people, the courage it took to not make the decision Springsteen made. In this way, despite what his astronomical sales figures would seem to indicate, the record doesn’t pander to these people, it’s openly and honestly respectful of them. That’s why it has become everyone’s masterpiece despite being Springsteen’s 7th best album.
Springsteen’s music, for better or worse, has always been concerned with those fundamental ideas that simply don’t change; no matter how our environment changes or culture accelerates the ideas of family and parenthood, sacrifice, temptation and forgiveness will always be worth exploring. Because of that it has the potential to endure through generations. People never seem to get sick of it. It endures. At beaches and barbeques, classic rock stations blaring from stadium parking lots and suburban basements. Bruce Springsteen could do next to nothing for the next 20 years, suddenly announce an extensive world tour, and as many nights as he plans to play Giants Stadium or Madison Square Garden that’s how many sold-out shows there will be. That’s what’s basically happened!
Bu if I really want to understand and write about why everyone in the world purchased Born in the USA and why it still matters, I simply have to figure out why my Dad bought it. So fuck it, I interviewed him. What resulted was probably the most honest conversation I’ve ever had with my father. Here’s some of it:
(Oh, and full disclosure: my dad is my dad)
Why did Born in the USA sell 15 million copies?
Because he blew up.
Yeah, but why?
OK, sure, yes, but why?
Because his music started touching more people.
More people started getting it.
I don’t know!!!
Of course you do! You have to! You’ve been there since the beginning! Why the hell did you like him in the first place?
I’ve always been moved by lyrics. The first Bruce Springsteen album I ever heard was The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle. There’s a line in the song “Incident on 57th Street” where he sings, “Hey little heroes, summer’s long but I guess it ain’t very sweet around here anymore.” It just hit me immediately; it’s the sage trying to impart his wisdom. The neighborhood was changing from a typical peaceful quiet neighborhood to a gang-controlled neighborhood. This idea reaches its culmination in “Jungleland.”
“The poets down here don’t write nothing at all. They just stand back and let it all be.”
Exactly. So he’s taken the responsibility.
Bruce is only seven years older than me so his music was immediately hitting my generation. You listen to him paint this picture: you can hear the screen door slam, you can see a pretty young girl with ponytails from your high school running toward your car. That’s what people my age were all about: cars, the night, the conquest—all that. I had long hair. I liked Zeppelin. I drove a Firebird.
And this was all around the time I was dating and falling in love with your mother. In her family she was kind of the rebel because, even though she was young, only 17 years old, she was dating someone very seriously who was unlike anyone in her family of Holocaust surviving German Jewish immigrants. I was the Anti-European. I was the American Long Island boy here to take your daughter away and corrupt her. So Bruce was kind of telling my story for me. He’s telling everyone’s story. And those songs evoke all those incredible emotions and I can recall them perfectly almost every time I listen to them, which is basically why I listen to them so often.
Now Springsteen made this choice to be the artist, to get out. You love Born to Run but you didn’t really make that decision. Is there a piece of you that wishes you’d made the decision Springsteen made?
Not really. I didn’t have a gift to be able to say, “I don’t want to go into my father’s business, I want to do this instead.” And most people don’t have that. It wasn’t like there was a plan for me to go into the family business; I loved numbers and management and stuff like that but the only thing I really thought about was just finishing high school.
Well, do you have aspirations you feel you’ve never been able to achieve?
I still haven’t bowled a perfect game.
I mean with your life’s work, silly!
No, because I never really had that kind of passion. I thought I would just wind up going to some college, getting some accounting degree or something and going into business. That’s the way it was. That’s the way it still is. Obviously, people like Bruce Springsteen are the exception to the rule.
So this whole time you’ve been growing and maturing with Springsteen and his music.
Born to Run came out as I was graduating high school in 1975 and The River was released in 1980. By this time I’m already a married man, commuting to work everyday on the same train with the same people, successfully running my own business. Soon I’ll be a father.
The River maintained his popularity from the people he picked up from Born to Run and Darkness on the Edge of Town; “Hungry Heart” was his first top-10 hit so he’d established a loyal audience he knew was always going to be there, so now was the time for him to reach out for even more people.
Truthfully, Born in the USA was specifically produced to attract people who said they couldn’t stand Bruce Springsteen. It’s obvious. You can hear it on “Dancing in the Dark.” Born in the USA was intended for people between my age group and my parents; people who were in their late 20s when I started listening to Bruce; people like my older sister who listen to a song because of the beat and not the words. You need to give those people a beat for them to be able to say, “Hey, that’s good,” and that draws them in to hopefully find out what he’s all about. Born in the USA was a compromise, but it had a point. That point was to connect with more people, not necessarily to sell more albums, which sounds like the same thing but it isn’t if you really think about it.
So let’s get back to the original point. Why does Born in the USA sell 15 million copies? Why does Live/1975-85 sell 13. Why did you buy it and why do you still listen to it?
What made the experience of seeing him live back then so great was the concerts were just limitless. They could go on for four or five hours because he would tell these long personal stories as preludes to his songs. That story he tells before “The River” on the live box set is like the key to understanding Born in the USA. It’s just this devastatingly beautiful story about the strained relationship he had with his father. You think I work a lot? My father was never home. And when he was home on Sundays he would be working at the table. Then he’d go take a nap. Maybe we shared Astroboy and Speed Racer but that was it. We never really had a thing. I taught myself how to play baseball.
So you mentioned this idea of repeating the mistakes of our fathers. Well, this was my contribution. I wanted something I could hopefully share with my children so I introduced you to the music of Bruce Springsteen. That’s what we share and I’ve been talking to you about Springsteen since you were a baby. You’ve seen Springsteen live seven times and every single time I’ve been there, right? I took my sons to see Bruce Springsteen and they loved it. One day hopefully you’ll get to take your children. I bet they’ll love it, too.