Pres. Obama: Born in the USA

After additional pressure on President Barack Obama, he released the long-form version of his birth certificate this morning in an attempt to calm down all of the insane media attention largely driven of late by The Celebrity Apprentice’s Donald Trump. At the news conference this morning, though, I was a little disappointed that Bruce Springsteen did not show up to play “Born in the U.S.A.” as part of the spectacle.

It would not have been the first time that the song appeared in presidential politics. In 1984, during a presidential campaign stop in New Jersey, Pres. Ronald Reagan appeared to invoke “Born in the U.S.A.,” which was extremely popular at the time: “America’s future rests in a thousand dreams inside our hearts.” Reagan explained, “It rests in the message of hope in the songs of a man so many young Americans admire: New Jersey’s own Bruce Springsteen.”

Although Springsteen was less active politically in those days than in recent years, he would make a few comments on stage and in interviews in response to the comments by Pres. Reagan, who would go on to win the 1984 election in a landslide over Walter Mondale. But Springsteen’s most pointed response came a decade later in a re-working of “Born in the U.S.A.” around the time of his Ghost of Tom Joad tour. Where the hit version sounded like an anthem, and that helped make it a hit song, his new version was quieter, stressing the sadness in the words. Pres. Reagan had focused on the sound of the original and misinterpreted the hopeless defiance in the music as a message of hope. By changing the music but not the words into a bluesier version, Springsteen captured the despair faced by many Americans that was — and is — often overlooked in popular culture.

Bonus “Born in the USA” Information: “Born in the U.S.A.” originated in an acoustic form when Springsteen was working on his Nebraska album. Although he reworked the song with the E Street band into an anthem for the Born in the U.S.A. album, the acoustic version is available on the four-CD collection Tracks. I suppose that “Born in the U.S.A.” would be too sad to play at a press conference about our President’s birth, so maybe they could have asked Miley Cyrus to perform this song.

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    The Promise

    Today is the release date for Bruce Springsteen’s “new” CD/DVD set, The Promise.  The songs on the two-CD set mostly were recorded during sessions after 1975’s Born to Run and before 1978’s Darkness on the Edge of Town, but ultimately they were left off the latter album.  It’s interesting that the DVD documentary and the album are named after the song “The Promise,” a song never given a proper release and long one of my favorite songs.

    There are many songs about broken hearts, but there are not many great songs that are about broken dreams like “The Promise.”  A testament to the power of this song is the fact that in the new documentary, Springsteen said that he did not release the song in 1978 because he was “too close” to it.  There has been speculation about what it specifically means to him, tying it to his situation of being embroiled in a lawsuit at the time with his former manager Mike Appel over control and ownership of his songs.    But like most songs that come out of a strong personal meaning for the songwriter, this one has universal themes that touches people unconnected to its origins.

    In 1998, Springsteen released Tracks, a 4-CD set of unreleased songs from throughout his career.  He miscalculated how much his fans had grown to love “The Promise” through years of bootlegging, and fans complained that the song was left off the set.  He remedied the situation by adding the song to a single CD Best of Tracks collection, making fans happy for the song but not happy to have to buy the Best of CD for a couple of bonus songs when they had already purchased the 4-CD set.  At the time, he said he did not release “The Promise” on Tracks because he was not satisfied with the versions in the vaults, so recorded a new version with him alone at a piano for the Best of CD.

    I loved the piano version of “The Promise” that he released on Tracks, and with the Internet now I’ve heard several versions of the song.  I first heard the song as a bootleg on a record album in the early 1980’s and it immediately became one of my favorite songs.  In that version, it featured the full band, so I have a fondness for the full band versions of the song, like the version I’m posting below.

    The song is about people with dreams — and in particular a person who travels to participate in car races in his car, “Challenger” — and what happens after the dreams are broken.  I like the line about how even when you win, you still feel like you carry something from those you defeated.

    I won big once and I hit the coast
    But somehow I paid the big cost
    Inside I felt like I was carryin’ the broken spirits
    Of all the other ones who lost
    When the promise is broken you go on living
    But it steals something from down in your soul
    Like when the truth is spoken and it don’t make no difference
    Something in your heart goes cold

    The song has several references to “Thunder Road,” which certainly had various meanings for Springsteen after a song by that name appeared on his previous album and had created such high expectations and pressure for the upcoming album.  In the different versions of “The Promise” I’ve heard, Springsteen sometimes places different emphasis on the final lines about the narrator and Billy saying they were going to “take it all and throw it all away.”  Sometimes he sings with resignation and despair, sometimes he sings with hopeless defiance.  But that’s one of the signs of a great song and a great singer, that they can convey different meanings and emotions with the same material.  I’m glad that this song never got thrown away.

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