Boss Songs Part II – Springsteen Vignettes

Image Credit: Art Maillett
Image Credit: Art Maillett

Song – “Backstreets”
Album – Born to Run

This is perhaps my favorite Boss song of all time, although it is admittedly difficult and probably unfair to have to choose only one. The piano intro being played by Roy Bittan at the beginning of “Backstreets” feels like home and heartbreak all at the same. In his Rolling Stone review of the album Greil Marcus said it should be a “prelude to a rock and roll version of The Iliad.” The lyrics are also a perfect mixture of nostalgia and desolation. I love the first and last verses especially, which demonstrate Springsteen’s poetry of the lost. He uses the poetic sound devices such as the alliteration in “soft infested summer” and the internal, imperfect rhyme and assonance of “tying faith between our teeth”—all of which balances nicely against the grammatically incorrect yet fitting sound of the phrase “we was born in.” In the final verse he sings, “Remember all the movies, Terry, we’d go see / Trying to learn how to walk like heroes we thought we had to be / And after all this time to find we’re just like all the rest.” At some point in our youth, we dream we’re rising, trying to live up to some unattainable ideal. Then one day we discover that glory passes most of us over, our youth is gone, and all that’s left is life on the backstreets.

Song – “Born in the U.S.A.”
Album – Born in the U.S.A.

When I was eight years old I owned two very distinct cassette tapes: Michael Jackson’s Thriller and Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A What a combination! I listened to both albums every weekend for something like a year. Just like nearly everyone else in the eighties I misinterpreted “Born in the U.S.A.” as a patriotic theme. With the “I was born in U.S.A.” lyric, you can’t  help being jingoistic and dismissively arrogant about being an American. The phrase had to be a boast, but of course, that is all part of the irony of the song about a soldier pushed aside by the economic circumstances of the very nation he defended. Once you really listen to the lyrics you realize this song is anything but patriotic. It’s about a man run afoul of the law who can’t catch a break. He’s sent to Vietnam, does his duty, but returns home brotherless, jobless, and hopeless. He’s wasted from waiting, a “long gone daddy in the U.S.A.” The song is saturated in irony, but most people just don’t get it. Musically, I love the snare drum that opens the song, Mighty Max Weinberg’s concluding drum solo, and in the live version, the wailing guitar at the end. Also, check out Springsteen’s solo version on the slide guitar—it’s intense and much less likely to leave you in a misguided nationalistic stupor.

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