Thirty-five years ago, on June 4, 1984, Bruce Springsteen released Born in the USA, co-produced by his E Street Band mate Steven Van Zandt, which became Springsteen’s commercial breakthrough and made him an MTV and top 40 radio darling. But with such a wide audience, it was almost inevitable that the album’s fist-pumping title track would become what the Boss himself once called “the most misunderstood song since ‘Louie, Louie.’”
The original working title for an early version of “Born in the USA,” at first intended for Springsteen’s more somber and sparse 1982 album Nebraska, was “Vietnam,” with lyrics chronicling the lonely fate of a returning soldier and a not-exactly-singalong-worthy chorus that repeated the funeral-dirge phrase “You died in Vietnam.” Over the next two years, the song underwent a title change and an uptempo electric makeover, but its anti-war protest spirit remained intact, as evidenced by world-weary lines like “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” and “I had a brother at Khe Sanh 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.”
However, those bleak words didn’t stop many fans, including the president at the time, Ronald Reagan, from mistaking “Born in the USA” for a jingoistic national anthem. After Reagan was turned onto the track by conservative columnist George Will — who clearly misconstrued Springsteen’s message, bizarrely praising the singer’s all-American family values and describing the “Born in the USA” chorus as a “grand, cheerful affirmation” — Reagan had an adviser ask Springsteen if he could use the song in his reelection campaign. Springsteen declined, but in a Sept. 19 speech in Hammonton, N.J., Reagan still referenced Bruce, proclaiming, “America’s future rests in a thousand dreams inside your hearts. It rests in the message of hope in songs of a man so many young Americans admire: New Jersey’s own Bruce Springsteen. And helping you make those dreams come true is what this job of mine is all about.”
Sitting with Yahoo Entertainment three and a half decades later, Van Zandt chuckles over the misinterpretation. “Well, in truth. I think that misunderstanding paid a lot of my bills,” he says with a shrug and a smile. (Born in the USA has sold 30 million copies worldwide — 15 million in the U.S. alone — making it one of the biggest albums of all time.) “So, it happens, you know. Bruce did call them; I mean, Bruce's people called Reagan's people and said, ‘Listen, stop using this song’ at some point, because it was becoming embarrassing — for them. Because if you actually read the lyrics, you know. Sometimes misunderstandings pay off, is the bottom line. …I think people get it now. All you have to do is read the lyrics, it's not like it's some kind of secret code or anything!”
Despite the confusion surrounding the song’s meaning and intentions, Van Zandt insists that he and Springsteen are still patriots, in the true sense of the word. “We share the political philosophy of being patriotic Americans. How we define that is the way our founding fathers defined it, which is questioning the government at all times to make sure we are adhering to the ideals that our country was founded on,” he says. “The spirit of the founding fathers has to do with equality and democracy and freedom and all the wonderful things we think about this country. But having this attitude of ‘whatever the government says, we believe,’ that ended certainly with Vietnam, if not before that. And ever since, the healthier position is to question the government and make sure we do the right thing. We share that kind of patriotism, true patriotism — which is not nationalism, very different than nationalism.
“But anyway, the word ‘patriot’ shouldn't be a dirty word,” Van Zandt stresses. “It should be something you are proud of -- you're proud of your country's ideals. Have we realized those ideals? No. We need to work on them. We've got a whole lot of problems continuing… with prejudice of all kinds, among other things. So, we have a lot of work still to do. But that will be done by true patriots, not nationalists.”
Watch Steven Van Zandt’s full, career-spanning Yahoo Entertainment interview below:
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