Yes, Bruce is no. 1
I don’t know if Springsteen himself thinks about his life and death in this way, but the silences in “Springsteen on Broadway” — which ran on Broadway from Oct. 3, 2017, to Dec. 15, 2018, culminating in a soundtrack and a Netflix special — suggest he might. The spaces he built in between the songs allow the artist to explain and give context not to just the music but also to the life built around the music. If the project of Springsteen’s Broadway show was to attach histories and legacies to the individual songs long adored by the public, there is also something to be said about what time does to natural storytellers. They can become more tactile with age, drawing out stories that have been told several times before the most current retelling — leaving a listener with even more touchable moments than otherwise might have been asked for or sought, so that when the storyteller is long gone, there might still be fragments of his or her stories that span generations.
Of the many gripping examples of this in “Springsteen on Broadway,” the one that stands out most memorably is the sprawling story he tells before playing his iconic (and often misconstrued song) “Born in the U.S.A.” The story centers on Walter Cichon, who was the frontman for the Motifs, a band Springsteen still considers one of the best rock ’n’ roll bands from the Jersey Shore. In the ’60s, the Motifs played weekend shows to rooms packed with teenage admirers. Cichon wore his hair long and sported pointy black boots. When he performed, he would shake out his hair and send beads of sweat flying past the stage lights. For anyone who has ever lived in any town where a band was on the verge of “making it,” you know the epiphany: This band is too good to be here, in this place, in this moment. That was the Motifs, with their frantic and warbly guitars laid below Cichon’s howling vocals.
Walter Cichon was drafted when he was 21 and didn’t come back from Vietnam. He went missing in action in 1968.
On Broadway, Bruce Springsteen performs “Born in the U.S.A.” largely in silence. The song is half-spoken, half-sung, Springsteen’s voice rough and breaking beneath the decades of labor it has done — labor rendered romantic through writing and performance. What has always been true about the career of Bruce Springsteen is that he’s most entertaining when backed by his pals, but he’s most earnest when he’s alone. To hear “Born in the U.S.A.” presented without an instrument is to hear the strain that pushes toward the edge of anger, that hovering sentiment that was lost in the original’s bombastic wall of sound and perhaps camouflaged by its imagery. At the time of the song’s release, Springsteen was a young, attractive, muscular man who appeared midjump in front of an American flag on the single’s cover. From a zoomed-out perspective — a white musician writing about the intricacies of labor — it could seem as if he represented everything that a particular America would be proud of. The misreading of the original song was not purely accidental: Its volume and fanfare meant that it sounded (and still sounds) good bursting out of speakers while fireworks explode in the sky, and its loudest words in the chorus are about land and birthright. But with the drums and bursts of keyboards gone, the relentlessly hollow hope of the song is gone, too. On the isolated stage of a theater, all that’s left is knowing that the singer has loved and dreamed and lost in a country sometimes not worth loving and dreaming and losing in.
In his long monologue introducing “Born in the U.S.A.” on Broadway, Springsteen talks about “the blood and the confusion and the pride and the shame and the grace that comes with birthplace,” and I get it. There are some of us who didn’t ask to be born in our particular here, and there are some of us who didn’t ask to come to this particular here, but to be in wherever your here is means that you might be compelled to both fight for it and forgive it. On Broadway, Springsteen mentions something else: He tells the story of him and two of his friends being summoned to the selective-service office, as a prelude to being sent to Vietnam — for what, he says, “we were sure was going to be our funeral.” They did everything they could to get out of being drafted, and succeeded. He ends the story by exhaling softly and pausing before telling the audience: “I do sometimes wonder who went in my place. Because somebody did.”
I imagine that’s it. To live a long enough life in a place founded, in part, on violence and volatility is to know that long life may depend on someone else walking through a door you wanted no part of. Or to know that the heroes from your hometown never made it out because war got to them first. Stripped to its barest bones, “Born in the U.S.A.” asks a listener to recognize that human survival is not something we can count on. The song matters now in a different way than it did in 1984, largely because of the artist behind it: Springsteen, trying to wrestle not only with the song’s current legacy but also with how it might be co-opted decades from now, when he won’t be around to make sure people understand the ache behind the song’s fury.
Hanif Abdurraqib is a poet, an essayist and a cultural critic in Columbus, Ohio.