Romancing the Plum of Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A.

An ode to Cleveland, Ohio—the city at the beating, beloved heart of the Boss’s tome certified Platinum 65 times over—the lives entangled in its history, and the lives left just outside it.

Music Features Bruce Springsteen
Romancing the Plum of Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A.

It is July of 2018 and Bruce Springsteen takes the stage at the Walter Kerr Theatre on West 48th Street in Manhattan. Since the previous October, he’s been doing one-man performances—each show running two-and-half hours long, much like the full-band tours he’s been pulling off for the better part of four decades. Tonight, Netflix is in the building to film every second from “Growin’ Up” through “Born to Run.” Bruce stands on stage—sporting a black T-shirt and jeans, with an acoustic guitar in hand—alone. He’s noticeably older now, his hair now grey just above the ears. Before each song, he gives an autobiographical introduction—adding extra dimension to otherwise already dimensional music. His wife, Patti Scialfa, joins him on “Tougher Than the Rest” and “Brilliant Disguise”; Bruce gives a 10-minute briefing before singing “The Promised Land.” The night is a rock ‘n’ roll storybook, a still-going retelling of men remaking a city and splitting each night in two.

Over an hour in, Bruce begins recounting his life with Bart Haines, the drummer in his first-ever band the Castilles. Bart couldn’t play “Wipeout” by the Safaris to save his hide, Bruce says. He talks, too, about Walter Cichon, the “greatest rock ‘n’ roll frontman on the Jersey Shore,” and how both men were killed in Vietnam—in 1967 and 1968; Bart was the first man from Bruce’s hometown to die in Vietnam. “The verses are just an accounting of events,” Bruce says to the audience. He pauses. “The choruses were a declaration of your birthplace and the right to all of the blood and the confusion and the pride and the shame and the grace that comes with birthplace.”

And then, our blue-collar guardian angel was drafted in 1969, along with his friends Mad Dog and Little Vinnie. On a Monday, Bruce and his buddies rode on “the unhappiest bus that had ever pulled out of Asbury Park” to the Newark Draft Ward. “We were on our way to what we were sure was gonna be our funeral,” Bruce admits. But the three men, by the grace of God or good luck or something far more one-in-a-million, avoided getting shipped out to Southeast Asia. There’s a memorial in Washington, D.C., one that bears the names of the 58,000 men who lost their lives in Vietnam fighting for a lost cause. Bruce visits the wall when he and his band swing by on tour. Another pause, and then some shuffling. “Born down in a dead man’s town,” he sings, with nothing but his voice in tow. Suddenly, the earth clicks back into place.

To be a fan of Bruce Springsteen’s music is to understand that it will find you in every lifetime you’re in, just as he and Clarence Clemons are tethered in rock ‘n’ roll matrimony until rock ‘n’ roll seizes to be. And to call yourself a fan of Bruce Springsteen’s music is a signal that you, in fact, know a thing or two about the intimacy of folklore, how your experiences can be mythical, romantic and even improbable. He’s the only musician who’s ever written about getting out of his hometown a dozen different ways and never once sounded redundant while doing so—able to convey the same disillusions on Wrecking Ball that he once reckoned with on Darkness on the Edge of Town. His working class prophecies sound nouveau, timeless, familiar. They’re anecdotal, full of color. When Bruce sings “These two lanes will take us anywhere,” we all believe him—maybe because we just love getting drunk on blind hope, or maybe because the Promised Land waiting for us down the railroad tracks is a bit closer today than it was before. Springsteen on Broadway made good on how the musical pantheon is still in debt to Bruce and his bohemian, fuel-injected poetry.

But Springsteen on Broadway, too, was a bridge for the rest of us—a living, breathing novel connecting all of Bruce’s contradicting worlds together, filling in the gaps we’d long wondered about as he stood before us, night after night, delivering hymnals of fantastical, splendid and imperfect dusks and ageless cityscapes. When he sings “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out,” he cuts into his own verses with recollections of a life spent with Clarence (“Together we told a story that was bigger than any of the one’s I had written in my songs”). “Born in the U.S.A.” enters the setlist but with a caveat: Bart and Walter are there on stage with Bruce, if only in memory. But they become our memories, too. As he stares down the crowd before “Born to Run,” he delivers a eulogy to his “great tree,” which had been cut down when a parking lot was paved. Only the snakes of once-newborn roots remained, albeit faintly. “I reached down and I picked up a handful of dirt, and I just kind of ran it through my hands,” Bruce says. “My heart sank like a kid who’d suffered some kind of irretrievable loss—like some piece of me was gone. It had been there long before I was. I assumed it would be there long after I was gone. And I liked that, it felt eternal.”

Eternal—it’s a word I think of often when listening to Bruce’s music, because his songs so often serialize and document parts of the world that, like that great tree, are not always destined to stand as long as we’d like them to. Asbury Park remains, and a friend of mine recently sent me a photo of Madame Marie’s, which sits on the boardwalk and sells merch now. When captured on an iPhone, the magic doesn’t pour out of the screen. But when you remember that Bruce used to stand there and Bruce probably fell in love there a time or two, the glint begins to brighten once more. Perhaps what is the most mystifying about all of that is how, against all odds, many a men and many a women and many a folk likely fell in love there a time or two, too.

When Bruce rented a ranch in Colts Neck, New Jersey after the River Tour concluded in September 1981, he penned a song called “Vietnam”—combing through the busted history of Vietnam veterans returning home from combat to venomous hectorings and middling enthusiasm. After reading anti-war activist Ron Kovic’s Born on the Fourth of July, he wrote “A Good Man Is Hard to Find (Pittsburgh),” “Highway Patrolman,” “Brothers Under the Bridges” and “Shut Out the Light.” Paul Schrader hit him up soon after, proposing an idea: write music for a then-unmade film called Born in the U.S.A. about a Cleveland factory worker who moonlights as a bar band guitarist. So “Vietnam” became “Born in the U.S.A.,” and Bruce demoed it on the same four-track recorder he demoed “Nebraska,” “Atlantic City,” “Mansion on the Hill,” Child Bride” and “Downbound Train” on.

Bruce and the E Street Band had sessions booked for April 1982 at the Power Station in Hell’s Kitchen, where The River had been recorded two years prior. But before that, in January, they all joined Gary U.S. Bonds at the Hit Factory in the Noho neighborhood to help make his album On the Line—which Bruce had written seven songs for and co-produced with Steven Van Zandt. Those sessions found the E Street Band recording “Cover Me,” which Bruce had previously written for Donna Summer but was convinced by Jon Landau to hold onto (a decision not as marquee as him writing “Hungry Heart” for the Ramones, but still crucial nonetheless).

At the Power Station that spring, however, perfecting the full-band arrangements for “Nebraska,” “Johnny 99” and “Mansion on the Hill” proved dull and impossible. Mixer Chuck Plotkin called the performances “less meaningful, less compelling, less honest” than Bruce’s demos. But “Born in the U.S.A.,” “Downbound Train” and “Child Bride,” which had been re-tooled into “Working on the Highway,” were smash successes. The Colts Neck demos were cast aside, as the E Street Band pinned their focus onto songs like “Darlington County,” “Glory Days,” “I’m on Fire,” “Murder Incorporated,” “Frankie,” “Wages of Sin,” “None but the Brave,” “I’m Goin’ Down” and a new, poppier version of “Cover Me.”

But in one of the coolest turns a rock superstar had ever made, Bruce eventually returned to the Colts Neck material and, after opting to not release a double-album of acoustic and electric tracks, collected nine demos, recorded “My Father’s House” in May 1982, and released all 10 songs by themselves—just as he’d recorded them months prior—as Nebraska. It was a stark departure from the blockbuster River concept of party songs and plainspoken, raw-edged ballads slowly unfurling just as America’s industrial meccas had. Instead, the Flannery O’Connor-inspired, heartland rock characterizations had turned into complicated moral coils existing far beyond any geographical border. The characters in Nebraska were down on their luck working class people. They were criminals, oddballs, murderers, hopeless. The protagonist of the title-track gets sentenced to death by electric chair; “I guess there’s just a meanness in this world,” he tells the judge before him.

If The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle was full of summertime ghosts forced to grow up and out of innocent love in the sweaty, damning New Jersey and New York heat, then Nebraska was meant to fill in the nocturnal, ostracized and forgotten crevices caught in-between fits of light and prosperity. To call it a token of America’s most solemn and graceless underbellies would be fair. It’s a record that hums the gallows’ song for thee, and what Nebraska meant for Bruce Springsteen and the rest of us was sealed in amber across its many fleeting, bleak haunts: There are those of us who tell stories and those of us who live them.

And Bruce Springsteen is a storyteller. In August 1978, he stood onstage at the Agora Ballroom on Cleveland’s east side. It was the Darkness Tour. Be it as it may, Darkness on the Edge of Town is an album that registers more like a collection of short stories, or psalms that romanced America’s working class soon before Reagan would decimate families with his tax bill and union busting. “The Promised Land” is one of the greatest gifts rock ‘n’ roll has ever received. In a T-shirt with the sleeves far too tight, Bruce gives the Northeast Ohio crowd an anecdote while the Professor’s opening piano notes of “Growin’ Up” loop over and over: “I remember I was 12 years old and I was going to this catholic school and I got sent home for pissing in my desk,” Bruce says. The crowd cheers. “Obviously, a popular pastime,” he continues.

“The sisters told my mother that I need psychiatric attention. The only people that were more scared of the nuns than the kids was the parents. My old man and my old lady were terrified of them sisters, so downtown they take me to this doc. I’m sittin’ down there on the couch. He says ‘Son, how’d you get this way?’ I thought about it and said, ‘Doc, I’m glad you asked, because, up until now, I’ve kept it a secret. The fact was, I was a teenage werewolf.’ Woo! I said, ‘Doc, I was standing out on the street. I remember, it was midnight! I looked up, it was a full moon—felt this hair growing all over my face, felt my fingers get longer and my nails pop out and a guitar pop out of my left side. My pants got tighter, my hair got longer, and a man with a cigar come up and stung me on the ass. And, all of a sudden, in one moment, I looked up and there was this light. For just one second, I stood stone-like at midnight, suspended in my masquerade…’”

The Agora Ballroom, four decades before its eventual renovation, remains something of a Cleveland artifact. It’s still there, under the same name. Bands not yet big enough to fill either of the three sports stadiums in town, but far too big to play somewhere like Mahall’s or the Grog Shop or, even, the Beachland Ballroom, make nice there from time to time. The Agora is unique because it used to push bills that featured names like Todd Rundgren, the Talking Heads and Boston before anyone really knew who they were. Too, it once served as a then-career-defining venue and launching pad for local up-and-comers like the Raspberries, the Michael Stanley Band and the James Gang. Devo gave a demo to Iggy Pop at the Agora, and that tape would eventually land in the hands of David Bowie and Warner Bros. The building’s sign, which now hangs off the front wall like a theatre marquee frozen in time, can be seen far down Euclid Avenue in the rain, snow and shine.

As history would have it, Bruce Springsteen is deeply linked to Cleveland and the North Coast. His 1978 Agora performance has long been regarded as one of his and the E Street Band’s all-time best. 100.7 WMMS sponsored the show for their 10th anniversary, giving out free tickets to 375 listeners who dropped off self-addressed envelopes at a local record shop. The draw was random, thousands of envelopes were circulated. Local disc-jockey Kid Leo hosted the event, surrendering the crowd to the headliner’s star-power with one swift proclamation: “Round-for-round, pound-for-pound, there ain’t no finer band around: Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band!” Cleveland, Ohio: The birthplace of rock ‘n’ roll, as the Moondog Coronation Ball quaked inside Cleveland Arena in 1952, on the same avenue Bruce would fill with his music 26 years later. And, as history would again have it, Bruce’s mind returned to the streets of the North Coast once more in the early 1980s, to pen the title-track for a movie that never got made, for an album that would go 17x Platinum in the United States and 65 Platinum across the world.

The Rust Belt then looked a lot different than the Rust Belt does now. Drive through Northeast Ohio these days and you’ll be convinced the whole region is under construction indefinitely. All the steel plants are either demolished or shrinking into skeletons. The Cuyahoga River—more than a century after Mayor Rensselaer R. Herrick called it “an open sewer through the center of the city—is starting to rebuild its reputation, no longer haunted by the terrors of a shoreline gone up in flames but still unsafe to consume. Families decamp to Edgewater Beach on summer afternoons and toddle across the sand and stand ankle deep in Lake Erie, watching the Cleveland skyline slowly awake in an encroaching evening. When the Terminal Tower turns aglow with reds and blues, it means it’s time to head home. It means the ballgame is over and the home team won, and the echoes of noisy drunks and cheering kids straighten out into dull but romantic roars. The refineries Bruce sings of on “Born in the U.S.A.” still stand, pushing smoke into the sky just off Interstate 77, which cuts right through the city’s southern outskirts. When heading south after dusk, the white plumes of pollution look like funnel clouds and feel strangely more reachable than the noise and lights nearby.

While Bruce delivered the proverb of the misfits, weirdos and small town folks turned starry-eyed by the tomorrows of big cities in 1978, I think of men like my grandfather, Hank—an in-betweener born too late to fight in World War II and born too early to go and die in Vietnam. His sons, Willy and David, would grow up as Baby Boomers with no great bloodshed to call their own. Hank was sent to work in a factory full of an asbestos that would, in 2017, kill him with a cancer that blackened his lungs. Willy dropped out of high school, played in garage bands throughout the 1970s, joined a biker gang, became a drug dealer and put a shotgun in his mouth in 1985; David was a failed high school athlete and an only child by misfortune, sent to work in a factory himself during the Reagan-era recession and, later, raise an only child of his own through three recessions. There is something about Born in the U.S.A. that gets lost in the ignorant, patriotic embrace of its misunderstood title-track. It reckons with the aftermaths of a war two-fold—in both the reverberations of a violence perpetrated by men unlucky enough to have their name called and in the listless, generational trauma shouldered by sons whose names weren’t written down to begin with.

And that is a crux of being a Northeast Ohioan and being cursed and being from an epoch rid of any heroes: Your sibling kills himself and then your parents spend nearly every remaining minute of their lives gathering, celebrating, considering, crying and slowly dying in the same room they last saw him in. A few years later, after both of your parents pass away, you and your family move into that same home. The cycle continues on and on and on: The carpet gets re-done, the walls remain the same color the insurance company painted it decades ago. There are no ghosts here, you say, this is where we’re meant to go. Five years earlier, you told your son he would end up like your brother; four years ago, your son told a psychiatrist that he wanted the same fate. “Son, take a good look around, this is your hometown,” and the pigment of a free topcoat washes away the blood of the fallen. A wise man once said “I believe in a Promised Land.” A wise man also once said “time slips away and leaves you with nothing.”

What strikes me most about Bruce’s music is how, 50 years after Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. came out, we are all still finding ways to make his lyrics and his stories novel and personal. Your Born in the U.S.A. likely looks and sounds different from mine, but they share the same DNA all the same. It’s indicative of somebody’s American Dream—maybe not Bruce’s, mine or yours, but somebody’s. Hank Mitchell was a working man, the patriarch of a neighborhood that spanned an arm’s length—four, maybe five houses ensconcing a hundred-foot-wide pond. The homes were built along the town’s only highway sometime after the second World War; they weren’t made out of enameled steel like Lustrons, just clapboard ranch-styles like skyscrapers in a budding suburbia. Hank and his wife Ruth had moved to the area in the 1960s after the Kennedy assassination; they were transplants who’d left the boonies of the Tygart River in Central Appalachia, looking for a place to settle down and raise their kids.

Hank and Ruth found their “forever” in a pocket of the world shaped like an upside-down Arkansas. They were a perfect family not yet touched by an expiration date; all of them hillbilly progeny thrust into the gilded utopia of a booming industrial epicenter—as a General Motors auto plant had recently opened in nearby Lordstown, reinvigorating Trumbull County after the steel plants had started thinning out. Hank drove semi-trucks while Ruth raised their two boys. For a while, Southington, Ohio was worth settling down in, marking itself as a good place to retreat from the noise of Cleveland’s freighting industry or the “hell with the lid off,” below-sea-level despairs of Pittsburgh. If you squinted at that pond behind Hank’s house or caught it at the right hour, it might have looked like everything anyone could have ever wanted. Maybe it looked like Lake Erie to someone who’d only read about it in books, or perhaps its figure marked a new beginning far more bracing.

Being a fan of Bruce Springsteen’s music means you have to suspend belief here and there, depending on what part of this land you call home. To be an Ohioan means you must enter Born to Run like you would a fable. You’re not from Jersey, and the only pier lights nearby are the lambent turnstiles at the once-a-summer country fair. There’s no ocean to straddle, no overpass connecting you into a city plump with dreamers. I have lived in Northeast Ohio for 22 of my 26 years, and I will likely die here—and, truth be told, I am okay with that. My father’s family came to West Virginia in the 19th century before slowly migrating to the northernmost point of Appalachia after the second World War; my mother’s kin held court in Western Pennsylvania until they abandoned the Allegheny Plateau for Amish country and the parts of Michigan that hugged its nearby Great Lake. Hank came to Southington to find home and he wound up in a job that sent him anywhere but. When it was my parents’ turn to dream of going someplace where their names hadn’t yet meant anything, Cape Cod felt reasonable—it’s where the lighthouses are. Yet my mother’s Zillow remains awash with lakeside views barely an hour north, condominiums she’ll never pay for but wouldn’t mind growing old in.

When it became my turn to come of age here, it felt like a nice place to do so until it didn’t. Only once you start growing into your body—and the destiny your lineage demands of you—does the rest of the world begin to shrink around you. Southington felt like everything I needed it to be and, after I graduated college and struck out on my own in Columbus, it glued me back together gently when I had no money, no job and no choice but to come home. Drive into town and you’re welcomed by a “Softball State Champions 1998” sign; attend any event and you’ll be surrounded by men fixated on their triumphs of yesteryear—a conference football championship here, a charity basketball game against Mike Tyson (who built a mansion in town in the ‘90s) and his entourage there. Walk to the mailbox and you’re never more than a holler away from your loved ones. You could find the key to the universe in the engine of an old parked car in a place like that.

But like any good thing, those loved ones will one day vanish. When my mother’s mother died, it felt like the whole town came to the calling hours; I’d never hugged so many people in my life before then. When she was lowered into the earth, I’d never felt so alone. In her casket, I left behind a letter, a deck of cards and a Jim Hegan baseball card. I still dream about her sometimes—her oft-quiet voice going full-volume while singing along to the National Anthem before an Indians versus Yankees game on the Fourth of July 15 years ago. In a distorted rendering of a stadium full of 30,000 people cheering and fireworks breaking open over Ontario Street, the only voice I can make out is hers. These days, I can’t look out my bedroom window and see two lovers parked out on a kokomo Bruce sang about because he’d heard about it in a Chuck Berry tune. But, I can look out my bedroom window and see cars full of workers heading home from Cleveland. Sometimes, when my own delusions seem idealistic, I wonder if any of them drove past the land where Municipal Stadium once stood and could hear my grandmother laughing and belly-aching. In my heart of hearts, I often like to imagine this is the stubborn, epic love Bruce sang about on Born in the U.S.A.—the respite of youth and abandon puncturing the boorish static of life’s long, relentless domesticity.

From the moment I could walk, I was driven to Cleveland and asked to call it my own. Even when I am thousands of miles away from the North Coast, I can still smell the wind coming off the lake. I can hear my grandmother reciting a story about her and her husband seeing Gone With the Wind and then going to a ballgame on their honeymoon, rooting for Hegan and the boys in the summer they’d lose the World Series. I know the streets of Cleveland by name but get lost down them on purpose, if only to drink in the Public Square lights and meet cute with the guardians on both sides of the Hope Memorial Bridge. I remember every step from Jacob’s Field to the Panini’s around the corner. There I am: buying a “San Antonio Sucks” T-shirt from a street vendor just hours before the Spurs will sweep the Cavs in the NBA Finals. I think about John Adams pounding his bass drum behind left-centerfield, and I can feel my father’s knee beneath me, bouncing my body up and down to the rhythm. Even after I moved to Columbus during COVID, I continued to imagine all of the ways I could, somehow, return north just as quickly. Then and always and forever, Cleveland never felt like a dead man’s town—at least not the one Bruce sang of in “Born in the U.S.A.” It was the only place I’d ever felt alive.

But Cleveland once was as dead as Bruce says. In-between World War II and the Vietnam War, its economy started evaporating. The city added more federally subsidized highways and de-industrialized the area slowly, stripping away steel and automotive industries from the region. In the 1960s, Cleveland (and other cities) fell victim to serious redlining and, for six days (July 18-23) in 1966, riots unraveled in the Hough neighborhood on the east side after intense segregation in public schools, poor welfare benefits, inferior waste management and absent street cleaning had reached a boiling point. That week saw numerous fire bombings across E. 79th Street and Hough Avenue, namely in response to the “water incident” at Seventy-Niner’s Café. Cleveland’s deindustrialization had affected the Black community especially hard, resulting in an unemployment rate that had surged to 17%. The Hough neighborhood was a smaller area in Cleveland, though, at the time, it had one of the city’s highest population densities. Other blocks on the East Side had gone through failed urban renewal, and many poor families in Cleveland became displaced—and many of them relocated to Hough.

Cleveland’s police force, too, was a substantial catalyst in the Hough riots. 20% of the city’s crimes were reportedly committed in the Hough neighborhood, though just 7% of the city’s population lived there. And, concurrently, of the 2,100 officers in Cleveland’s police division, only 160 of them were Black—and many of them were not patrolmen, which led to widespread cases of police brutality in the neighborhoods Hough, Glenville and Shaker Heights, among others. During the Hough riots, after hours of calm, Cleveland cops shot a mother and her three children and nephew on July 21st. A day later, a militia of young white men shot a 29-year-old Black man, Benoris Toney, in the head on Euclid Avenue. Four of the six men who were arrested for Toney’s murder were let go without charges.

On the final day of the riots, The New York Times would claim that “police appeared to be adding to the problem by being chronic under-achievers in diplomacy.” Gone were the prosperities of the so-called “City of Champions” that saw the Indians win a World Series and the Browns win seven championships in 11 years. Soon, the “Mistake on the Lake” became “Bomb City” in 1976 (in the wake of ongoing gang wars, assassination attempts and car bombings carried out by Italian families and Irish-American mobsters), defaulted on federal loans (the first major American city to do so since the Great Depression) and had such consequential industrial pollution that it galvanized the modern American environmental movement (at one point, the reach of the Cuyahoga River from Akron to Cleveland contained little-to-no fish).

I bring all of this up because, by the end of Born in the U.S.A., it’s clear that Bruce, at least once upon a time, had quit chasing the maudlin highs of yesteryear and reckoned, briefly, with what the American Dream looked like beyond himself and his friends and his flames. Bruce sings about a decade not unlike Cleveland in the 1960s on “My Hometown,” which remains one of his most political songs ever. The track is broken down into four verses, each chronicling the passing of time in a place that could be a placeholder for hundreds, even thousands of different zip codes. “I was eight years old and running with a dime in my hand, into the bus stop to pick up a paper for my old man,” Bruce sings in the first verse. “I’d sit on his lap in that big old Buick and steer as we drove through town. He’d tousle my hair and say, ‘Son, take a good look around. This is your hometown.’”

But that nostalgia quickly morphs into something far less utopian: “There was a lot of fights between the Black and white, there was nothing you could do,” Bruce sings in verse two. “Two cars at a light on a Saturday night, in the backseat there was a gun. Words were passed in a shotgun blast, troubled times had come.” And at once “My Hometown” is not the syrupy-sweet, rose-colored recounting it once was. Bruce contends with images of vacant stores, whitewashed windows, textile mills closing and railroad jobs disappearing. Nobody wants to come around anymore. “My hometown” becomes “your hometown” in a flash, as if the idea is toeing the line between being a family heirloom and an abandoned destiny with one less generation to tend to it. And yet, even as all the familiar things continue to recede, there is still a yearning—for warmth, for stability, for something to call your own. “I’m 35, we got a boy of our own now,” Bruce lets on in verse four. “Last night, I sat him up behind the wheel and said, ‘Son, take a good look around. This is your hometown.’”

There is hopeful resolve to “My Hometown,” and thus there is hopeful resolve to Born in the U.S.A. “I’m 10 years burning down the road, nowhere to run, ain’t got nowhere to go” becomes “I’ll shake this world off my shoulders” through the passing of time and the passing of time alone. Growing up means growing out of many things, including musicians and places that don’t quite capture the escape you hope to find. I’ve learned to love Bruce’s coastal, industrial yarns more and more since seeing him perform them for the first time, when he sang “The Rising” at the Lincoln Memorial during Barack Obama’s inauguration concert 15 years ago. The world has only grown more unforgiving since then, yet Bruce’s lyrics remain a refuge.

When I was younger, I dreamt of becoming one of the characters in Born to Run. Then, I wanted to be one of the Flannery O’Connor-like well-wishers from The River—someone haunting the bar in town like a Beatnik writing poems on the walls of the American Dream. I wanted to be the kind of person who reckoned with their life’s purpose and considered loving someone else an economy far more valuable than the one ripping apart their bank accounts. But the men and women on Born in the U.S.A. were the kinds of people you desperately hoped you’d never turn into—the kinds of people who wound up forgotten.

That is why it only makes sense that Born in the U.S.A. is an album written in service of a place like Cleveland, a city with an industrial history that faded quickly. Take away a steel plant, build an always-half-empty casino, the great Moses Cleveland probably once said. When the recession hit America 15 years ago, Wall Street’s subprime mortgages steamrolled Cleveland’s economy. The region is on the upswing, though, with a rising GDP and a course-corrected housing market, but still the North Coast must contend with neighborhood segregation, problematic wealth-building credit access and substantial median income disparities between white and Black families. Behind the house from A Christmas Story sits Industrial Valley and its horizon line blackened by almost two centuries of pollution.

The flickers of commerce noticeable in the film have now been replaced now by Steelyard Commons, a shopping center built where the LTV Steel Factory #2 sat until its closing in 2001. Tourists near, far and someplace in-between come and pay money to tour a piece of land positioned in the foreground of great, consequential loss. Even on days plumed by the sun, an overcast sits above these vignettes of a new, commercialized world—Taco Bell, GameStop, Burlington Coat Factory, Steak n Shake, Marshalls. Life all around quakes with reward, though you’ll never know who exactly is reaping it.

“I gotta go see God tonight,” Bruce told the Agora crowd nearly 46 years ago, and the thousand people in attendance hung onto every word. How could they not? In August 1978, the Indians were the fourth-worst team in the American League (18 years into a three-decade contest with the Curse of Rocky Colavito), and Cleveland was an organized crime mecca that had lost 23.6% of its population that decade alone. Local artist Charlotte Pressler once said that there were people in Cleveland “on the margins that were dealing with what seemed like a slow-moving apocalypse.” So, when a messianic figure like Bruce Springsteen stands before you and feigns a one-night stand with the almighty—singing about Latin lovers and cops busting mystics while Terminal Tower meddles with the sky’s polluted drapes on the other side of town—you take home any piece of that you can. The E Street Band were shepherds and the whole damn ark, their four-album catalog was a garden full of half-eaten apples still ripe.

By the time Bruce released Born in the U.S.A. in 1984, he’d long been consumed by the ghosts of memory, regret and lost innocence that chased him on Born to Run, Darkness on the Edge of Town and The River. Bruce was no longer a 24-year-old kid starry-eyed by the glow of the Asbury Park boardwalk; gone, too, were Rosalita, Sandy, Billy, Jackie, Kitty, Spanish Johnny, Puerto Rican Jane, Power 13 and Little Angel. On The Wild, the Innocent & The E Street Shuffle, you are a cog in life’s cheap, imperfect and promising beauty and you dream of streets filled with pleasure machines, fortune tellers, strongmen and alley rats; on Born in the U.S.A., you are not unlike the phantoms that paint the backstreets dark. You have children and you live somewhere that is poorer than it was when you were your kids’ ages.

The characters in “Cover Me,” “No Surrender,” “Working on the Highway” are nameless; Bobby and Wayne are there, sure, but they exist as figments of the protagonist’s past. Like his “brother at Khe Sanh fighting off the Viet Cong,” what we know of the men and women who exist in Born in the U.S.A. is told through the narrators who lived long enough to get a word in. The songs on the album. were, as Bruce noted in his autobiography in 2016, “direct and fun and stealthily carried the undercurrents of Nebraska.” They were also a continuation of the narrative arc he had been building since as far back as The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle. Born in the U.S.A. is about finding dignity in an adult life, in making your voice louder than the caws of the machinery that warble around you like birds. You’re raised on three-minute .45s and hide away from the pain of the world with your wild and beautiful brothers. The town you call home enchants like it was built from scratch by the very same people who brought you into this lifetime in the first place.

Schrader’s film eventually became Light of Day, but Born in the U.S.A. still commiserates an all too familiar scape of land: men becoming expats in their own home, fading friendships, parenting in your thirties, that ever-so-distant pursuit of happiness and the despairs and romances still entangled within a faceless American Dream; stories as worn-down as those on Nebraska but, this time, far more optimistic. Anchored like a 200,000-ton freighter sleeping in the dock of a USCLE port, songs like “Bobby Jean,” “I’m Goin’ Down” and “Glory Days” emerge through both love and misery. These narrators lust after married women, have PTSD, run away with their girlfriends, admonish nostalgia and lament broken innocence. All of it is fleeting. The versions of ourselves we encounter across Born in the U.S.A. are versions of ourselves we’ll never be again, but there is one binding faith that remains: Once the dust of brutality and patriotism and tragedy settles, we can retrieve the spark we once bought into and gift it to our kin.

A few weeks ago, I returned to the Solstice Steps in Lakewood, Ohio—where you can sit mere feet from the lake’s shoreline and watch the sunset without any skyscrapers or woods blocking its descent beneath the water—for the first time in years. I kissed the first person I ever loved on those steps once, on a day trip one summer after college. Before that, we used to sit in my dorm room and listen to “Dancing in the Dark” and fantasize about a life spent together anywhere but there. We used to see pretty, one-of-a-kind and remarkable things in cities all over the country and say “Let’s live long enough to see this twice.”

But now, like the narrator in “Downbound Train,” I sometimes dream of my ex telling me they’re okay after I go to sleep worrying they’re not. I think about all the ways their hair would wave with the wind, how they’d get into bed that night and smell like the air where Cleveland becomes Canada. Before we called it quits, I told them I wanted to move back home—but they didn’t want to live in the middle of nowhere. And “nowhere,” to many, is a place only worth its weight in abandonment. But on Born in the U.S.A., the “nowhere” waiting for you at every turn is also a place worth settling into. It’s where “your life changes and you see everything new.” You can hear your loved ones’ voices louder there; your dreams seem measurable even while parts of the city become far more illegible than they were when you first called all of it yours. “And these are days when you are visited by visions, when the world around brings down the spirit and you feel blessed to be alive,” Bruce riffs at the Walter Kerr Theatre. “It is the essential equation of love.”

There was a log cabin hugging the West Virginia earth long after Hank left it for Northeast Ohio. Somebody probably moved into it at some point; maybe someone died there, too. Someone young and hopeful will soon begin paying rent in the Columbus apartment I left behind, and perhaps the money and the magic will run out for them, too. My friends keep moving away from here—decamping to New York and Philadelphia and Chicago. Every day, a family leaves Cleveland in search of a better suburb to raise their children in. And every day, a family moves to Cleveland not in search of the American Dream, but because nowhere else can hold them. These cycles, they repeat and repeat and repeat.

I sleep five feet from the spot where my uncle blew his brains out almost 40 years ago; I stare at the carpet and think about getting out and going someplace far enough away that no one can follow me. But I also think about what will happen to that carpet if I am not there to remember the blood that likely still lingers beneath it. I sold my baseball card collection during the pandemic but kept all the Jim Hegan cards; I think about what will happen to my grandmother’s voice if I am not around to sing her hymns with my own. “I do sometimes wonder who went in my place,” Bruce Springsteen tells his Broadway audience, holding Bart and Walter’s memory in his chest and considering every name on that Washington wall, “because somebody did.”


Matt Mitchell is Paste’s music editor, reporting from their home in Northeast Ohio.

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