Born In the U.S.A.: How Bruce Springsteen's Anti-Vietnam Anthem Got Lost In Translation

Bruce Springsteen performs on stage.
Bruce Springsteen performs on stage.
Michael Putland/Getty Images

Maybe it’s Max Weinberg’s fault. In the opening seconds of Bruce Springsteen’s 1984 single “Born in the U.S.A.,” Weinberg, the drummer for Springsteen’s E Street Band, laid down some ferocious snare hits, invoking cannon blasts and fireworks and all the national pride associated with those sounds. The track explodes before Springsteen even utters a single word, casting red, white, and blue filters on a set of lyrics imbued with many more colors and layers.

Casual radio listeners in 1984 were bound to hear “Born in the U.S.A.” as an ode to patriotism, and the perfect soundtrack for President Reagan’s “Morning In America” campaign. Reagan himself invoked Springsteen’s name during an August 1984 campaign stop in New Jersey. “America’s future rests in a thousand dreams inside your hearts,” Reagan said. “It rests in the message of hope in songs so many young Americans admire: New Jersey’s own Bruce Springsteen.”

From a distance, Springsteen looked the part of the jingoistic flag-waver. The scruffy, sinewy rocker pictured on the cover of 1975’s star-making Born to Run album had evolved into a musclebound, headband-wearing, stadium-wrecking legend-in-the-making. When he sang, “I was born in the U.S.A.,” it sounded like a declaration of pride and faith.

But “Born in the U.S.A.,” the title track off Springsteen’s blockbuster seventh album, wasn't the nationalistic singalong many people thought it was. In his 2016 memoir Born to Run, Springsteen rightfully called it “a protest song," and the angry tone ought to be clear from the opening line: “Born down in a dead man’s town / The first kick I took was when I hit the ground.”

The song's lyrics tell of a local loser who’s railroaded into military service during the Vietnam War, scarred by his experiences in Southeast Asia, and completely forgotten about by his country when he returns home. Springsteen's protagonist can’t find work or shake the image of the brother he lost in Khe Sanh. Ten years after the war, he’s got nothing left except a claim to his birthplace. And he’s not sure what that’s worth.

 

Springsteen wrote “Born in the U.S.A.” after reading Born on the Fourth of July, Vietnam veteran and antiwar activist Ron Kovic's memoir (which Oliver Stone later adapted into an Oscar-winning film starring Tom Cruise). Springsteen purchased the book at a gas station in Arizona in 1978 and was moved by Kovic’s story of a young man who enlists in the Marines and returns from Vietnam in a wheelchair, paralyzed from the waist down.

Not long after Springsteen read the book, he happened to meet Kovic by the pool at Hollywood’s Sunset Marquis hotel. They struck up a friendship, and Springsteen wound up staging an August 1981 benefit concert for the fledgling Vietnam Veterans of America.

Gie Knaeps/Getty Images

In writing “Born in the U.S.A.,” Springsteen was also motivated by survivor’s guilt—or perhaps more correctly, avoider’s guilt. By his own admission, Springsteen was a “stone-cold draft dodger.” When he was called up by his local draft board in the ‘60s, Springsteen used all the tricks in the book to avoid being selected. According to Rolling Stone, Springsteen's "efforts to convince a Newark, New Jersey, selective service board of his abject unsuitability for combat in Vietnam apparently extended to claiming he was both gay and tripping on LSD, but none of it was necessary." In the end, Springsteen was dismissed not for any of those made-up reasons, but because a concussion he had suffered in a motorcycle accident resulted in him failing his physical. He was classified 4F, or unfit for service.

“As I grew older, I sometimes wondered who went in my place,” Springsteen wrote in Born to Run. “Somebody did.” In fact, Springsteen knew some people who lost their lives in Vietnam, including Bart Haynes, the drummer in his first band. During concerts in the ‘80s, Springsteen would often share the memory of Haynes coming to his house and telling him he’d enlisted, and that he was going to Vietnam, a country he couldn’t find on the map.

 

Springsteen began writing what would become “Born In the U.S.A.” while compiling material for 1982’s stark acoustic album Nebraska. The original title was “Vietnam,” and an early version of the lyrics have the protagonist’s girlfriend ditching him for a rock singer. At some point in the process, Springsteen picked up a screenplay that Paul Schrader, the writer behind Taxi Driver, had sent him. It was called Born in the U.S.A., and while it was about a Cleveland bar band, not the plight of Vietnam vets, Springsteen recognized the power of the title.

Another influence was the 1979 book Sideshow: Kissinger, Nixon and the Destruction of Cambodia. As Brian Hiatt reveals in his 2019 book Bruce Springsteen: The Stories Behind the Songs, one draft of “Born In the U.S.A.” advocates rough justice for Nixon, suggesting we should “cut off his balls.” That line didn’t survive the editing process, but Springsteen’s anger certainly did.

Michael Putland/Getty Images

There are conflicting stories about how “Born In the U.S.A.” became such a colossal-sounding song in the studio. E Street keyboardist Roy Bittan credits himself with latching onto a six-note melody Springsteen sang when sharing the song with the band for the first time. Those six notes became the central riff of the song. Having listened to Springsteen’s lyrics, Bittan aimed for a “Southeast Asian sort of synthesized, strange sound” on his Yamaha CS-80 synthesizer. It sounded even more impactful once Weinberg began slapping that snare behind it.

In Weinberg’s version of events, the floor-shaking final version of “Born In the U.S.A.” grew out of a sparser “country trio” arrangement. When Springsteen switched up and began strumming his guitar in a style reminiscent of The Rolling Stones’s "Street Fighting Man," Weinberg drummed along, and soon the whole band followed.

 

Regardless of how it transpired, Springsteen was definitely down with “Born In the U.S.A.” being a rager. In the studio, engineer Toby Scott ran Weinberg’s drums through a broken reverb plate, putting a custom spin on the “gated reverb“ sound popularized by Phil Collins earlier in the ‘80s. Weinberg is well-deserving of his nickname, “Mighty Max,” but technology helped to give his thunderous playing that extra oomph it needed.

The version heard on the album is an early live take, with some additional jamming removed to keep the runtime under five minutes. Springsteen has subsequently done more somber acoustic versions of “Born In the U.S.A,” but they lack the juxtapositions that make the studio version so compelling—and confusing for some listeners.

“On the album, ‘Born In the U.S.A.’ was in its most powerful presentation,” Springsteen wrote in Born to Run. “If I’d tried to undercut or change the music, I believe I would’ve had a record that would’ve been more easily understood but not as satisfying.”

“Born In the U.S.A.” ultimately is a patriotic song—just not the kind President Reagan was looking for. Springsteen’s traumatized, unemployed protagonist wants to believe that being American means something. Sex Pistols frontman Johnny Rotten once said that he didn’t write the incendiary 1977 punk single “God Save the Queen” because he hates the English—but rather because he loves them and thinks they deserve better. “Born In the U.S.A.” is the same type of song, even if some people will never understand it.

“Records are often auditory Rorschach tests,” Springsteen wrote in his memoir. “We hear what we want to hear.”

Looking to Downsize? You Can Buy a 5-Room DIY Cabin on Amazon for Less Than $33,000

Five rooms of one's own.
Five rooms of one's own.
Allwood/Amazon

If you’ve already mastered DIY houses for birds and dogs, maybe it’s time you built one for yourself.

As Simplemost reports, there are a number of house kits that you can order on Amazon, and the Allwood Avalon Cabin Kit is one of the quaintest—and, at $32,990, most affordable—options. The 540-square-foot structure has enough space for a kitchen, a bathroom, a bedroom, and a sitting room—and there’s an additional 218-square-foot loft with the potential to be the coziest reading nook of all time.

You can opt for three larger rooms if you're willing to skip the kitchen and bathroom.Allwood/Amazon

The construction process might not be a great idea for someone who’s never picked up a hammer, but you don’t need an architectural degree to tackle it. Step-by-step instructions and all materials are included, so it’s a little like a high-level IKEA project. According to the Amazon listing, it takes two adults about a week to complete. Since the Nordic wood walls are reinforced with steel rods, the house can withstand winds up to 120 mph, and you can pay an extra $1000 to upgrade from double-glass windows and doors to triple-glass for added fortification.

Sadly, the cool ceiling lamp is not included.Allwood/Amazon

Though everything you need for the shell of the house comes in the kit, you will need to purchase whatever goes inside it: toilet, shower, sink, stove, insulation, and all other furnishings. You can also customize the blueprint to fit your own plans for the space; maybe, for example, you’re going to use the house as a small event venue, and you’d rather have two or three large, airy rooms and no kitchen or bedroom.

Intrigued? Find out more here.

[h/t Simplemost]

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11 Facts About Coyote Ugly On Its 20th Anniversary

Tyra Banks, Maria Bello, Bridget Moynahan, Izabella Miko, and Piper Perabo star in Coyote Ugly (2000).
Tyra Banks, Maria Bello, Bridget Moynahan, Izabella Miko, and Piper Perabo star in Coyote Ugly (2000).
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Coyote Ugly, the cult classic that launched the careers of Piper Perabo and Adam Garcia, is celebrating its 20th birthday. Though still shy of legal drinking age, the film belongs to a group of early 2000s chick flicks with varying degrees of girl power, including: Bring It On, Charlie’s Angels, Josie & The Pussycats, and Legally Blonde.

"There was a real kind of stiletto feminism that was happening in the women's movement in the late ’90s," Perabo has said of her star-making vehicle. It's that same feminism that informed the sexy, inebriated veneer of Coyote Ugly. In celebration of the movie's 20th anniversary, grab a drink (just not water) and read up on these behind-the-scenes facts about the 2000 guilty pleasure.

1. Coyote Ugly is named for a famous Manhattan dive bar.

Piper Perabo stars in Coyote Ugly (2000).Frank Masi/Touchstone Pictures & Jerry Bruckheimer, Inc./Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Coyote Ugly takes its name from the Coyote Ugly Saloon, the iconic New York City dive bar which, in turn, is inspired by the slang term for waking up after a one-night stand and realizing that, in the harsh light of day, that temporary paramour isn’t as attractive as they were the night before. Also, they’re sleeping on your arm—which you feel the overwhelming urge to gnaw off, like a coyote, in order to escape. Ouch!

2. Coyote Ugly was based on an article by the author of Eat, Pray, Love.

Coyote Ugly was based on a GQ article written by Eat, Pray, Love author Elizabeth Gilbert, about her experience working as a bartender at the Coyote Ugly Saloon. “We were expected to be a little bit larger than life, or to pretend to be, or—at the very least—to want to be,” Gilbert wrote of the Coyote Ugly way. “We were the good-time girls. We were a cross between Old West dancehall hookers and gangsters' gun molls. Crack that gum, swing that ass, drink that shot, keep that change.”

3. Britney Spears and other major music stars of the time were approached about starring in Coyote Ugly.

Jessica Simpson, Britney Spears, and Jewel were all approached about playing Coyote Ugly's Violet Sanford, the New Jersey singer-songwriter aptly nicknamed "New Jersey" during the character’s shifts at the raunchy bar.

4. LeAnn Rimes benefited from Coyote Ugly's growing cult status.

LeAnn Rimes sang "Can’t Fight the Moonlight," the blockbuster lead single from Coyote Ugly, which went four times platinum in 2008—eight years after the movie's original release, signifying the film's cult status.

5. Piper Perabo's singing voice in Coyote Ugly was dubbed, even though she can actually sing.

Though Piper Perabo, whos character Violet writes the song for LeAnn Rimes in the movie, could really sing and even learned guitar for the movie, Rimes’s voice was dubbed in during Perabo’s singing scenes. In 2015, Perabo—who originally sang and recorded all of the songs herself—told The Hollywood Reporter that she was disappointed when she learned her voice was going to be replaced. "[Director David McNally] said, 'We're going to dub the songs,' and I was like, 'Uh, OK,'" Perabo recalled. "What can I say? I'm like 21. What am I going to say, no?"

6. Kevin Smith did some work on the script.

Actor, writer, and filmmaker Kevin Smith, of Clerks, Chasing Amy, and Jay and Silent Bob fame, did some uncredited rewrites on the script. The credited screenwriter, Gina Wendkos, also wrote The Princess Diaries 1 and 2 and the mid-2000s Hilary Duff-starrer, The Perfect Man.

7. Coyote Ugly's leading man helped create the role of Fiyero in Broadway's Wicked around the same time the movie was released.

Adam Garcia attends the after-party for the musical Wicked celebrating 10 years in the West End on September 27, 2016 in London, England.David M. Benett/Dave Benett / Getty Images for Wicked UK

Adam Garcia, who played Violet’s love interest Kevin, helped originate the role of Fiyero in Wicked in Broadway workshops around the same time that Coyote Ugly came out. He also portrayed Fiyero in the West End production of the musical, alongside original star Idina Menzel.

8. Coyote Ugly's bar had to be redesigned to accommodate Bridget Moynahan.

Bartender Rachel, played by Bridget Moynahan—who worked as a model before transitioning to acting—was too tall to dance on the bar that had been created for Coyote Ugly, so the set had to be redesigned to accommodate her height. "[W]hen we had the first rehearsal they didn’t make the ceiling high enough for me and Tyra [Banks] to be able to stand on the bar," Moynahan told The Ringer. "We had to sit that one out."

9. One of Coyote Ugly's stars has a connection to Center Stage—another 2000 cult hit.

Izabella Miko, the Polish actress who plays Cammie, was formerly a ballet dancer at the National Ballet School in Warsaw and the American School of Ballet, which famously served as the inspiration for the American Ballet Academy in Center Stage.

10. Tyra Banks is desperate to see a Coyote Ugly sequel, starring some pretty major names.

Tyra Banks plays former bartender Zoe, who goes off to law school, enabling Violet to take her place. Banks has long been lobbying for a sequel to Coyote Ugly, and has some pretty big names in mind to star in it, including Lady Gaga, Selena Gomez and … Meryl Streep? "But, like, [Streep] would be the bar," Banks clarified. "She should be the bar! Method actor."

11. Piper Perabo is curious to see how different Coyote Ugly might look in 2020.

Perabo, too, has said she would entertain the idea of a sequel, but “it would need to be looked at in a different lens.” Perabo, who was arrested in 2018 for protesting the confirmation hearings of Supreme Court justice Brett Kavanaugh, told News.com.au, “I would be excited to look at it again in 2020, because I think we’ve evolved and it would be cool to see what it would be like now."