Bruce Springsteen’s hit “Glory Days” examines four people’s ideas of the glory days. Two of them have a nostalgic view of their high school years. One was a sports star and the other a beauty. Now that they’re older, their life is clearly a disappointment; they’ve lost that high they once felt. The third person is the speaker’s father, who worked at a Ford plant for nineteen years before he was laid off. Now he drinks down at the American Legion Hall. But, the speaker adds, his father never had any glory days. (This particularly harsh verse is often omitted from live performances.) The speaker finishes off by saying he’s going to the bar, where he’ll probably bore his listeners with tales of the good old days.
Glory days, well they’ll pass you by
Glory days in the wink of a young girl’s eye
Glory day, glory days
‘”Glory Days,” Bruce Springsteen, Columbia Records, 1984, on the Born in the USA album
The song became so popular it hit #5 on the Billboard pop singles chart for 1985 and, along with “Born in the USA,” became one of the cornerstones of the album Born in the USA, which sold 30 million copies. Springsteen performed it as part of the half-time show for Super Bowl XLIII, and it’s played after every New Jersey Devils’ home win. How curious, since Bruce Springsteen, who wrote the song and based it on people he knew, is a huge star, not a washed-up adult waxing nostalgic. He doesn’t miss his high school days. He’s said on several occasions that he hated high school. But clearly, he tapped into a powerful emotion in his listeners. And the driving rock sound, complete with rolling electric piano, heavy drums, and catchy melody helps to balance the sad commentary. In the YouTube video listed in the Sources section, you’ll see the band having a great old time singing this basically sad song.
Perhaps there are personal glory days and societal glory days. From the lyrics, “Glory Days” seems personal, referring to the time when these people were the star baseball player and beauty queen, when everybody knew their names. Then time went by and life didn’t turn out the way they thought it would. That’s understandable. Many people, as they age, find accident or illness robs them of the life they once enjoyed. But the album, Born in the USA, with the picture of Bruce facing the American flag on the cover, is clearly about more than four individuals. It speaks to a very different kind of disappointment, a feeling that some bigger promise has been left unfulfilled: the promise of greatness. Except now, with the big flag, it becomes the story of the whole country, not just four people.
The album cover is fascinating. Annie Leibovitz took the famous photo of Bruce Springsteen, from the back, which is cropped to focus on his butt, lower torso, and upper legs. The photo is so important that the words are pushed to the very top edge of the cover. The flag in the background is enlarged to the point it’s reduced to red and white stripes, while Bruce’s white shirt and worn blue jeans become the field of stars. His stance is at once relaxed and slightly defiant, which suits the tone of the album. The dominant colors are red, white, and blue. The red hat stuck into the back pocket is especially striking. Apparently Lance Larsen gave it to his old friend, Bruce Springsteen, after Larsen’s father died. It had been his favorite cap. As a tribute, Springsteen stuck it in his back pocket for the photo. But on the cover it functions as more than a memory. It’s a perfect symbol. It’s red – the color of strength and passion. It echoes the flag stripes. But like the blue jeans, it’s worn. How perfect to symbolize an American man, a complex mix of power and dreams and disappointment.
It became so famous that it spawned numerous imitations, including baby gear.
The other possible cover photo, showing Bruce from the front, leaping in the air while holding his guitar, was used for the cover of the single, “Born in the USA.” While it’s full of energy, it lacks the emotional punch of the album cover.
You can now buy shirts that feature an image that conflates Bruce Springsteen’s cover image from the single of “Born in the USA” and Captain America. (Image below)
The title track, “Born in the USA,” is an indictment of a government that sent young men to an unpopular war and then ignored them when they returned. The narrator grew up in a grim industrial area, was sent off to Viet Nam, came back after losing a brother there, then couldn’t find work back home. Ironically, the song was used in multiple Republican conventions, beginning with Ronald Reagan’s. Apparently, no one bothered to listen to the lyrics, or else they felt the heavy beat and catchy, repetitive chorus were all that mattered.
It’s curious that the red hat sticking out of Springsteen’s back pocket on the album cover bears a striking resemblance to the red hat worn by Trump in his campaign, emblazoned with the slogan “Make America Great Again.” Trump also played “Born in the USA” at rallies, partially in order to challenge the citizenship of Ted Cruz, who was born in Canada. In the strange, twisted way of the 2016 campaign, Trump followers booed Springsteen for campaigning for Hillary Clinton, but they loved singing along to Springsteen’s songs, which were used without his permission.
The Dream Tarnished
Failure of the American Dream is hardly a new theme in American arts and letters. In his poem “Harlem,” published in 1951, Langston Hughes asks the question “What happens to a dream deferred?” The last two possibilities are that it “sags like a heavy load” or it explodes. Aren’t these the same emotions Springsteen has put into his song? In his film Requiem for the American Dream, Noam Chomsky explains the roots of inequality in American society, which he claims go back to the founding of the country.
Photo of the abandoned Packard Plant in Detroit, Michigan
“My Little Town”
Paul Simon’s song “My Little Town” paints a dismal picture. The speaker says he remembers “flyin’ my bike past the gates of the factories” while his mother was “doin’ laundry, hangin’ up shirts in the dirty breeze.” Then the chorus adds:
“Nothin’ but the dead and dying’ back in my little town.”
The second verse says
In my little town, I never meant nothin’
I was just my father’s son.
Savin’ my money, dreamin’ of glory,
Twitchin’ like a finger on the trigger of a gun.
Chorus: Leaving nothin’ but the dead and dying back in my little town (repeat four times)
This picture is just as bleak as Springsteen’s but the song lacks the punchy rock sound. It’s straight up dark and threatening. But it’s interesting because once again, it brings up the dream of glory as well as the desperation and barely controlled rage that go along with the long quest for it.
The Land of Promise
Part of the mythology of the USA is that it is the Land of Promise. Anyone with the necessary talent and drive can make it big here, right? We don’t know how to define “making it” or “big” exactly, but it’s all terribly important. Life is a competition. The better ones win; the others lose. Sometimes it takes someone from the outside to notice how fierce and strange that competition is here. Frida Kahlo, artist and wife of Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, remarked, “The most important thing for everyone in Gringolandia is to have ambition and become ‘somebody,’ and frankly, I don’t have the least ambition to become anybody.”
But by and large, we do. (And Frida and Diego, despite their clear Communist sympathies, were actually very good self-promoters. One section of Diego Rivera’s famous “Detroit Industry mural at the Detroit Institute of Art is shown below. It makes an interesting contrast to the photo of the abandoned plant.)
Natural Wonders Lost
There’s another side to the disappointment in both of these songs. The place is dirty. America the Beautiful is a dingy factory town, and the dirt is weighing everyone down. People have become less because the world is ugly. According to the Paul Simon song, “When it rains, there’s a rainbow, and all of the colors are black. It’s not that the colors aren’t there. It’s just imagination they lack.” The people are all “dead and dying.”
What’s most interesting about these songs is the heartache that’s part of the loss. A promise of some kind has been broken, and the emotional cost is very high indeed. Ironically, though, the factories/mills/mines that built these towns also polluted them. So is the nostalgia for the good old days of dirty factories or the good old days before the Industrial Revolution, or some other nebulous time in the past?
It’s not hard to understand how Trump was able to use the red hat and the slogan “Make America great again” so effectively. While it may have started as a call to the unemployed who had once worked in the now shuttered factory, steel mill, or coal mine, it quickly expanded because people could interpret it any way they wanted and use it to support whatever grudge they held. White Supremacists saw it as a license to hate people of color. Misogynists saw it as a reason to take away women’s rights. Militant Christians saw it as a reason to harass non-Christians. As the Nazis proved in Germany, national problems become easier to handle when you make them someone else’s fault.
Fear of the future, including climate changes, new technologies, global companies and marketplaces, and ever-increasing automation, drove the Trump supporters to chant “Build the Wall!” They might as well have chanted, “Turn back time!” And indeed, the slogan on the red hat is about turning back time, though it’s not clear how far.
Perhaps before Europeans reached these shores.
(I took a little break from antiquity in this post, but I’ll be back there next time. – KFR)
Sources and interesting reading:
Behind the Scenes: A Rear View of Bruce Springsteen, Network 9, http://network9.biz/brand-design/behing -the-scenes-the-rear-view-of-bruce-springsteen/
Chomsky, Noam. Requiem for the American Dream video, available on Netflix, Amazon, and iTunes. Preview available on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rWD8Wksx_zI
“Detroit Industry: North Wall” mural by Diego Rivera, 1932 – 1933, Detroit Institute of Arts https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3205277
Ellis, Aaron. “The Cover Cove: Bruce Springsteen – Born in the U.S.A.” Quora https://thecovercove.quora.com/Bruce-Springsteen-Born-in-the-U-S-A
“Frida Kahlo,” Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frida_Kahlo
Hughes, Langston. “Harlem.” (1951) From Collected Poems. Reprinted by Poetry Foundation. Copyright 1994 by The Estate of Langston Hughes. http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/46548
Molloy, Parker, “Are Politicians Too Dumb to Understand the Lyrics to ‘Born in the USA’?” The Daily Beast, 6 November 2014, http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2014/11/06/are-politicans-too-dumb-to-understand-the-lyrics-to-born-in-the-usa.html
Packard Plant photo by Joshu Lott for Getty Images North America, December 12, 2013, http://www.zimbio.com/pictures/XBRBO1vJ64O/Detroit+Packard+Plant…
Simon, Paul. “My Little Town” Universal Music Publishing Group, from the Still Crazy After All These Years album, 1975
Simon and Garfunkel, “My Little Town,” YouTube video, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1jg8jf9oTjw
Springsteen, Bruce, “Glory Days,” YouTube video, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6vQpW9XRiyM
Springsteen, Bruce, “Glory Days,” lyrics, AZ Lyrics, http://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/brucespringsteen/glorydays.html