Summer 1984 saw the release of Bruce Springsteen’s Born In the U.S.A. My buddy and Camelot Music coworker Alex was so excited that he bought his copy down the mall at Record Bar because they received their shipment two hours before we did. He spent the next year (and the next thirty for all I know) in jeans and work boots with a worn ball cap hanging out of his back pocket. But it wasn’t just Alex. Jeff, Dee Dee, Chuck and all of the other old people (read: twenty year olds) dropped the needle on that album anytime that they were near the store’s turntable. Radio stations had it in their power rotation, and MTV played to death that “Dancing In the Dark” video featuring original equipment Courtney Cox. I hated that fucking album.
It wasn’t just that album, I hated Bruce. More specifically I hated radio Bruce: “Born to Run,” “Hungry Heart,” “Glory Days.” I don’t why the hell labels pick the most watered down tracks as singles.
It’s not just Bruce, of course. If you aren’t a Jane’s Addiction fan then you probably know them as the “Jane Says” and “Been Caught Stealing” guys, both of which are the weakest songs on their respective albums. Bowie? “Let’s Dance,” “Fame,” and “Space Oddity.” Nickelback? That one song that they record over and over but with different titles. (Maybe that isn’t a good example.)
I owned Bruce’s Nebraska and I really dug it, but I couldn’t understand Alex’s preoccupation with The Boss. I couldn’t even grasp why people referred to him as The Boss. I would’ve gone with The Overrated Sweaty Guy Who Looks Like He Smells Bad, but I wasn’t very good with nicknames.
Alex was a smart guy and his musical taste otherwise was solid, so I assumed that the problem had to be me. I tried hard to unlock the secrets of Born In the U.S.A. but the album left me cold; in fact, it irritated me. It seemed to play to the same stupid, boring, narrow-minded small town values that I wanted so desperately to escape — songs about glory days in my hometown. Fuck that.
On top of it all Bruce seemed like a huge sellout. Ever since Born To Run was released he was hailed as rock and roll’s great white hope, and now fifty times per day you could see him on MTV doing that corny Molly Ringwald dance to some half-assed, synth happy track about dancing in the dark.
And then one afternoon while I was tooling down the interstate in the Quincymobile “Dancing In the Dark” came on the radio and I didn’t change the station. I thought about Alex and the ever-present image of the new Molly Ringwald-dancing Bruce. I thought about how great Nebraska was and how nobody cared. I thought about the album cuts I’d heard on other Bruce albums — songs like “Jungleland” that were deep, moving, and unknown to all of the kids prancing around in their Born In the U.S.A. muscle tees. I listened closely to the radio, and it all clicked.
When I got to work I ran up to Alex and yelled, “I get it!”
“‘Dancing In the Dark’, I get it.”
“What do you get?”
“It’s a Trojan horse.”
“Do what now?”
“You can’t start a fire without a spark. This gun’s for hire, even if we’re just dancing in the dark. Bruce is the gun for hire but he knows that no one will listen to what he has to say if it doesn’t sound like shitty pop music, so it’s like he’s saying ‘you go ahead and dance mindlessly to this album, because after you listen to it a couple hundred times my message will seep in.’ The guy is brilliant.”
Alex smiled. A few seconds of silence passed between us, and then he said: “No, that’s completely wrong,” and walked to the front counter.
I still can’t stand that record, and I still think I’m right.