At Christmas a few months ago, my Dad cheerfully announced that one of the songs we'll be listening to at his funeral - he's 83 next month, but in good health - is "No Surrender" from Born in the USA. That should be fun, then. I've no idea what any of the other songs will be. (And since you ask, if you ever come to my funeral, you'll certainly hear "Lazy Calm" by the Cocteau Twins.)
Anyhow, my Dad is a massive fan of Springsteen and - like 33 1/3 author Geoffrey Himes - he's of the unusual opinion that Born in the USA is Bruce's best album. Himes makes a pretty convincing case in his book (publishing this fall) that Springsteen's finest work blends comedy and tragedy, and cuts back a little on the earnestness. The book is also a remarkable testament to just how prolific Springsteen was, as a writer, during the early 80s. Here's a short extract:
Springsteen had long been frustrated by his inability to connect with a black audience. After all, many of his crucial musical models had been African-American: Bonds, Berry, Fats Domino, Sam Cooke, Smokey Robinson, Curtis Mayfield, Wilson Pickett, Eddie Floyd and the Isley Brothers; he performed their songs on stage and modeled his own songwriting on theirs. And his bands had always been interracial; Clarence Clemons was Springsteen’s favorite on-stage foil, and for most of 1974 the E Street Band (the version that Landau first saw) was half African-American.
But the joke had always been that there were more black people on stage at Springsteen’s shows than in the audience. It wasn’t that bad, of course, but the crowds were overwhelmingly white, even compared to audiences for such Springsteen heroes as the Righteous Brothers, the Beatles, Mitch Ryder and Elvis Presley. What was missing?
The Pointer Sisters had scored a #2 single with a Springsteen song, “Fire," in 1978. Bonds had hits with two Springsteen songs, the #11 “This Little Girl” in 1981 and the #21 “Out of Work” in 1982. Natalie Cole would have a #5 hit with Springsteen’s “Pink Cadillac” in 1988. Clearly, black artists could connect to black audiences with Springsteen’s material, so why couldn’t the songwriter himself?
There were several answers. Springsteen’s lyrics in the 70s had been so self-consciously poetic and his vocals so unabashedly earnest that they struck skeptical African-American audiences as corny. Smokey Robinson's songs had many of the same qualities, but they were so wrapped up in sex that the poetry and earnestness were forgiven for their obvious ulterior motives. Sex, however, was notably absent from Springsteen’s early work.
Not coincidentally, so was syncopation. Springsteen’s natural instinct was to stomp the beat rather than swing it, and while this had honorable precedents in everyone from Roy Orbison through the Who to the Ramones, it was not an approach that resonated with black listeners. As the 80s began, though, Springsteen was trimming back the verbiage in his songs for a leaner vernacular and he was trimming back on the romanticism to accommodate a more skeptical realism. And through his work for Bonds and Summer, he was working hard to bring more African-American syncopation into his music.
For the Summer assignment, he took a line from "Born in the U.S.A.," "You spend half your life just covering up," and expanded the idea into a whole song, a plea to a woman to cover him up, to protect him from all the kicks and punches the world is aiming his way. He wants her to hold him in her arms, to provide a hidden romantic refuge, in Dylan's words, a "shelter from the storm," from "the rain, the driving snow … the wild wind blowing."
The original version of this new song was called "Drop on Down and Cover Me." The theme was the same, but the lyrics were slightly different and the music was dramatically different. The demo cut with the E Street Band opened with a blaring R&B sax solo, shifted into rumbling drums right out of Buddy Holly's "Peggy Sue," and then into a vocal duet between Springsteen and Van Zandt that sounded like Sam & Dave or James & Bobby Purify. In other words, it was a retro-soul number, the kind of song Springsteen had often written in the past and would write several times again in the early 80s ("Stand on It," "Lion's Den," "Cynthia" and others).
This vintage R&B approach was quite appropriate for a 60s figure like Gary U.S. Bonds, but not for a contemporary singer like Summer. If the whole point of the exercise was to write a modern R&B song, this wasn’t going to work. So Springsteen jettisoned the original (actually superior) melody and concentrated on getting a disco or funk groove going on his guitar. The figure he came up with was so compelling that Landau was convinced the song was a surefire hit. In fact, Landau was so convinced that he argued against giving the song away to Summer; they should keep it for themselves. It wasn’t the first time the manager had rescued a hit from the singer's giveaway program; Springsteen had been ready to hand "Hungry Heart" over to the Ramones before Landau intervened.
Instead they gave Summer "Protection," a song Springsteen had written during the River sessions. When the E Street Band demoed it over the summer of 1982, it sounded like a brassy girl-group song (pleading for protection from one's own obsessive love) that might have been belted out over stabbing keyboard chords by the Ronettes in the 60s or by the Pointer Sisters in the 70s. It was introduced by a sax solo and climaxed by a guitar solo, a solo that Springsteen reprised personally for Summer's version, which appeared on her 1982 album, Donna Summer.