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Side 2: "Ready to Grow Young Again"

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Side 2: “Ready to Grow Young Again”


The dark clouds that overcast Born’s first side lift somewhat when you flip the record over (or progress to the second half of the CD). Every song on the second side on Born is nostalgic: dealing with the difficulties of (primarily male) aging, the resignation and sometimes the tragedy of maturity. While side one features men attempting, however fruitlessly, to flee their fates, side two offers men accepting them, finding comfort where they can, in memories, in music, and yes, in sex. Ennui and uneasiness give way to equanimity and compliance: the once inflated American Dream is adjusted and revised. And so attitudes towards male sexuality shift somewhat as well, but remain every bit as vital to the characters’ motives.


“No Surrender” proudly announces this perspective shift, as Springsteen pleads for his “blood brother” to keep fighting for their adolescent dreams. It could be the Wayne from “Darlington County” singing to its mellowing narrator, once both have a few more years under their respective belts. Maturity is often a process of retreating, of surrendering, of compromising your dreams of escape and accepting your place in the world. Fighting for those grandiose hopes can be grueling, and after some hard-fought battles, domestic stability can seem mighty appealing. And so Springsteen revisits the sentiments of “Cover Me” in the final verse: “There’s a war outside still raging / You say it ain’t ours anymore to win / I want to sleep beneath peaceful skies in my lover’s bed / With a wide open country in my eyes / And these romantic dreams in my head.” At a certain point in life, one’s most romantic dreams are permanently confined to the head, to the realm of memory and fantasy rather than reality.


 


Memory also fuels the unsent love letter that is “Bobby Jean”, another tribute to a friend from yesteryear, this time female and probably a former sexual partner. After considerable time apart, the narrator realizes Bobby Jean as the one that got away, the right girl for him. As he states, “There ain’t nobody, nowhere, nohow / Gonna ever understand me the way you did.” His rambling days are over, and his thirst for adult tranquility has brought him back to his teenage love, but in Springsteen’s world, it’s never that easy: Bobby Jean has escaped, finally off chasing her own dreams instead of settling for her circumstances—whatever life the narrator could provide her would not be good enough. Here, the implicit subtext of rock-music-as-power, which underscores much of the album, is made explicit, as Springsteen exhausts his only avenue to reach her: the airwaves. He vows:


There’ll be a radio playing and you’ll hear me sing this song
Well, if you do, you’ll know I’m thinking of you
... And I’m just calling you one last time
Not to change your mind, but just to say I miss you, baby
Good luck, goodbye.



Like the standard Springsteen stock players who find salvation in the promise of rock and roll, “Bobby Jean”’s long-lost boyfriend finds culture his only resource, a way for him to achieve power in a situation where he feels powerless. Furthermore, getting a song on the radio is a way to show Bobby Jean that he has become successful, to establish himself as something more than a teenage fuck-up, and to prove he’s made good on his own unreachable aspirations.



Those aspirations, like so many, are quickly dashed in the album’s closing quartet. “I’m Goin’ Down” illustrates a failing relationship, one where the romantic fire has been extinguished. The longtime girlfriend routinely rejects the protagonist’s advances, in sharp contrast to the unbridled passion they once held for each other. “I pull you close but when we kiss I can feel a doubt / I remember back when we started, my kisses used to turn you inside out,” he complains. Such is the trajectory of millions of relationships that get too serious too early, and the physical intimacy dies before the emotional attachment. Thus, “I’m Goin’ Down” demonstrates the dangers of settling, the forces that compel young people into early marriages, because they think it’s the proper path to adulthood. It’s a troubling inversion of the woman-as-savior theory, as the woman who once offered his sexual fulfillment is now continually rebuffing his advances, leaving him on fire and with an unquenched desire. “Goin’ down” can refer either to a softening erection, or the more common connotation of cunnilingus, in a situation echoing the Beatles’ “Please Please Me” dynamic, as though pleasuring the woman is his only hope of deriving any sexual contact whatsoever.


The dangers of settling too soon, jumping head-first into the American Dream before you know any better, are emphasized in the second verse of “Glory Days”, where the narrator visits a once-beautiful high school peer, now a single mother two years separated from her husband. She and the narrator share some drinks, and she confides that “when she feels like crying / She starts laughing, thinking about / Glory days.” Like many of the characters on the second side, she’s living in the past to suppress the harsh realities of the present. “They’ll pass you by / Glory days / In the wink of a young girl’s eye,” Springsteen continues, subtly suggesting how young love can lead to deferred dreams, and eventually, unhappy predicaments like those in “Down” and “Glory”.


“Dancing in the Dark” is, like “I’m on Fire”, a feverishly impassioned disclosure of a lonely man’s sexual frustration. The protagonist is tired and bored—dissatisfied with his position and his place, to quote one of Springsteen’s idols. Why such aggravation? Mainly because he’s not getting laid. In “Dark”, as on “Fire” and “Down”, a man’s unsatisfied sexual desire is a deprivation, and Springsteen finally equates poverty with celibacy in its final verse: “They say you gotta stay hungry / Hey baby, I’m just about starving tonight / I’m dying for some action / I’m sick of sitting ‘round here trying to write this book / I need a love reaction.” Thus, Springsteen’s men are hindered not simply by their economic statuses, but their sexual virility as well. As long as both elements are hindered, the American Dream remains firmly out of their grasp.


Born in the U.S.A. closes with the heartbreaking “My Hometown”, a reflective portrait that ends in what constitutes the fulfilled American Dream for so many: resigned domestic contentment. As with the title track, the woman’s presence here is severely limited, granted only a couple lines, but revelatory all the same:


Last night me and Kate
We laid in bed
Talking about getting out
Packing up our bags
Maybe heading south
I’m thirty-five
We got a boy of our own now
Last night I sat him up behind the wheel
And said, ‘Son, take a good look around’
This is your hometown.



The narrator has a wife, a kid, and a house, but remains in the same dismal town that has dominated, even sucked away, his life. The thirst to escape remains, as does the tacit realization that escaping is economically and socially unfeasible. He is stuck and he needs to make do, taking solace in his family. Only in this final cut is the woman-as-protector dream achieved rather than desired, and like so many of the paths on Born in the U.S.A., the dream’s victory proves hollow.


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