Bruce Springsteen is a man who needs little introduction. Nevertheless, even his most popular work is often misrepresented. Indeed, his biggest-selling album, Born In The U.S.A., became a symbol of patriotism in the 1980s. But few realized that its title track was, in fact, a protest song about the treatment of Vietnam vets. And fewer still knew the surprising reason why the musician himself avoided fighting in the Vietnam conflict.
If you grew up listening to mainstream radio in the 1980s, it was hard to escape rock legend Bruce Springsteen. Indeed, the musician was even held up as a poster boy for the American Dream by then-president Ronald Reagan as he ran for re-election. In truth, however, Springsteen’s output had ventured on an unexpectedly political course.
His earlier lyrical themes had reflected Springsteen’s own roots in New Jersey and a desire for something more than his hometown of Freehold had to offer. But on his sixth record, Nebraska, the singer explored themes of a more socially aware nature. And this would fuel the direction that its follow-up, Born In The U.S.A., later took.
Born In The U.S.A. went for a more pop-rock sound than its stripped-back and somewhat dark predecessor. It was certainly a style that resonated with 1980s America. But the album’s seemingly nationalistic themes and fist-pumping anthems veiled a deeper message – and it was one Reagan had gotten very wrong.
You see, Reagan had name-checked Springsteen and Born In The U.S.A.’s title track as a beacon of hope for America. However, in truth the song was written about the forgotten veterans who’d returned from Vietnam to a country that cared little about them. And it was a subject that resonated strongly with the musician.
Springsteen was born in September 1949. Watching Elvis on television as a young boy had a profound effect on him. “[Elvis] was as big as the whole country itself. As big as the whole dream,” Springsteen later said, according to Biography.com. “He just embodied the essence of it.”
When Springsteen turned 16, his mom Adele gave him a guitar. She needed to borrow money to pay for it, however, much to the chagrin of his father Doug. As the musician later recalled, “When I was growing up, there were two things that were unpopular in my house. One was me, and the other was my guitar.”
Nonetheless, the investment eventually paid off. Music gave the young Springsteen a focus that school never managed to instill in him. Moreover, at the end of his teens the budding musician was already performing in a number of groups around the New Jersey coastal city of Asbury Park. In the process, he encountered the players who would find fame with Springsteen as the E Street Band.
Springsteen subsequently put out his debut album Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. on Columbia Records in 1973. His musical style at the time was often likened to Bob Dylan. However, as reflected in the album’s title, its songs and themes very much mirrored his own personal experiences, whether it was the cocksure abandon of a wannabe superstar or something altogether more self-aware and introspective.
Sales of Springsteen’s first album and its follow-up The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle, didn’t match his critical acclaim, though. But if the public were slow to catch on, respected Rolling Stone journalist Jon Landau certainly saw his potential. After catching the band live, Landau famously wrote, “I saw rock and roll’s future and its name is Bruce Springsteen.”
Landau eventually became Springsteen’s manager, in fact, and at the singer’s behest also accompanied The E Street Band in the studio. Then, after more than a year in the making, it was 1975’s Born To Run that finally connected with listeners across America. Springsteen had successfully committed to record the energy of the E Street Band’s live shows.
And it was in the live arena that the E Street Band perhaps excelled most. After Born To Run reached number three on the Billboard charts, the band were forced onto a prolonged tour due to lawsuits relating to Springsteen’s previous manager. It took them around the world and to success on a global scale.
Springsteen was a bona fide star. So much so, in fact, that he simultaneously appeared on the front of rival news publications Time and Newsweek. Fame, however, didn’t necessarily sit well with the man known as “The Boss.” Indeed, in an attempt to maintain his bearings, he needed to take a different approach to his next album.
The result was 1978’s Darkness On The Edge Of Town, a more self-reflective affair than its predecessor. And this was the period during which the E Street Band’s live performances became legendary. For instance, it wasn’t unusual for a show to last more than three hours. It was around the same time, too, that Springsteen became an avid reader, a pastime that greatly influenced his writing.
Springsteen was particularly struck by a book in 1978 called Born On The Fourth Of July. It was written by Ron Kovic, a Vietnam War survivor whose life changed forever in combat when his unit came under fire. A bullet damaged his spinal cord, paralyzing the lower parts of the soldier’s body. On his return home, the author became a prevalent anti-war campaigner.
As it happened, Vietnam was a subject that resonated strongly with Springsteen. Now, as mentioned earlier, The Boss and his father didn’t get along. Indeed, as you may recall, it was his mother who’d bought him a guitar as a teenager. His father, meanwhile, wasn’t at all happy about her actions.
Moreover, Springsteen’s mom was the main breadwinner in the family. She worked for an insurance firm in their hometown of Freehold. In contrast, his father struggled to stay in any job for too long, variously finding employment as a prison guard, bus driver and a millworker. Later the musician drew inspiration from his dad’s struggles, as well as their relationship, in his music.
You see, one of the reasons Springsteen’s relationship with his father was so difficult was due to his dad’s mental health issues. “[I had] a gentleness, a timidity, shyness and a dreamy insecurity,” The Boss told Esquire in November 2018. “These were all the things I wore on the outside, and the reflection of these qualities in his boy repelled [my father]. It made him angry.”
“My father looked at all those things as weaknesses,” Springsteen explained. “He was very dismissive of primarily who I was.” The star described his dad’s disappointment that his son was a tender soul much like his mother. But his father’s domineering presence hid something darker.
You see, Springsteen’s father had fought in World War Two. And when he’d returned to the U.S., he suffered from spells of paranoia and depression. Nonetheless, his dad would tell Springsteen that military service would do his son good.
In an opening monologue to a live version of “The River” on the album …Live 1975-85, Springsteen recalled a confrontation with his father in the late 1960s. “When I was growing up, me and my dad used to go at it all the time over almost anything,” he said. The singer also recounted how his father had hated his son’s long hair.
Indeed, tensions ran so high between father and son that the teenaged Springsteen spent a lot of time out of the house. And yet, when he eventually returned home, his father’s looming presence always seemed to be waiting for him in the kitchen.
“I’d tuck my hair down into my collar, and I’d walk in,” Springsteen recalled. “He’d call me back to sit down with him. And the first thing he’d always ask me was what did I think I was doing with myself. The worst part about it was I could never explain it to him.”
“I remember I got in a motorcycle accident once. I was laid up in bed, and he had a barber come in and cut my hair,” Springsteen continued. “Man, I can remember telling him I hated him and that I would never forget it.” His father had a stern response.
“He used to tell me, ‘I can’t wait till the Army gets you. When the Army gets you, they’re going to make a man out of you,” Springsteen added. “They’re gonna cut all that hair off, and they’ll make a man out of you.’” Then, as fate would have it, the musician was indeed drafted for the Vietnam War.
Springsteen was already aware of many local men being drafted to fight in South-East Asia. Some were even friends he played with in groups. “I remember the drummer in my first band coming round my house with his Marine uniform on and saying that he was going and he didn’t know where it was,” Springsteen recalled.
That drummer’s name was Bart Haynes. And he, as well as Walter Cichon, a local musician Springsteen worshipped, never returned from Vietnam. They were among more than 58,000 U.S. servicemen who lost their lives in the conflict. Those who did make it home alive, the musician noted, were changed forever. It was unsurprising, then, that the prospect of being drafted terrified him.
“I remember the day I got my draft notice – I hid it from my folks,” Springsteen said. “Three days before my physical, me and my friends went out and stayed up all night. And [when] we got on the bus that morning, man, we were all so scared.” Perhaps understandably, the musician desperately wanted to get out of being enlisted.
Springsteen was drafted at exactly the same time as a couple of band-mates, in fact. They traveled together to the Selective Service station, sure they would never return home. However, the musician had a plan. Later, in a 2017 conversation with Tom Hanks at the Tribeca Film Festival reported by Rolling Stone, he described it as “everything in the draft-dodger’s text book.”
Springsteen went to great lengths to convince the Selective Service board he wasn’t fit for combat. This included telling the officials that he was homosexual and pretending to be high on LSD. As it happened, though, all three friends were turned away. And for The Boss, his false claims proved to be unnecessary.
You see, Springsteen simply didn’t pass his physical. And it was due to the aforementioned motorbike crash that he’d been involved in. The accident had left him with a nasty concussion. It had been severe enough, in fact, to make him unfit for service. The musician was sent home as a result. Nevertheless, the Vietnam War continued to resonate through his music.
“I had friends who went,” Springsteen explained to Hanks. “I had friends who went and died. I had friends later on who were seriously hurt… And, so, it was something that I felt I had to come to terms with myself and I needed to sing about.”
Fate, it seems, had a different path for Springsteen. Indeed, shortly after he picked up Ron Kovic’s book, he randomly encountered the author at L.A.’s Sunset Marquis hotel. The pair hit it off, and through Kovic, Springsteen met Bobby Muller, who ran the Vietnam Veterans of America organization.
Muller’s charity was in a bad way financially. However, its fortunes turned around when Springsteen and The E Street Band played a fund-raising show in its honor during the summer of 1981. And while he made sure that the veterans in the audience had a first-class view of The Boss, Springsteen in turn shone a spotlight on those ex-servicemen.
Indeed, Muller credits Springsteen with spurring unprecedented interest in the welfare of U.S. veterans. “Without [Springsteen], we would have folded,” he told Time in June 2019. “We would never have had a coherent Vietnam movement in this country.” Moreover, around this time the song “Born In The U.S.A.” started to take shape.
“Born In The U.S.A.” is littered with references to the Vietnam War. Indeed, even the song’s structure and production qualities were designed to emulate the chaos, confusion and battery of conflict. Springsteen sang of a man who returned home to a country that turned its back on him. The narrator’s experience was the antithesis of the American Dream.
“Born In The U.S.A.” was the third single from the album of the same name. And not only did Springsteen change the lives of many veterans, the record changed life for The Boss as well. In addressing his survivor’s guilt, the anthem helped propel the record to become one of the biggest-selling in history at 30 million copies. Springsteen was a global phenomenon – but he never forgot his past.
Veterans’ struggles continued to feature in Springsteen’s music into the new century. Indeed, references to the ravages of war echo on his latest album, 2019’s Western Stars. Furthermore, The Boss is a regular at the annual Stand Up For Heroes benefit concert, having topped the bill more than 10 times, which has helped to bring in tens of millions of dollars to support veterans.
Going back to Springsteen’s own experience of the draft, his father expressed relief when his son returned home from his physical after being rejected by the Army. Moreover, the pair reconciled in 1990, days before the musician became a father himself. Doug passed away in 1998. Springsteen has three kids with his wife, E Street Band member Patti Scialfa. They live in Colts Neck, New Jersey, close to where Springsteen grew up.
Politics became more pronounced for Springsteen throughout the 2000s. For example, in 2008 he openly backed Democratic candidate Barack Obama and early the following year was the opening act at the newly elected president’s Lincoln Memorial concert. Later in 2009 Obama said of the singer, “I may be the president, but he is The Boss.” Obama subsequently granted Springsteen the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2016.
Springsteen still thinks about the friends he lost in Vietnam. In October 2017 he embarked on a Broadway residency that lasted more than a year. In the show, he recalled visiting the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington D.C. “All those lost years. Somebody’s life. Those missing years,” he said, according to The Washington Post. “Years that should have been lived, lived out. Remains infuriating. To this day I do sometimes wonder who went in my place. Because somebody did.”