Thanks to all who read and provided feedback to my review of the song Born in the U.S.A. I promised a track-by-track review of the BITUSA album, so here is track two, Cover Me. Because I am writing these in my free time, it takes me a bit longer to get them completed (not that I think anyone is anxiously refreshing this page hoping for a new post).
The best thing I can say about Cover Me is that it is not my least-favorite song on BITUSA; but even this is subject to qualifications. It is hard to think of the songs on the BITUSA album as ordinal data because they are all good. The 12th best song is not necessarily two songs worse than the 10th best song.
The times are tough now, just getting tougher/This old world is rough, it's just getting rougher
So where does Cover Me rank? Somewhere among the bottom three to me, and here is why. First, the lyrics don't take me anywhere. I get my opinion on this is not universal, but I look toward Springsteen lyrics to tell a story about someone. Take me some place I would not ordinarily go. Force me to consider a life situation I might not normally encounter. Cover Me does not do that. It is the story of someone looking for a lover who will come on in and cover him. Bruce’s character desires to be wrapped up in someone’s love and affection. There is nothing wrong with that. Maslow emphasized the importance of love and belonging and Springsteen regularly shares his quest for love and belonging in his songs. Much of the Tunnel of Love album, which immediately followed BITUSA, chronicles this journey.
Cover Me’s protagonist does not take us anywhere. For all we know, it is about a dude who has locked himself inside a home waiting for something to fall in his lap, Turn out the light, bolt the door/I ain't going out there no more. He is putting in no effort to seek a lover to cover him.
That this song was included on BITUSA while so many other excellent songs written at the same time were left off is criminal. Johnny Bye Bye is a wondrous dedication to Elvis Presley relegated to the B-side of I'm On Fire.
They found him slumped up against the drain
With a whole lot of trouble, yeah, running through his veins
Shut Out the Light was the perfect companion to Born in the U.S.A. and was released as that song's B-side. It tells a slightly more hopeful version of a Vietnam veteran returning home, while simultaneously examining the PTSD veterans experience.
Well on his porch they stretched a banner that said "Johnny Welcome Home"...
Oh mama mama mama come quick
I've got the shakes and I'm gonna be sick
Throw your arms around me in the cold dark night
Hey now mama don't shut out the light
Both of those songs (or This Hard Land... or County Fair...) are better than Cover Me.
Second, as with most Springsteen songs, the live version is sooooo much better than the album version. I love the beginning of live Cover Me with Patti Scialfa channeling Martha Reeves and the Vandellas to wail, “Got nowhere to run to people, got nowhere to hide”. This is immediately followed by Bruce seemingly coming out of the darkness to bellow “Cover Me” with an exaggerated emphasis on the “CUH-ver” portion of the lyric.
Third, in typical 1980s fashion, the 12-inch Cover Me single released in 1984 had three (!) alternate overdubs. These are unlistenable with a ridiculous amount of synthesizers.
Finally, this song was almost given to Donna Summer, and maybe with its simple lyrics and frequent chorus, it should have been. It would have done well on the disco charts, like Summer's Protection, given to her by Springsteen in 1982. But Jon Landau thought it had potential to be a pop hit, and it did hit number 7 on the Billboard charts.
One of the conundrums at a Springsteen concert is when to go to the bathroom. He plays for 3-plus hours after all, and you don't want to miss something spectacular or rare. Cover Me is my bathroom song.
I’m ten years burning down the road...
Actually, it is more like 36 years burning down the road. Thirty-six years is the length of time I have been listening to Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A. album/CD/stream. On this July 4th, with our country being divided by a president and his incendiary white supremecist rhetoric, I thought it would be a good time to reflect on this song, and the impact the whole album has had on me.
I was introduced to it in the fall of 1984 by my 10th grade Wayzata High School civics (I think that was the class) teacher, Roger Lipelt. Mr. Lipelt talked about how great the album was, but none of my friends really listened to it. This was Minnesota at the time of Purple Rain. It was the height of MTV and VH1. It was The Breakfast Club, Thriller, and Madonna. High school students simply did not listen to the stories of a working man and the struggles trying to make his way in the world of the mid-1980s.
For a reason I cannot recall, I wanted to listen to it. Or maybe I saw the video on MTV and, like good marketing is supposed to do, it prompted me to buy the record. I was hooked on Bruce from that point forward. I have more than 200 concerts on mp3. I spent a couple hundred for a pit ticket to see him at Wrigley Field (thanks, Paul!). E Street Radio is the number two preset in my car, after my local NPR station.
Born in the U.S.A. as an album is a collection of 12 songs which meander through hope and despair, optimism and pessimism, while presenting a less than flattering portrait of America in the early 1980s. I have listened to those 12 songs literally hundreds of times. My high school buddies, Bob, Flynn, and Shoe, and I had a group text exchange Memorial Day weekend in which a mashup of 80s tunes on YouTube was shared. During a modest debate as to whether or not Debbie Gibson and Tiffany were musical geniuses (they were not, and are not), I chimed in, “Springsteen is the only 80s music in my regular rotation. #getoffmylawn.”
I have long wanted to put into words the impact that album, song by song, had on me. I don’t know why anyone would want to read it, but this is my creative outlet. So, if you have made it this far, here goes, starting with the title track.
Born down in a dead’s man town…
The song Born in the U.S.A. has changed and evolved over time, but it is consistently misinterpreted by politicians, frequently Republicans, as far back as Ronald Reagan. They have never quite understood that it is not a patriotic song. Instead, it is about a disillusioned Vietnam veteran who returns to the U.S., having lost a brother in the war, only to find no jobs, and no hope. While the World War II generation is considered The Greatest Generation, the country frequently neglects the Vietnam generation.
This should be understood by now. Media outlets from The Atlantic to Rolling Stone have attempted to clarify the song’s protagonist. As part of a regular series on American Anthems in 2019, NPR’s Steve Inskeep undertook an excellent deep dive into what the song actually means. It is worth listening to it at the link.
When the song debuted in 1984, it's accompanying video featured imagery illustrating the struggle between what we want as Americans living in this country on the Fourth of July and the reality of the cost to get there. I never served in the military, but am grateful to those who did. Thank you.
The video, embedded below, presents the promise of youth - birthday parties, carnival rides, and prom - juxtaposed against the reality of adulthood - long lines outside a check cashing store, military maneuvers, cemeteries, and life in manufacturing. These images are blended with themes of Springsteen’s Born to Run and Thunder Road from a decade earlier. We see cars and, through the lens of the side view mirror of a motorcycle, the promise of the escape Springsteen sang about in Thunder Road, “I’m pulling out of here to win.”
Nowhere to run, ain’t got nowhere to go...
Except the Vietnam veteran in Born in the U.S.A. is not winning. There are no jobs, particularly for those who grew up in the dead man’s town and went off to fight the yellow man. Springsteen carries the narrative in another favorite song which could have easily fit on the Born in the U.S.A. album, Youngstown. Released in the 1990s, Springsteen revisits this theme, “We sent our sons to Korea and Vietnam. Now we wonder what they were dyin’ for.”
Part of Born in the U.S.A.’s confusion may stem from how Springsteen performed it in the 1980s. Beginning August 5, 1985, Springsteen played 29 shows in football stadiums, many of them outdoors. He opened each night’s show with a hard-rocking Born in the U.S.A., such as the version from the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in September 1985 which appears on the Live 1975-85 Springsteen box set. Video from that era seems patriotic enough, with flag imagery, Springsteen fist pumps, and the sun's out, guns out attire.
Contrast that version of the song, however, with later interpretations - the acoustic version performed on the Ghost of Tom Joad tour in the mid-1990s, or the blues-inspired version he sang during his stint on Broadway a couple years ago. These are haunting, emotional songs. Perhaps this is how he intended all along. An early demo tape version from 1982 (released on his box set, Tracks) has an acoustic feel, like the songs on his raw Nebraska album.
I curated a Spotify playlist with various versions of the song, including an excellent cover by the talented husband-and-wife team, Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires. It is designed to be played in order, from 1982 to the covers.
Make no mistake. Born in the U.S.A. is not a patriotic song; but, to me, it serves as a reminder about the promise of being American and living in the U.S.A. In that way, the song, and the whole album, informed my world view at a time when I was transitioning to adulthood.
The song is also a haunting and vivid reminder of how quickly our country has turned its back on those in need, in much the same way certain segments of our society today seek to shut out marginalized populations through hate speech. It was more than 150 years ago, during the first three days of July 1863, soldiers fought in a battle for the soul of America. Some 50,000 casualties emerged from that fight. The message which followed a few months later is a reminder of the promise and privilege of being Born in the U.S.A.
This holiday, July 4, 2020, remember that speech and what it means to be born in the U.S.A., and don’t give in to the hateful rhetoric.
“Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, on this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal… It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they here gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
Terence Mann, played perfectly by James Earl Jones, gave perhaps the best soliloquy about baseball, ever. It is so good, high school English teachers should have their students memorize and interpret it instead of Hamlet’s To Be or Not To Be. In the current absence of baseball, rewatching it reminds us of what we are missing.
Today is June 18, near the summer solstice two days from now. This is the time when, during the 8:00 pm hour, the sun creates a human shadow that makes a person feel 20-feet tall, just as they are in Mann's speech.
This is the time of year when complete strangers gathered in a ballpark bellow in unison, “CHARGE!,” when the organist finishes that familiar string of notes - dun-na din-na!
This is the time of year when hot dogs taste best. Oh, sure a backyard barbecue is good, but it does not compare to the foil wrapped steamy goodness of a ballpark hot dog. Even if the bun is a bit soggy.
This is the time of year when every six-year-old asks for Dippin’ Dots. What the heck are Dippin’ Dots? Can a person buy them at Walmart? (Answer is, well, as you can see, one can buy a type of Dippin' Dots at Walmart). But I digress...
This is the time when people of all generations, strangers mostly, come together as a community, instead of tearing the community apart, to mindlessly watch a baseball game, perhaps paying attention, perhaps not.
Rarely on the summer solstice, does the outcome of a baseball game matter. No team is ever really eliminated from contention by June 20. And besides, there is usually a game the next day. It is not for wins or losses that we watch or listen; it is for hope, for optimism, for a reconnection with peace that we watch or listen.
Indeed, as Washington Post writer Thomas Boswell observed in his wonderfully titled (and written) collection of essays, “Why Time Begins on Opening Day,” “The crowd and its team had finally understood that in games, as in many things, the ending, the final score, is only part of what matters. The process, the pleasure, the grain of the game count too.”
“People will come, Ray... They’ll arrive at your door as innocent as children, longing for the past... For it is money they have and peace they lack.”
Being in the crowd is great. For me, listening on the radio is just as good. My earliest memories of baseball fandom involve me listening to Vin Scully and Jerry Doggett narrate a 1970s Dodger game on the giant stereo/record player/behemoth console in our Westlake Village house.
Scully had a way of making you feel like he was talking directly to you; always wishing you a very pleasant afternoon or evening. Early on in the pandemic, he was the voice of reason. Scully retired after the 2016 season following 66 years of broadcasting Dodgers games. Hearing him wish me (and let’s face it, he was talking to me) a good day during the pandemic, reminded me of what we are currently missing.
It was six years ago today, June 18, 2014, I stayed up late, as I often did during the summer, to watch history. Clayton Kershaw threw a near perfect game (dang Hanley Ramirez error) with Vin Scully at the microphone. That night, I went to bed way too late; but I did it with a smile on my face. At peace.
“Baseball has marked the time. This field, this game: it’s a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good and that could be again.”
I was in my sophomore year in college on October 15, 1988. Most Drake University students had disbursed for Fall Break, but I opted to stay on campus. Something about my role as sports editor of the Times-Delphic being so critical I could not afford to leave. The events of that Saturday evening are seared in my mind. Little doubt existed as to where I would be and what I would do that night. As a lifelong Los Angeles Dodgers fan, I would be in front of a television watching Game One of the World Series.
As was/is my wont during tense baseball moments involving the Dodgers, I could not sit still. So I paced my dorm room on the second floor of Carpenter Hall. The dorm had those old-fashioned windows which you hand-crank to open and close. It was an Indian Summer-kind of day, so my south-facing window overlooking the grassy area separating three dorm buildings was open.
Of course, what happened next is familiar to even a casual baseball fan. A severely injured and debilitated Kirk Gibson swung at 3-2 backdoor slider from Dennis Eckersley, lifting the ball into the right field pavilion at Dodger Stadium for a 5-4 Dodgers win. The NBC television cameras showed bedlam in the Stadium and brake lights being slammed on in the parking lot. Vin Scully, the greatest baseball announcer ever, described a “high fly ball into right field. She is… gone!”
I screamed, the noise carrying out the window and up two flights to be heard by a friend also staying in the dorm. The Dodgers would win the World Series a week later. It was an improbable victory for a team brilliantly pieced together by General Manager Fred Claire, who would spend 30 years in various front office positions with the Dodgers.
I knew of Fred Claire, but I did not know Fred Claire. That changed when I read his memoir, Extra Innings, authored by Tim Madigan. I picked up the book, eagerly hoping for some inside scoop on the 1988 team, and while that exists in the book, the story within has less to do with winning at baseball, and much more to do with winning at life.
You see, many years removed from the spotlight as a MLB GM, Claire was battling cancer. Not once or twice, but three times between 2015-2019. He endured painful treatments and experimental treatments for which success rates were 1 in 4 or less. His care administered by the wonderful staff at City of Hope Hospital in Duarte, Calif. Through it all, Claire remained hopeful and treated each person he encountered with respect.
I talked to Claire about a month ago for a book project on which I am working. It is a passion project; something I do in my free time. He was gracious enough to answer my request and give 30 minutes of his time to talk to someone whom he had never met. I was flattered, enthused, and genuinely excited he agreed to talk to me.
As the book chronicles, this is exactly who Claire is. He is someone who gives his time and shares his experiences to anyone who seeks it - whether it is the 16-year-old son of a doctor about ready to treat Claire, or a high school baseball team that just lost a coach to cancer, or a student in a sport business class he is teaching.
As I reflect on the book, I realize our commonalities (teaching college sport business and the Dodgers) end there. I am not always as giving with time as Claire is with his students or anyone with whom he interacts. But I should be. We all should be.
This is not a book about baseball, though baseball is in it. It is a book about the human condition and how we should all aspire to treat one another with kindness, even when staring down our own adversities. It is an important message in today’s troubled times.
You can purchase Extra Innings from Amazon, but it would be better to support the publisher, Mascot Books, directly. Fulfillment was fast, and if you use code "FriendofFred" at checkout, you can save 20%. Link is here.
Best of all, proceeds from the sale of each book go to benefit City of Hope. Follow Fred Claire on Twitter.