Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band in South Africa earlier this year. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Bruce Springsteen's Born in the USA at 30: soundtrack to my life

Bruce Springsteen's 1984 album Born in the USA is 30 years old this week. It has been the soundtrack to Max Liu's life, from the end of his parents' marriage to the beginning of his own.

Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA, which is 30-years-old this week, was the soundtrack to the end of my parents’ marriage. “Your father,” Mum told me, “spent a year sitting on the sofa in tears, listening to that LP.” I doubt it was the title track that upset Dad because that was the one I used to play air guitar to atop my toy box. “Downbound Train” begins, “I had a job/I had a girl…” but Dad’s career was going great when, in the mid-1980s, he decided he was off. “Glory Days” laments the way life can pass you by but it’s encased in jagged guitars and soaring synthesisers. I expect the one that got him was “I’m On Fire” with its muted arpeggio and, “freight train running through the middle of my head.” It was, according to the singer from the now defunct Yorkshire-based tribute band Born to Run, the most requested track.

I used to perform Springsteen covers at undergraduate open mic nights. “The River” sounded passable, providing I could hit the high note on “economy”, and I belted out “Atlantic City”, but SWP members booed my “Born in the USA”. This was in spring 2003, when America and Britain invaded Iraq, so nobody wanted to hear rallying songs about American patriotism. But that, as everyone surely knows by now, is not what “Born in the USA” is about. The protagonist is “born down in a dead man’s town”, sent to Vietnam to “kill the yellow man” then returns home to trauma and dispossession. You’d have to be as careless as Ronald Regan, who adopted the song on the campaign trail in 1984, to think the lyrics celebrate, rather than debunk, the American dream. It’d be like reading The Great Gatsby as high society nostalgia.

The song appeared a decade after America’s withdrawal from Vietnam, which reminds me that Tolstoy said you shouldn’t write about real events until ten years have passed. Perhaps somebody will soon articulate the sense of political alienation that exists among those who opposed the war in Iraq. Don’t hold your breath, I hear Bruce is a fan of Mumford & Sons, but the song’s meaning isn’t confined to war and macropolitics. After graduation, as I applied for jobs I didn’t want, I incanted verse three: “Come back home to the refinery/ Hiring man says: ‘Son, if it was up to me’/ Went down to see my V.A. man/ He said: ‘Son, don’t you understand now?’” I was an arts graduate not a war veteran, I wanted to be a writer not an oil refiner, but I was shocked by how difficult it is to get on. This was during the pre-2008 “boom years”, so those words might resonate even more with today’s graduates.

Born in the USA is a more commercial record than its predecessors, Nebraska and The River, but it speaks to those who feel caught between a fading past and an uncertain future. On “Dancing in the Dark” and “My Hometown”, Springsteen makes visceral points lightly, articulating romantic longing amid industrial decline. Performing the title track on his 1984 world tour, he inhabited his character as convincingly as Daniel Day-Lewis. When my girlfriend and I went to watch him in New Jersey in 2012, I realised that he’s now more an entertainer than an artist. It was troubling to think that might always have been true. Had I misunderstood the man whose misunderstood song I cherish? I danced until my knees ached.

E Street Band organist Danny Federici and saxophonist Clarence Clemons, who both played on Born in the USA, died in 2008 and 2011 respectively. The world I was born in to, where Springsteen drowned out news of the miners’ strike and my parents’ arguments, has vanished but the album sounds as relevant today as it did then. Next summer, I’ll play songs from it at my wedding, including “Bobby Jean” which is a moving salute to absent friends and lost time. I have no memory of tears in 1984 but I remember wondering about a line which still puzzles me today. What exactly is a ‘long gone daddy in the USA’?

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Former MP Bob Marshall-Andrews: Why I’m leaving Labour and joining the Lib Dems

A former political ally of Jeremy Corbyn explains why he is leaving Labour after nearly 50 years.

I’m leaving home. It’s a very hard thing to do. All of my natural allegiances have been to Labour, and never had I contemplated leaving the party – not even in the gloomy years, when we were fighting Iraq and the battles over civil liberties. I have always taken the view that it’s far better to stay within it. But it has just gone too far. There has been a total failure to identify the major issues of our age.

The related problems of the environment, globalisation and the migration of impoverished people are almost ignored in favour of the renationalisation of the railways and mantras about the National Health Service. The assertion that Labour could run the NHS better than the Tories may be true, but it is not the battle hymn of a modern republic. It is at best well-meaning, at worst threadbare. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life talking about renationalising the railways while millions of people move across the world because of famine, war and climate change.

The centre left in British politics is in retreat, and the demise of the Labour Party has the grim inevitability of a Shakespearean tragedy. Ironically, history will show that Labour’s fatal flaw lay in its spectacular success.

Labour is, in essence, a party of the 20th century, and in those 100 years it did more to advance the freedom and well-being of working people and the disadvantaged than any other political movement in history. The aspirations of the founding fathers – access to education, health and welfare; equality before the law; collective organisation; universal franchise – have all to a large extent been achieved. The party’s record of racial and religious tolerance has been a beacon in a century of repression. These achievements have been enshrined in the fabric of British society and reproduced across the world.

The success brought deserved, unprecedented power and created political fortresses across the industrial heartlands of Britain. But with power, the party became increasingly moribund and corrupt. The manipulation of the union block vote at party conferences became a national disgrace. The Labour heartlands, particularly Scotland, were treated like rotten boroughs, and were too often represented by union placemen.

Instead of seeking a new radicalism appropriate to the challenges of the age, New Labour sought to ambush the Tories on the management of market capital and to outflank them on law and order: a fool’s errand. It inevitably succumbed to another form of corruption based on hubris and deceit, resulting in attacks on civil liberty, financial disaster and catastrophic war.

The reaction has been to lurch back to the status quo. The extraordinary fall from a massive majority of 179 in 1997 to a political basket case has been blamed on the false dichotomy between Blairism and the old, unionised Labour. Both have contributed to the disaster in equal measure.

I believe desperately in the politics of the 21st century, and Labour is at best paying lip service to it – epitomised in its failure to engage in the Brexit debate, which I was horrified by. The Liberal Democrats are far from perfect, but they have been consistent on Europe, as they were in their opposition to the Iraq War and on civil liberties. They deserve support.

But it’s a serious wrench. I’m leaving friends, and it hurts. Jeremy Corbyn was a political ally of mine on a number of serious issues. We made common cause on Tony Blair’s assaults on civil liberty and the Iraq War, and we went to Gaza together. He has many of the right ideas, but he simply has not moved into addressing the major problems.

To be blunt, I don’t think Corbyn is leadership material, but that is aside from politics. You need skills as a leader, and I don’t think he’s got them, but I was prepared to stick it out to see what happened. It has been a great, gradual disappointment, and Brexit has brought it all to the fore.

Frankly, I was surprised that he announced he was a Remainer, because I know that his natural sympathies have lain with a small cadre within Labour – an old-fashioned cadre that holds that any form of trade bloc among relatively wealthy nations is an abhorrence. It’s not: it’s the way forward. Yet there are people who believe that, and I know he has always been sympathetic to them.

But by signing up and then doing nothing, you sell the pass. Labour was uniquely qualified to confront the deliberate falsehoods trumpeted about the NHS – the absurd claims of massive financial dividends to offset the loss of doctors
and nurses already packing their bags – and it failed. Throughout that campaign, the Labour leadership was invisible, or worse.

At present, there is a huge vacuum on the centre left, represented in substantial part by an angry 48 per cent of the electorate who rejected Brexit and the lies on which it was based. Politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum. There is no sign from Labour that the issue is even to be addressed, let alone actively campaigned on. The Labour leadership has signed up to Brexit and, in doing so, rejected the principles of international co-operation that Europe has fostered for half a century. That is not a place I want to be.

The failure to work with, or even acknowledge, other political parties is doctrinaire lunacy. And it will end very badly, I think. The centre left has an obligation to coalesce, and to renege on that obligation is reneging on responsibility. Not to sit on the same platform as other parties during the Brexit debate is an absurd statement of political purity, which has no place at all in modern politics.

The Liberal Democrats have grasped the political challenges of the 21st century as surely as their predecessors in the Liberal Party failed to comprehend those that faced the world a century ago. For that reason, I will sign up and do my best to lend support in my political dotage. After nearly 50 years as a Labour man, I do so with a heavy heart – but at least with some radical hope for my grandchildren.

Bob Marshall-Andrews was the Labour MP for Medway from 1997 to 2010.

As told to Anoosh Chakelian.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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