It’s 1984, you’re a huge Bruce Springsteen fan, you hear about this new album that’s coming out titled “Born In The USA.” You then purchase this album, you listen to it, you love it, BUT…you aren’t really a person who buys singles, or for some reason you just decide not to purchase his “Born In The USA” single. Then…you may have never heard of the B-side to “Born In The USA,” titled “Shut Out The Light,” until the year 1998.

The Springsteen song “Shut Out The Light” may be the B-Side to “Born In The USA,” but it was not on the album itself. If you wanted to hear “Shut Out The Light,” you would have to have owned the “Born In The USA” single, or hear Springsteen perform it live. Down the road, the song was eventually released on a compilation album released in 1998, titled “Tracks.”

Both “Shut Out The Light,” and “Born In The USA,” are Vietnam era songs that are important to the category of Vietnam era music.

Lets start with the more popular and well known song “Born In The USA.” There is a chance that some may interpret this song as an uplifting patriotic song. The only this is, the song is not that uplifting patriotic song they think it is. The level of misinterpretation this song may receive even reached former President Ronald Reagan who once used it as his campaign song. Reagan’s miss-guided use of “Born In The USA,” and other campaign songs that artists didn’t want candidates using, can be read about in an article on cnn.com.

From an artistic story telling point of view, it is still a great song, it just is not the uplifting patriotic song that some may think it is, and so I’m going to breakdown the lyrics of the song.

  • “Born down in a dead man’s town
    The first kick I took was when I hit the ground
    You end up like a dog that’s been beat too much
    Till you spend half your life just covering up”

The first verse indicates this is not the ‘hurrah’ patriotic type song you think it might be

  • “Got in a little hometown jam
    So they put a rifle in my hand
    Sent me off to a foreign land
    To go and kill the yellow man”

In the second verse, “Got in a little hometown jam, so they put a rifle in my hand,” is a reference to the speculation that in some cases, someone who was headed to jail was given the option to join the military instead. “Sent me off to a foreign land, to go and kill the yellow man” references the US soldiers going to a place they’ve never been to, to fight a war (Vietnam). Yellow man is a term that can be found to be offensive, and refers to someone of Asian decent, and so in this case the song is referring to the Viet Cong.

  • 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”

For the third verse, “Come back home to the refinery, hiring man says ‘Son if it was up to me,” is about how the Vietnam vets had trouble finding work once they came back. In this line, the employer is trying to show sympathy by saying “son if it was up to me.” The line “Went down to see my V.A. man, he said ‘Son, don’t you understand,” is talking about how even Veteran Affairs wasn’t much help for the Vietnam vets.

  • “I had a brother at Khe Sanh fighting off the Viet Cong
    They’re still there, he’s all gone
    He had a woman he loved in Saigon
    I got a picture of him in her arms now”

During the fourth verse, the two lines “I had a brother at Khe Sanh fighting off the Viet Cong, they’re still there, he’s all gone,” mentions the Battle of Khe Sanh. Also, the protagonist’s brother could have either died in Vietnam, or possibly have made it home, but is figuratively ‘not there‘ because the fighting took a toll on him mentally. “He had a woman he loved in Saigon, I got a picture of him in her arms now,” could mean that this ‘brother‘ fell for a woman in Saigon, the Capitol of South Vietnam. Then the ‘picture‘ of ‘him in her arms‘ could mean the woman mourning his death.

  • “Down in the shadow of the penitentiary
    Out by the gas fires of the refinery
    I’m ten years burning down the road
    Nowhere to run ain’t got nowhere to go”

In the final verse of the song, “Down in the shadow of the penitentiary, out by the gas fires of the refinery,” refers to the Vietnam vets that ended up incarcerated, and that without the refinery job mentioned earlier, there’s a chance the protagonist could end up incarcerated. “I’m ten years burning down the road” could be a reference to the fact that the war officially ended in 1975, and this song was released in 1984, which is close to ten years

  • Born in the U.S.A
    I was born in the U.S.A
    I was born in the U.S.A
    Born in the U.S.A

This is the chorus in the song, and if you ask me, this chorus is the main reason this song is misinterpreted by some. with “Born in the U.S.A” being repeated over and over, that’s almost like someone patriotically chanting “USA! USA! USA!.” Also, there’s a good chance the sound of the drums might get you excited. Last but not least, the fact that the chorus includes the line “Born in the U.S.A,” could easily make an American’s patriotism come out and say, “YES! That’s right! I was born in the U.S.A, and I’m proud!

Should an American go crazy and chant “USA! USA! USA!” and be the proudest American he or she can be? Well of course, it’s just that this song isn’t sending that ‘hurrah‘ patriotic message you might think it is.

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“Born In The USA” lyrics, from picture sleeve.

After looking at “Born In The USA,” lets look at the song that never made it on an album until 1998, “Shut Out The Light.” This song sends another Vietnam related message, and mainly focuses on the life of a Vietnam vet coming home from the war. If you ask me, it’s one of the most important Vietnam era songs telling the sad story of what a Vietnam veteran had  to go through. Also, it’s not just Vietnam vets, because any Veteran from any time period can go through what the protagonist goes through in this song. There is also a story in terms of Springsteen’s inspirations for writing the song, and he mentions them before performing the song live at a concert in France.

Before he performs the song he says to the crowd,

I was 19, I got my draft notice, in 1969, and the Vietnam War was going on. At the time I don’t remember having any real political convictions about it, I just knew that, that I didn’t want to die, and I didn’t go. But uh…but I was traveling through Arizona, and about 10 years after that in the late 70s, and I bought a book called ‘Born on The Fourth of July’…by a Vietnam Veteran named Ron Kovic, and it was his story about going and coming home to find out that his home wasn’t there anymore. I went on to Los Angeles, and I was staying in a motel, and there was a fella sitting by a side of the pool in a wheel chair, and I had the book with me, and he said ‘man I wrote that book.’ This song’s called ‘Shut Out The Lights’…it’s about leaving home and…not being able to find your way back.” (Video with this quote provided at end of article)

Now lets check out the lyrics inspired by this story of his.

  • “The runway rushed up at him as he felt the wheels touch down
    He stood out on the blacktop and took a taxi into town
    He got out down on Main Street and went into a local bar
    He bought a drink and found a seat in a corner off the dark

This is where the story of the Vietnam vet coming home starts. You can see he is feeling a little beside himself as he goes straight for the bar, and has his drink in the dark corner.

  • Well she called up her mama to make sure the kids were out of the house
    She checked herself out in the dining room mirror
    And undid an extra button on her blouse
    He felt her lying next to him, the clock said 4:00 am
    He was staring at the ceiling
    He couldn’t move his hands

Next we find his wife ‘readying‘ herself for when her husband comes home. With what seems to be a chance of getting romantic with him. She checks to see if the kids aren’t home, and she also undid another button on her blouse. Fast forward to 4am, the wife is asleep, but we find the Veteran very stiff while wide awake, and staring at the ceiling.

  • 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
    Don’t you shut out the light
    Don’t you shut out the light
    Don’t you shut out the light
    Don’t you shut out the light

Next, we hear the chorus for the first time. What is happening here, is the Veteran having a sudden outburst of being traumatized by whatever it may be he is suffering from, in his post Vietnam life. He is asking for comfort to make sure everything is OK, and to keep the lights on. The chorus is what makes this song so powerful.

  • Well on his porch they stretched a banner that said “Johnny Welcome Home”
    Bobby pulled his Ford out of the garage and they polished up the chrome
    His mama said “Johnny oh Johnny, I’m so glad to have you back with me”
    His pa said he was sure they’d give him his job back down at the factory

After the first time we see the chorus, here we see his family excited for him to be home. There is the welcome home banner, and the Veteran’s old ford is brought out of the garage as if it hasn’t been sitting there untouched. The Mom shows ‘motherly love,’ and his Dad mentions he could get his old job back at the factory. Notice the similarity with the factory job in “Born In The U.S.A.”

  • Well deep in a dark forest, a forest filled with rain
    Beyond a stretch of Maryland pines there’s a river without a name
    In the cold black water Johnson Lineir stands
    He stares across the lights of the city and dreams of where he’s been

After the chorus repeats for a second time, we come to a point in the song where the Veteran spends some alone time at a river in the forest. While alone in the forest, he looks out at the big bright city, thinking about how he got to where he is. The song then closes with the chorus repeating for a third, and final time.

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picture sleeve mentioning “Shut Out The Light” is not on the “Born In the USA” album.

As someone who was nicknamed “The Patriot” at one point in his life, I believe these two songs are more than just Bruce Springsteen songs, they’re more than just 1980’s songs, and they’re more than just A-sides and  B-sides, they’re a two song story to life during the Vietnam era of the United States.

Bruce Springsteen’s live performance of “Shut Out The Light,” in France. With the quote of his story.

Bruce Springsteen performing “Born In The USA” Live.

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