Bruce Springsteen’s somber ballad “The Wall” is an expression of grief and anger, decades after the end of the Vietnam War. It’s also a tribute to one victim of the war: Walter Cichon.
The wall in the song, first of all, refers to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., where the names of those killed in the Vietnam War, or still missing, are etched into black stone. Springsteen visited the wall in 1997 and was inspired to write this song. He first performed it in concert in 2003, but did not release it on an album until more than a decade later.
Cichon, who grew up in Howell Township, was a local rock musician who fronted the band The Motifs. In his 2016 autobiography “Born to Run,” Springsteen calls him the “first true star I’d ever been close to” and a “shaman, a rebel, a Jersey mystic and someone you could not completely believe entered the world through the same human loins you did.”
Cichon was also “a touchable link to the mystic power and possibilities of rock ‘n’ roll,” wrote Springsteen; he talked about Walter and his guitar-playing brother Ray at length in “Springsteen on Broadway,” as well.
Walter Cichon is believed to have died in 1968 in the war, though his body was never recovered. Years later, Ray Cichon was murdered. “Their deaths anger me to this day,” Springsteen wrote in “Born to Run.”
In “The Wall,” Walter is “Billy.” “You and your rock ‘n’ roll band, you were best thing this shit town ever had,” Springsteen sings. He also remembers Walter laughing at his “ship-out party” and sings, “This black stone and these hard tears are all I got left now of you.”
Springsteen also sings that “the men who put you here eat with their families in rich dining halls” and “I read Robert McNamara says he’s sorry” (in his 1995 book “In Retrospect,” the former Secretary of Defense admitted that he was wrong about some of his actions during the war). But Springsteen never sounds sneering or angry here (though his intent is obviously to be derisive). He’s sad and resigned, and his mood is echoed by the song’s mournful music.
The years have passed, but it still hurts. He’s trying to make sense of it. But he still can’t.
Background facts: Springsteen released “The Wall” on his 2014 album High Hopes, though it is believed he wrote it in late 1997 or early 1998.
According to Brucebase, he performed the song 12 times between 2003 and 2014.
On each of the 70 days leading up to Bruce Springsteen’s 70th birthday (on Sept. 23, 2019), NJArts.net will do a post on one of The Boss’ best songs of the last 30 years. We’re starting with No. 70 and working our way up. For more on the project, click here.
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