Bruce Springsteen's Political Voice
Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band perform onstage at SiriusXM's 10th anniversary celebration at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, New York March 9, 2012. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri
This article is adapted from The Cause: The Fight for American Liberalism From Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama, coauthored by Eric Alterman, recently published by Viking.
When I caught Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band in Philadelphia in late March, it was the eighth night of the band’s US and European tour, which would go on for another six or seven months. While the songs change with the release of new albums, like this year’s Wrecking Ball, the structure of the show has remained relatively constant for nearly three decades now. It is, as Springsteen told 60 Minutes, “part circus, dance party, political rally and big tent revival.” The sum of these parts forms an incomparably larger whole, one that has no equivalent in American life and culture.
During the course of a nearly three-hour show in Philadelphia, for instance, the 62-year-old performer:
§ shared two choruses of “Waitin’ on a Sunny Day” with a frog-voiced little girl plucked from the audience;
§ allowed himself to be held aloft and passed from midway in the arena back to the stage by his fans, while lying on his back, singing;
§ played a rarely heard but much beloved song in response to a sign reading: Please play Thundercrack for my dad in Iraq;
§ gave a short speech on the political, social and psychological dangers of economic inequality, in which he suggested his audience focus not on “which side of the 99 percent you’re on but on which side of history you’re on”;
§ brought his “almost 90”-year-old mom, Adele Springsteen, onstage to dance.
Across town, the National Constitution Center on Independence Mall was hosting an exhibition titled “From Asbury Park to the Promised Land: The Life and Music of Bruce Springsteen,” in which Springsteen’s old clothing, guitars, cars and lyric sheets were treated alternately as holy relics and fodder for scholarly studies—which for many fans and scholars, they are. Drummer “Mighty” Max Weinberg paid a visit to it after giving a lecture at the new National Museum of American Jewish History down the Mall, in which he spoke of his work in the band as his way “of living a life of tikkun olam.” (And if all this is a bit too much for you, then take heart in the cover of the alternative Philadelphia Weekly, on which Springsteen was pictured beneath a halo and above the headline, Enough Already.)
I could go on, but you get the point: each Springsteen concert is an event so unique in our cynicism-besotted culture that relatively sane people like yours truly keep going back for more, after 200 shows and counting. (This is not a lot by true fan standards, trust me.) In 2003 Springsteen decided, after more than thirty years of touring, to keep adding stadium show after stadium show at the Jersey Meadowlands until fans finally felt they got enough. He stopped at ten, selling 600,000 tickets—more than any one artist has ever sold in a single place anywhere, anytime, and he could have kept going.
It’s hard to find an analogue for Bruce Springsteen anywhere in American history. Musically, he is an amalgam of so many disparate influences it looks ridiculous to list them together. (Don’t believe me? OK, here goes: Elvis, Dylan, James Brown, Chuck Berry, Hank Williams, Woody Guthrie, Frank Sinatra, Sam & Dave, the Shirelles, King Curtis, the Rolling Stones, the Animals, Roy Orbison, Gary “U.S.” Bonds, the Sex Pistols, Pete Seeger, the Swinging Medallions, Sam Cooke, Smokey Robinson, Jackie Wilson, Wilson Pickett…) But it is equally difficult to locate a proper political antecedent for Springsteen in American history. Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger are the obvious nominees, but the fact that they were associated with the Communist Party, as well as pretty orthodox folk singers, significantly limited their ability to be heard by many Americans. Springsteen, meanwhile, has managed to give voice to political values—what he calls “news with a beat”—that fall well leftward of the boundaries of mainstream political discourse.
This happened almost entirely by accident. Springsteen began his career singing about guitars, cars and girls before moving on to empty factories and abandoned quarries. His songs began as stories of individual characters divorced from what Trotsky called “the dialectic,” until, in the early 1980s, he began to read deeply in American history and literature. Springsteen began to ask questions of himself about what really determined the contours of the lives of the working-class characters whose tribune he had become. “A lot of the core of our songs is the American idea: What is it? What does it mean? ‘Promised Land,’ ‘Badlands,’” he would explain in 2009, decades after the transformation took place. “I’ve seen people singing those songs back to me all over the world. I’d seen that country on a grassroots level…. And I met people who were always working toward the country being that kind of place. But on a national level it always seemed very far away.”
* * *
Raised in Freehold, New Jersey, the first-born child of Irish and Italian parents, Springsteen’s father, Douglas, was an embittered man who struggled to find a place for himself in the local economy. He worked for brief periods in the local rug mill, as a jail guard and as a cab and bus driver. Adele Springsteen, who worked as a legal secretary, took pride in her professional identity and remained in the same job for Bruce’s entire childhood. To Bruce she “was just like superwoman. She did everything, everywhere, all the time.”
The Springsteens lived in a lower-middle-class section of town called Texas, where a group of Appalachian refugees had come together with a smattering of white ethnics in one of America’s less publicized migrations. Yet the town was largely bypassed by the prosperity of the 1950s and ’60s. Most of the available work came from the local 3M factory, a rug mill, a Nescafé factory and a number of much smaller manufacturers. Deeply segregated, Freehold’s whites and blacks lived on opposite sides of the railroad track.
A loner par excellence, in high school Bruce participated in no activities, sports or even much in the way of academics. One of his teachers even suggested to his classmates that, for the sake of their own “self-respect,” Bruce not be allowed to graduate, given the indecency of his hair. After only the briefest appearance at community college, Springsteen practiced his craft obsessively, partaking in few of the late ’60s rituals that characterized the life of the rock musician. His early lyrics were rarely political, save the occasional mocking of the pretensions of the Woodstock generation with lyrics like “Take LSD and Off the Pigs.” Springsteen was interested in personal freedom—the right to be who he wanted to be, even if he didn’t know precisely who or what that was.
Springsteen would go on to achieve almost unimaginable degrees of fame and national attention. In October 1975 he catapulted overnight from a virtual nobody with two critically acclaimed but commercially obscure albums to his credit to the first entertainer ever to simultaneously grace the covers of Time and Newsweek. The vehicle for this transformation, the now-classic Born to Run album, may be seen as a counternarrative to the culture of mid-’70s America, offering hope in hard times, but it was not political by any literal interpretation.
Despite this taste of megastardom, Springsteen stayed out of the spotlight in the years immediately following as he fought his manager for creative control of his career. Springsteen repeatedly refused, against the advice of his lawyers, to give in on even the most minor points. As he explained to a judge at the time: “My interest is in my career, which up until now holds the promise of my being able to significantly contribute to, and possibly influence, a generation of music. No amount of money could compensate me if I were to lose this opportunity.”
He took his music gradually from the personal to the political. Born to Run led to the grim but powerful Darkness at the Edge of Town, which led to the raucous The River, which led to Nebraska, a stark, Woody Guthrie–like album recorded at home on a cassette tape recorder. Released in 1982 as national unemployment reached 11 percent (and while President Reagan complained that he was tired of hearing about it every time someone lost a job in “South Succotash”), the album offered an intimate portrait of the people victimized by America’s winner-take-all economy.
This work was filled with what literary historian Bryan Garman calls “working-class geographies,” like closed factories, mines and mills. For Springsteen, Garman writes, “These markers—the industrial town, the factory, and the neighborhood bar—have become so marginalized that it is impossible to forge a collective working-class identity which provides people with a sense of self-worth.”
Springsteen remained cautious to a fault when it came to traditional politics, consistently resisting myriad pleadings to lend his reputation for integrity to one cause or another. He spent much of this period, as he put it, “tryin’ to figure out now where do aesthetic issues that you write about intersect with some sort of concrete action, some direct involvement, in the communities that your audience comes from.” At his first-ever political concert appearance in 1979 to protest nuclear power, he left his part of the printed concert program wordless. Three years later, when he made a surprise appearance with a single song alongside Jackson Browne at a 750,000-person nuclear freeze rally in Central Park, he again let the music do all the talking.
Springsteen made his first stab at direct political involvement after reading Ron Kovic’s harrowing Vietnam memoir, Born on the Fourth of July, which would inspire the Oliver Stone film. Speaking from the stage at a series of Los Angeles fundraising concerts, surrounded by handicapped veterans, Springsteen compared his learning process to “walking down a dark street at night and you see somebody getting a beating in an alley. You want to keep walking because you don’t want to feel involved, but you feel guilty.”
If Nebraska had been Springsteen’s quietest album, then what followed it, 1984’s Born in the USA, would be his loudest. Released as America was undergoing an orgy of right-wing patriotism during Ronald Reagan’s “Morning in America” re-election campaign, Springsteen suddenly found himself at the center of America’s political debate. The album, another commercial breakthrough, became Columbia’s bestselling album to that point in its history, and Springsteen’s world tour was an event of political and cultural significance—widely understood to represent an alternative model of American patriotism from that so ominously emanating from the Reagan White House.
In a story that has been told and retold many times now, the conservative columnist George Will attended a Springsteen concert with cotton in his ears, and after leaving at midpoint in the show, offered up Springsteen as a right-wing icon. The president’s staff read the column and sought to hijack Springsteen’s left-wing patriotic bombast and turn it into right-wing patriotic bombast. Springsteen resisted, warning audiences with respect to Reagan’s war plans for Central America that “blind faith in your leaders can get you killed.” But the train had left the station and in truth, “Born in the USA” invited misinterpretation, as few people listen to rock music for the lyrics.
The shock of such success led Springsteen to pull back again and inspired a long period of fitful personal growth and therapy, marriage, divorce and a second marriage; breaking up his band and then reconstituting it, moving to Los Angeles and then back again to New Jersey. During this period he would occasionally emerge with musical statements that sometimes spoke to the country’s cultural/political moment and sometimes stood outside it. He took part in a worldwide tour for Amnesty International. When Springsteen wrote and sang “Streets of Philadelphia,” he became the first prominent male singer to explicitly adopt the voice of a gay man. His largely acoustic 1995 album, The Ghost of Tom Joad, was a self-conscious re-creation of John Steinbeck’s (and John Ford’s) proletarian masterpiece The Grapes of Wrath, with songs drawn directly from stories in the newspapers. With its descriptions of railroad transients, people around a fire under a bridge, homeless people waiting in line for shelter and families sleeping in their car, the album was an implicit rebuke to the corporate-friendly politics of “triangulation” practiced by Bill Clinton at the time. Appropriately, Springsteen chose as his next cause that of legalizing (and honoring) Latino immigration, fighting against a proposed extremely punitive California law—Proposition 187—which united him with farmworkers, home workers and others who had hitherto been merely the subject of his songs.
After a nearly fourteen-year break, Springsteen reconstituted the E Street Band in 1999 for a reunion tour and premiered the song “American Skin (41 Shots),” a pointed racial commentary in the aftermath of the shooting of Amadou Diallo, an unarmed Guinean immigrant, and the acquittal of four police officers who had fired at him forty-one times. The song angered some fans, particularly policemen, and once again he was roundly misinterpreted. The lyrics were actually sympathetic to the officers, but their representatives denounced Springsteen, and quite a few beat cops booed the song when he performed it in concert. It was his first taste of a fan backlash, but he held his ground. (Springsteen played it on night one in Philadelphia after explaining, “This is for Trayvon.”)
* * *
September 11, 2001, returned Springsteen to the crossroads of American culture. As the story goes, he was pulling out of a New Jersey parking lot when a man in another car rolled down his window and shouted, “We need you!” The Rising was a major cultural event of 2002, and it was treated by the media as the equivalent of a presidential address. Employing explicitly religious imagery, Springsteen called upon people to “rise up” to their better angels—not out of vengeance but out of mutual understanding, rising above even reality. In the Muslim/Christian love story “Worlds Apart,” he sang, “Sometimes the truth just ain’t enough/Or is it too much in times like this/Let’s throw the truth away.”
Springsteen continued to believe that an artist should act as a “canary in the coal mine…with a certain distance from the seat of power.” But he found himself chafing on the sidelines of the fight to save the country from the consequences of George W. Bush’s re-election. Given that he had set for himself the task of charting “the distance between American ideals and American reality,” once the country “reached a point where it seems that we’re so intent on protecting ourselves that we’re willing to destroy the best parts of ourselves to do so,” he felt he had no choice but to throw himself into the election process with the full force of his music, his reputation and the risks to both that an unambiguous political stance would mean.
Springsteen led a tour of politically sympathetic friends like Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt, John Fogerty and James Taylor, doing concerts for the Kerry campaign in battleground states under the rubric of “Vote for Change.” His “No Surrender” became Kerry’s campaign theme. He gave speeches at these events about the darkness that had descended on the country under Bush, then agreed to travel the country by Kerry’s side, guitar in hand, singing before Kerry’s speeches like a rock ‘n’ roll Uncle Sam: the performer giving the politician/war hero credibility with segments of the citizenry with whom he would otherwise likely fail to connect.
Following Kerry’s defeat, Springsteen toured with a makeshift folk troop he assembled in the spirit of Pete Seeger’s hootenanny shows. With the band, he toured the country in 2006 preaching against “rendition, illegal wiretapping, voter suppression, no habeas corpus, the neglect of that great city New Orleans and its people, an attack on the Constitution. And the loss of our best men and women in a tragic war.”
Springsteen kept it up through the 2008 election, endorsing Barack Obama over Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination and touring the country on behalf of his candidacy in the general election against John McCain. On the eve of Obama’s inauguration, standing before the Lincoln Memorial, he sang “The Rising” for the president, the vice president, their families and a group of American dignitaries together with a crowd estimated at 400,000, and backed by a multiracial chorus of young people. He then joined Pete Seeger for a rousing (and complete) version of “This Land Is Your Land.”
It was a rare and beautiful moment for this country and what remained of its progressive tradition, one in which Guthrie’s anti-capitalist anthem became “a part of the beating heart of the nation,” as Springsteen told the 2012 SXSW conference in Austin. But what did this magical moment mean in the realm of actual politics? The answer, as we all know now, was not to be found in a folk song—not even one in which the newly elected African-American president-elect could be seen tapping his feet and singing along.
Following the death last year of his beloved saxophonist and longtime character foil, Clarence “Big Man” Clemons, Springsteen returned in March with what strikes most people as his angriest and most explicitly political album yet: Wrecking Ball. Speaking to reporters in Paris on the occasion of its release, he made the album’s inspiration—and intention—explicit. “The genesis of the record was after 2008,” he told a group of reporters there earlier this year, “when we had the huge financial crisis in the States, and there was really no accountability for years and years. People lost their homes, and I had friends who were losing their homes, and nobody went to jail. Nobody was responsible. People lost enormous amounts of their net worth. Previous to Occupy Wall Street, there was no pushback: there was no movement, there was no voice that was saying just how outrageous—that a basic theft had occurred that struck at the heart of what the entire American idea was about. It was a complete disregard of history, of context, of community; it was all about ‘what can I get today.’ It was just an enormous fault line that cracked the American system wide open.”
The album’s opener, “We Take Care of Our Own,” is intended to be more aspirational and inquisitive than accurate or descriptive but has nevertheless already been adopted by the Obama campaign as part of its official rally mixtape. The driving force of the album, however, is a decidedly un-Obama-like anger at the increasing injustice of the American economic system. And yet despite the (sometimes violent) fury of his characters—one sings of irresponsible and exploitative bankers, “If I had me a gun, I’d find the bastards and shoot ‘em on sight”—Bruce Springsteen’s America remains one of shared optimism and collective responsibility. It is a land of “hope and dreams” where “dreams will not be thwarted” and “faith will be rewarded.” The stories change, but the “message” remains the same. It’s right there in Wrecking Ball: “Hold tight to your anger, and don’t fall to your fear.”
Editor's note: For more from Eric Alterman on Bruce Springsteen, read his book It Ain't No Sin to Be Glad You're Alive: The Promise of Bruce Springsteen.