On his European tour, the Boss assails the banks and inveighs against the ‘robber barons’. Yet among stadium rockers, he is a lone voice
Under a full moon rising above the old Olympic stadium in Rome during the summer of 1993, Bruce Springsteen paused to catch breath between gale-force blasts of music – it was another of those thermo-charged, three-hour concerts – to cue his next number, Darkness on the Edge of Town. I was taking time out from frontlines in Bosnia, back across the Adriatic where no one gave a damn, for a bit of dolce vita.
“I wanna dedicate this song,” gasped Springsteen, “to the people of Bosnia-Herzegovina!” The crowd, if it heard, was puzzled, and I was dumbstruck with gratitude – Springsteen? Here in Italy, ranting on about Bosnia? How good can this guy get?!
Last week in Berlin, he did it again – only this time his message, like his new album, Wrecking Ball, concerned a matter of more universal and mainstream concern: the looting of our economies and lives by banks brazenly gorging on our money. He railed against “greedy thieves” and “robber barons”, saying from the stage that “in America a lot of people lost their jobs and I know that in Europe and Berlin also times are tough”. He sang: “The banker man grows fatter, the working man grows thin …/ … Now sometimes tomorrow comes soaked in treasure and blood / Here we stood the drought, now we’ll stand the flood … / …If I had me a gun, I’d find the bastards and shoot ‘em on sight / I’m a Jack of all trades, we’ll be all right”. Cop an earful of that!
Next month, after playing Sunderland, Manchester and the Isle of Wight, the Boss heads for London, where the darkness from the edge of town infests the steel and glass of the City and thereby all our lives. His concert falls on Bastille Day, only a week before the most aggressively corporate Olympics Games ever staged. The day also marks the centenary of the birth of Woody Guthrie, the father of American folk protest, of whom Springsteen is regarded as some kind of electric superstar incarnation. (Or at least that is how he seems to see himself.)
Why would we who love Springsteen’s music and share his rage not await this night with bated breath? On the other hand, why does it matter so much? Why is it always Springsteen, and at this level of stadium rock and record sales, only Springsteen?
There are very few rock superstars from the Anglo-American axis who have played at this level over time – and a quick survey shows how far they have bloated away from serious commitment. Perky Sir Paul McCartney rounds off the jubilee for Her Majesty’s whooping, servile subjects. Sir Mick Jagger showed a sign of rigor mortis by refusing to serenade the burghers of Davos, but struts and frets his years upon the world’s stages to little cogent effect. Of the young ones, Coldplay filled the Emirates stadium with even less political content than Arsenal.
Across the Irish Sea, U2 traded Sunday Bloody Sunday for one of the great tax avoidance scandals in showbiz, and when a group of protesters raised a defiant balloon at Glastonbury, they were roughly handled – leading many to wonder that if you cannot peacefully and safely protest at Glastonbury, where can you?
The American greats are more complex. Bob Dylan cannot be said to count – he inspired a generation but now orbits another planet, despite playing Ballad of a Thin Man to very great effect during the 2003 Iraq war. Neil Young, author of Ohio back in the day that four protesting students were murdered by state troopers, veered into a Reaganite moment during the 1980s, but re-emerged to record the only album by a big star to overtly challenge war in Iraq. He was cheered by half his audiences, booed and middle-fingered by the other half. But last week, he did something weird, releasing God Save the Queen, perhaps ironic in the mode of Springsteen’s Born In the USA, or – as Young has explained – integral to Canadiana, but the video taken from his new album is as bulimic as any other TV content of late. Aerosmith, Bon Jovi et al are simply excruciating.
Some do pronounce: Sting added rainforests to Tantric sex and Jarvis Cocker cares about melting ice caps, but so what? It’s the banks, stupid – the looters, foreclosers, launderers of drug profits, arms deals and tax evasion, the new zillionaire global dictatorship that brings Death to My Hometown, as a new Springsteen song goes. Who is going to sing about them?
There is a roll of honour. In the UK, the estimable folk bards and balladeers: Dick Gaughan, Chris Wood, Martin Simpson, Martin Carthy and their small, devoted following. Billy Bragg lays claim to Orwell. In Ireland, rebel folk endures and develops, uniquely – just listen to Lizzie Nunnery’s England Loves a Poor Boy.
In America, Jefferson Starship remains an unreconstructed project to plant a tree of liberty both from somewhere out there and within. Patti Smith strikes up People Have the Power on the stroke of midnight every New Year’s Eve, even though they don’t. Steve Earle clenches his fist and urges “Come back Woody Guthrie”. But these are venerable – dare one say it, elderly – people, apart from the Dixie Chicks: blacklisted across American radio and their CDs ploughed into the ground at what amounted to musical book-burnings in George W Bush’s America, after mildly criticising the then president.
Ah, then there’s Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine, now The Night Watchman, singing for striking teachers and assailed unions – playing both his own subversions and acquainting young America with the great radical folk canon. Morello became the watchman after an attempt to have his band crushed by the patriotic tsunami that followed 9/11, during which their music was blanket-blacklisted. Morello’s response was to team up for a series of live performances with no equal in modern America: a blood-vessel-bursting account of The Ghost of Tom Joad – invoking Steinbeck’s hero – with the man who wrote the song: Springsteen. Now, Morello features on the new album.
Even on this list, Springsteen stands alone for sheer stature, durability and profile. None of these others have been singing for 40 years to stadiums worldwide. His adrenalin-pumping shows are woven into American life, yet subvert its capitalist fundamentals, that innate American principle of screw-thy-neighbour, in favour of what he insists to be “real” America – working class, militant, street-savvy, tough but romantic, nomadic but with roots – compiled into what feels like a single epic but vernacular rock-opera lasting four decades.
Springsteen does this because he believes in what he says, and because it is easier to be an American leftwing patriot than a British one. We do not have that “redneck left”, of blue-collar scaffolders who smoke weed and listen to Springsteen and even the Grateful Dead. And he gets away with it. As Glenn Stuart, front man for the tribute B Street Band, observes: “He’s never been Dixie-Chicked”.
Springsteen made his name in part by challenging and rejecting Reagan’s attempted appropriation of Born in the USA, the irony of which the then president was too dim to grasp. But it wasn’t only Reagan: Springsteen is so popular astride political fissures that Chris Christie, the recently elected Republican governor of his home state, New Jersey, wanted Springsteen to play at his inaugural bash. Springsteen refused, but the episode demonstrated Stuart’s point that “either they don’t hear what he is saying, or they just overlook it”.
This leads to charges of ineffectuality. And to pointing out that Springsteen is himself a millionaire with a 378-acre horse ranch. It is further argued that the blue-collar working class for which Springsteen stands is largely Republican, though this was not true of the industrial and post-industrial swing states of Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan in which Springsteen performed for Barack Obama last time round.
Certainly, though, they do not account for feudal America’s desperate poor – at food collection points and homeless shelters, working in fruit fields or online shopping warehouses, living in trailer parks across the edge of town – let alone the ghetto. But there it is: a song called American Skin (41 Shots), about those fired by New York cops, killing a young black man called Amadou Diallo in 1999 – and that is real American roots folk at its best.
Springsteen throws down a challenge no other superstar – or craven politician for that matter – has the vim, guts or gusto to even consider. That’s why it matters. And he does so with an album at No 1 in the Billboard charts, with five stars from Rolling Stone and lyrics like this: “Yeah, sing it hard and sing it well / Send the robber barons straight to hell / The greedy thieves that came around and ate the flesh of everything they’ve found / Whose crimes have gone unpunished now / Walk the streets as free men now.”
Bring on Bastille Day, bring on the Boss!