Rod MacGregor follows Bruce Springsteen’s political development through his music
Now I been lookin’ for a job but it’s hard to find Down here there’s just winners and losers And don’t get caught on the wrong side of that line
—Atlantic City, Bruce Springsteen
It was nearly three decades ago, in May 1981, that I first saw Bruce Springsteen (aka The Boss) in concert at the Playhouse in Edinburgh. Prior to the gig I had heard much about the energy of the performances that he created with the help of his backing group, the now legendary E Street Band.
I’d bought the records and I’d liked what I’d heard. Indeed, I had bought my first Springsteen records in 1973, when most of America didn’t know who he was. But could he truly replicate the energy of those pieces of vinyl live in concert and live up to the reputation for live performance that followed him around?
Back in the early ’80’s the music industry was, and let’s be honest, it still is an entity which thrives on a staple diet of hype, distortion and downright lies. Was the fuss surrounding Bruce Springsteen just one more piece of record industry bullshit, I wondered?
Thinking thus, it was with no small degree of trepidation that I approached the concert at the Playhouse. In the end I really shouldn’t have worried. Three-and-a-half hours after Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band took to the stage on that far-off evening they left it, cheered to the rafters. Hype this was not.
The man rocked! And for the next three decades he has continued to rock.
Springsteen was born in New Jersey in 1949. After leaving school he played in various bands before being signed to CBS records by John Hammond, a music industry legend, having signed such talents as Aretha Franklin and Bob Dylan to the label..
Springsteen’s first two albums, Greetings From Asbury Park and The Wild, The Innocent And The E-Street Shuffle were both critically acclaimed but they did not sell well, a situation which led to Springsteen becoming known as Hammond’s Folly at CBS.
Biting their own bullets
The snipers at CBS had to bite on their own bullets, however, in 1975, with the release of his third album, Born To Run. It is one of the all-time classic rock albums. With its release, a critically acclaimed but commercially unsuccessful rock ‘n’ roll singer called Bruce Springsteen was catapulted into the big time. Such was the furore surrounding the release of Born To Run that he even appeared on the covers of Time and Newsweek simultaneously.
However, just as it seemed he had made it all the way to rock superstardom his career stalled as he became embroiled in a lengthy lawsuit with his former manager.
It would be 1978 before he would release his fourth album, Darkness on the Edge of Town. To promote his fifth album, The River, he undertook his first world tour in 1980/81.
By the end of that tour, including the aforementioned Edinburgh gig which I witnessed, he was being hailed as the new king of rock ‘n’ roll. But Bruce Springsteen was about to prove in a most remarkable way that there was more to him than just a good rock ‘n’ roll show and songs about fast cars.
Just as the rock world was proclaiming him “the next big thing” he seemed to turn his back on it all. Though he had been out on tour in the real world for a year and more, or maybe even because of it, when he returned to the United States he looked inwards at what was happening where he lived.
In 1982 he released Nebraska. It was the bravest artistic decision that Springsteen ever took. There was no band backing him, instead he presented to the world a solo acoustic album which took everyone by surprise.
On Nebraska the Spector-like wall of sound production, the sweeping cityscapes and wild romanticism in the music and lyrics of Born To Run are all gone, replaced by dark tales of characters side-lined by the USA of the early 1980’s and Reaganomics.
Providing an insight
The record is populated by the misfits, the rejects and the unwanted of American society; they are characters who, sentenced by the system that they lived under and being possessed of no special talent were born to fail, excluded by birth from the American dream.
There’s a place out on the edge of town, sir,
Risin’ above the factories and the fields.
Now ever since I was a child I can remember
That mansion on the hill.
In the day you can see the children playing
On the road that leads to those gates of
Steel gates that completely surround, sir,
That mansion on the hill.
– Mansion On The Hill, Bruce Springsteen
In many of Springsteen’s songs from the early to mid-1980’s the lyrics reflect the economic times that he lived in, and listening to the older recordings provides an insight into those times, allowing reflection on the ways in which the world has changed (or not, as the case may be) since those songs were originally written.
In 1980 Springsteen released his fifth album, The River. The title song opens thus,
I come from down in the valley where, mister,
when you’re young,
They bring you up to do just like your daddy
OK, English teachers and grammatical perfectionists out there, take a minute to get over the verbal mangling at the end of that one. Then everyone take another minute to mull over what life was like in 1980 and compare it to what it is like now.
When The River was written back in 1979, many young people leaving school actually did follow in the footsteps of their fathers. If you were poor, working class and male, being born in a mining community meant that being a miner was your likely fate.
Then there were the shipyards, the steel towns and in Dundee, my adopted hometown, generation after generation worked in the city’s jute mills, till after the second world war when some diversity of occupation was possible as many foreign companies located in the city.
But Dundee and many other cities throughout Scotland were about to find out that multinational companies and corporations investing in them was not done through any sense of altruism.
If you drive into Dundee from the north on the A92 and turn right at the Scott Fyfe circle on to Dundee’s inner ring road, the Kingsway, and proceed to drive its length to the other end at the Swallow circle, you will drive through an industrial graveyard.
Dotted along the five-and-a-half miles of the Kingsway are the sites of the post-war sunrise industries which located in Dundee — Timex Milton, ABB Nitran, Valentine’s, NCR, Timex Camperdown, Levis — each factory at one time a beacon of hope for a brighter future, but now all either vacant sites or shopping centres, each one now nothing more than a tombstone along the side of the road of Dundee’s forced march into capitalism’s brave new world.
A forced march into a world where capitalist multinational and transnational corporations in thrall to globalisation shipped jobs abroad to where the goods that they produced could be manufactured cheaper, a world where loyalty from international corporations to loyal work forces had no place as shareholders had to be satisfied and profits maximised.
Nitran, Valentine’s, NCR, Timex, Levis.
Some went easy.
Some went hard.
But in the end . . .
. . . they all went.
To this mix, add Dundee’s jute industry, fast approaching its death throes. By the time that Dundee’s industrial holocaust had burnt itself out swathes of its post-war housing schemes had become like ghettoes in some places as those who would once have found employment in those industries self-medicated themselves to temporary and repetitive oblivion with the drink or narcotic of their choice in order to escape the empty awfulness and lack of hope in their lives.
Maybe those jobs hadn’t been great, especially in the jute mills, but they had provided expectations among the young of Dundee of at least some kind of employment when they left school.
With that certainty gone they would no longer follow in the footsteps of their fathers, and their fathers before them. They would no longer be brought up to “do just like your daddy done.”
In the song My Hometown Springsteen observed,
Now Main Street’s whitewashed windows and vacant stores
Seems like there ain’t nobody wants to come down here no more.
They’re closing down the textile mill
Across the railroad tracks,
Foreman says, “These jobs are going, boys,
And they ain’t coming back
To your hometown . . .”
Springsteen may have been making observations about life in the United States, but the song found a sympathetic echo on the streets of Dundee.
Bruce Springsteen’s seventh album, Born In The USA was released in June 1984, a few months into the miners’ strike, Britain’s most bitter post-war industrial dispute, during which Thatcher unleashed the full force of the state to crush the miners.
Across the Atlantic her ideological soul mate, Ronald Reagan, was decimating American industry, and both had set the (wrecking) ball rolling on a course which would see car plants, steel mills and much of the manufacturing base destroyed.
Born In The USA was Springsteen’s most commercially successful record and all sorts of craziness followed its release as everyone jumped on the bandwagon, including Ronald Reagan, who was campaigning for re-election as president in 1984.
On a stop at Hammonton, New Jersey, he hijacked Springsteen for his own political ends as he told an invited audience, “America’s future rests in a thousand dreams inside your hearts; it rests in the message of hope in the songs so many young Americans admire, New Jersey’s own Bruce Springsteen. And helping you make those dreams come true is what this job of mine is all about.”
It was several days before Springsteen responded to Reagan’s “adoption” of him. On stage on September 22, he told the audience, “The president was mentioning my name the other day, and I kinda got to wondering what his favourite album musta been. I don’t think it was the Nebraska album. I don’t think he’s been listening to this one.”
He launched into a song from the Nebraska album, Johnny 99, the protagonist of the song having lost his job when the local car plant had been shut down. In desperation he had been arrested for trying to commit a robbery. At his trial he tells the judge from the dock,
Now, judge, judge, I had debts
No honest man could pay.
The bank was holding my mortgage,
They were gonna take my house away.
Springsteen was to revisit the theme of deindustrialisation in his 1995 solo album, The Ghost Of Tom Joad, in particular on the song, Youngstown. It tells the tale of a young man who returns from war in Vietnam to a job in the steel industry in the town of Youngstown, Ohio.
Well, my daddy worked the furnaces,
Kept ’em hotter than hell,
I came home from ’Nam, worked my way to scarfer,
A job that’d suit the devil as well.
Taconite, coke and limestone
Fed my children and made my pay.
Them smokestacks reaching like the arms of God
Into a beautiful sky of soot and clay.
Someone worshipping “a beautiful sky of soot and clay” makes for an interesting situation for eco-socialists. Knowing as we do the effect of pumping vast quantities of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, would we ourselves be forced to close down the coal mines and steel mills, even though they provided the very means of existence to many?
Surely the difference would be that we would handle any closures and subsequent redundancies made to protect the planet in a humane manner by creating jobs in renewable technologies for the out of work miners and steel workers.
For the record, I nearly wrote in a “more humane manner” in the previous paragraph, but stuck with “humane manner” instead. The word “more” is comparative and its use would have implied that there was some degree of humanity about Thatcher and her attitude to the miners and, indeed, the whole working class. There wasn’t!
The central character of the song is another who went on to become someone who ended up going down the road of doing “just like your daddy done.” Like his father before him he has returned from war to a job in a vital industry.
But he will be the last of his family to do this. His children will not “do just like your daddy done.” The third verse of “Youngstown” is a mournful requiem for the steel mills of that Ohio town.
Well my daddy come on the Ohio works
When he came home from World War Two.
Now the yard’s just scrap and rubble.
He said, “Them big boys did what Hitler couldn’t do.”
Both he and his father had unquestioningly served the state well in time of war, but his father’s life and his own were worth nothing to American based multinational corporations in time of peace when they found somewhere that steel could be made cheaper.
With the release of Born In The USA in 1984 and the world tour which followed it, Springsteen became one of the biggest rock stars on the planet, but celebrity and fame posed for him the question that all international rock stars face with their vast wealth and jet set lifestyles. How do you stay in touch with where you came from?
Some don’t even try. Others preach about saving the world from the stage during their concerts, all the while moving their tax affairs offshore only to end up wondering why they still haven‘t found what they‘re looking for. It seems that Springsteen is at least aware of the dichotomy that exists in his situation.
Following a three-month world tour with Peter Gabriel, Sting, Tracy Chapman and Youssou N’door, sponsored by Amnesty International and promoting the 40th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Springsteen split from the E-Street Band. It would be eleven years before they played together again in public.
Springsteen simply told the band that he would not be requiring their services for the foreseeable future, that he wanted time to pursue other ideas. He did, in fact, tour in 1992 with a new group of musicians, and in the song Better Days he bemoans the fact that
I took a piss at fortune’s sweet kiss,
It’s like eating caviar and dirt,
It’s a sad, funny ending to find yourself pretending,
A rich man in a poor man’s shirt.
Perhaps it is a dilemma with no resolution.
Nearly thirty years on from that far-off night at the Playhouse in Edinburgh when I first saw Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band in concert, so much has changed. The big industries in Scotland — the coal mines, the shipyards, the car plant, the steel mill—all now gone. Methil no more. Linwood no more. Ravenscraig no more. Ghosts that now only inhabit and haunt the memories of those of a certain age.
But yet, so much remains the same. Unemployment, war and poverty have not died. They are every bit as real now and every bit as awful as they were nearly three decades ago, the stench that follows capitalism around like some unshakeable bloodhound.
Regarding war, it must be said that Springsteen’s attitude towards his country’s foreign adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan could have been better. He toured Europe in the spring and summer of 2003 round about the time of the US (sorry, coalition) invasion of Iraq.
When he toured in 1988 he closed the first half of his shows with the Edwin Starr classic War flowing into Born In The USA. What a message he could have sent out with that ending to his 2003 shows. But it was absent. He did not come out against the war till much later. Neil Young, Steve Earle and the Dixie Chicks did it so much better.
Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true,
or is it something worse?
– The River, Bruce Springsteen
Like a remake of a classic movie once more we are told that we are all in this together, as times of austerity forced upon us by a failed ideology threaten to engulf us in a tsunami of redundancies and cuts to vital services.
Once again the rich elite who took the profits in the good times tell us that we must pay for their greed and folly in the bad times. And, as in any movie remake, only the actors have changed. The plot remains the same.
Those who would have had us believe that it was the end of boom and bust have been proved laughably wrong. Neither has the end of history arrived, for history is still being written, and though the hand that writes the story of our current times has previously written it on more than one occasion it seems never to tire of recording the same tale.
If ever there was a need for a new hand on the pen which writes the story it is now—and it is a need for a kinder, fairer hand, a hand that would write a happier ending for those who reject the naked greed and lack the blind ambition which has brought us to our present pass.
Badlands, you’ve got to live them every day,
Let the broken hearts stand, that’s the price
you’ve got to pay.
Keep pushing till it’s understood
And these badlands start treating us good.
– Badlands, Bruce Springsteen.
Anyway, enough. On July 14 2009, I and 50,000 others turned up at the National Stadium in Glasgow to see Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band in concert. The question I asked myself prior to him hitting the stage was this. Here was a man just a few months short of his sixtieth birthday. Could he still hack it?
Thinking thus, it was with no small degree of trepidation that I approached the concert at Hampden Park. In the end I really shouldn’t have worried. Three hours after Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band took to the stage on that summer evening they left it, cheered to the rafters. The man still rocks!
“I’m just a prisoner of rock ‘n’ roll.”—