by Peter Carlin
Touchstone, 2012, 512 pp., $28
t was the “night before the day”, in Bruce Springsteen’s words. He stood hunched over his guitar at a cold election eve rally for President Barack Obama’s campaign in Des Moines, Iowa. Slowly strumming, Springsteen rasped an exhortation to “re-elect President Obama to carry our standard forward towards the America that waits in our hearts”and then escorted Michelle Obama to the podium. The Boss was a long way, geographically and otherwise, from the Jersey Shore, his musical, spiritual and personal home. But Springsteen’s De Moines night was just one moment in a high-profile year, during which he released the Grammy-nominated album Wrecking Ball, gave the keynote address at the South by Southwest music festival, was the subject of a 15,000-word profile in The New Yorker, and, even if incidentally, helped re-elect the President of the United States.
Springsteen’s remarkable journey to Des Moines, and a less remarkable new biography by Peter Ames Carlin, allow us to examine Springsteen’s musical, political and cultural significance. His fans will, of course, care a lot. Those who agree with his politics will as well. But every one should take note because Springsteen’s is a unique voice; he practices a distinctly American art form and celebrates an important version of the American idea. He’s a modern-day, rock ’n’ roll Jeremiah.
pringsteen has joked in concert that he has never kept a diary because, given the safety record of the small planes he uses, a crash would allow everyone to know what he has been thinking all his life. In Carlin’s Bruce we see why. Carlin, who enjoyed much participation from the singer and his camp, depicts an introverted Springsteen struggling to belong, on the childhood playground, at home, in bands, in the music industry and as a family man.
Springsteen’s upbringing was not a happy one, darkened by a distant and damaged father who sat in his lightless kitchen smoking, drinking and harassing his son each night. Any light, guitars and Elvis Presley music in Springsteen’s early life came from his mother Adele. Carlin, a former People magazine writer, is sympathetic to the shadows of mental and emotional problems in the Springsteen line of “fractured souls.” Accordingly, he suggests that they drove Springsteen’s music to its heights but also dogged him with bouts of depression, exacerbated commitment issues (to lyrics, to bandmates, to contractual agreements), and contributed to his boorish behavior toward some of the women in his life.
Springsteen’s bands were similarly fragile family units, and Carlin ably portrays the collection of mostly New Jersey and New York characters who have played with Springsteen since the 1960s. We get exhaustive (sometimes exhausting) coverage of the intra-band politics of the Castiles, Earth, Child, Steel Mill, the Bruce Springsteen Band, Dr. Zoom and the Sonic Boom, and the finally the E Street Band, which, despite breakups, shakeups and deaths, tours with Springsteen to this day. These musicians for hire, as Carlin makes clear, have been subject to the moods, the fancy and the musical interests of “The Boss”, Springsteen’s self-given and decidedly un-ironic nickname.
Springsteen has also attracted a dedicated band of “apostles”, as Carlin and some in the music industry called them. Mike Appel, the manager who got Springsteen his first big break, said, “Bruce Springsteen isn’t a rock ’n’ roll act. He’s a religion.” As Bruce makes clear, Appel was not the only convert. Self-interest, geography and musical kinship explain some of the cult of personality.1 Springsteen explained it simply as “it’s me.” Carlin, quoting observations of “presence” and “magic”,suggests that many saw Springsteen as an “underdog from nowhere” in need of encouragement and protection.Journalists and critics largely saw the same.2
Springsteen’s musical legacy depends on one’s taste, of course. The huge, diverse offering of today’s music proves legendary critic Lester Bangs’s prophesy, “we will never again agree on anything as we agreed on Elvis.” Artistically, Springsteen is better than most but worse than the best. There was some early speculation that he would be the “new Dylan”, but Springsteen’s writing, while full of conviction, can be too dependent on the companion thesaurus of which Carlin writes. He is arguably not even the best guitarist in his own band (E Street’s Nils Lofgren could be better). His voice alternates between boardwalk bark, hoarse whisper and affected country twang. Bruce does a good job describing some of his musical breakthroughs, such as marathon songs of stops and starts. But it also shows how much and how often Springsteen was influenced by others.
Springsteen, however, is unmatched in live performance. Here Carlin’s writing falters in trying to mechanically explain what can only be experienced. Springsteen is much clearer: “All people have to do is see the band.” These tightly planned and rehearsed marathons are the stuff of urban legend and cherished bootleg recordings. Their power has both intimidated and inspired countless other bands. They built the Springsteen fan base one night at a time: opening night in a new town was sparsely attended but, as word spread, “the place was packed and rockin’” by the weekend.
The studied conviction, energy and physicality of Springsteen’s shows, especially compared to his peers, suggests that they are about more than simple promotion. Bruce makes clear that for many years the shows were about personal escape from inner demons, but they increasingly became about Springsteen’s idea of community and his effort to build one for himself. Before he played his hit “Born to Run” in concert, Springsteen would yell, “Remember that in the end, nobody wins unless everybody wins.” That idea underscored what the singer called the “certain morality” in his live performances and provided the raison d’être of the so-called E Street Nation he was building.
Springsteen told one early biographer, “Everything counts. Every person, every individual in the crowd counts. To me.” A night of rock ’n’ roll abandon was the “win” Springsteen could provide himself and his audiences. And struggling to belong elsewhere, Springsteen cherished his relationships with fans. Carlin writes that for a long time Springsteen decorated his home with paintings and dioramas made by fans. Life had taught him the fragility of family and community, and as he built a loyal fan base one performance, one city at a time, he appreciated the tenuousness of the artist-audience relationship. He said, “The life of a rock band will last as long as you look down into the audience and can see yourself, and [they] can look up at you and see themselves.” Springsteen cultivated and valued this personal connection with his fans long before outlets like MTV and later Twitter created a faux-intimacy industry.
ecause of that connection, Springsteen believed that people came to music not for “political advice” but “to be touched and moved and inspired.” And for a long time, Springsteen avoided involvement in electoral politics. He did play at a Red Bank, NJ fundraiser for 1972 Democratic presidential candidate Senator George McGovern (where, Carlin writes, Springsteen grew “visibly impatient” during the speeches). He also tussled with Republicans and then-President Ronald Reagan over the meaning of his “Born in the USA” during the 1984 campaign. For the most part, however, Springsteen stuck to issue advocacy aimed at eliciting “tangible action.” He has played for veterans, food banks, Amnesty International and the “No Nukes” movement.
The presidency of George W. Bush, and the Iraq War in particular, brought Springsteen into electoral politics. He and other musicians decided to stage an “emergency intervention” and spent several weeks in the fall of 2004 playing concerts around swing states to encourage a “Vote for Change” on behalf of Democratic nominee John Kerry. In 2008 Springsteen opined that Barack Obama was the “best candidate to lead” a “great American reclamation project.”The statement, which was a surprise to Obama’s campaign, was released shortly before the Pennsylvania primary.Obama had the nomination in hand but still lost Pennsylvania by ten points.
After Obama’s November 2008 victory, aside from playing a part in his inauguration celebration, Springsteen pulled back from the political conversation. In February 2012 he said, “The artist is supposed to be the canary in the cage.” While Springsteen did not think Obama had done poorly, he expressed disappointment in Obama’s mishandling of the Guantánamo Bay prison closure and frustration at the continued influence of “big business.” He could have gotten in line among the disappointed but instead contented himself to “stay on the sidelines.”
And yet the Obama campaign had few more high-profile surrogates toward the end of the 2012 campaign than Springsteen. Even with those early-2012 hesitations, Springsteen’s motivations seem clear. A President Mitt Romney, private equity pioneer, would be tough to stomach for someone who believed Obama was too influenced by “big business.” The singer also seems to have some personal affinity with Obama—a fellow loner from a difficult family situation with a commitment to community organizing—and affection for the historical moment his 2008 election represents.
So much for Springsteen’s appreciation for Obama; why was Obama so eager to campaign with the singer? Springsteen joked that the President came to him, asking for a song that incorporated his campaign’s slogan “Forward” and his name. And so Springsteen traveled to Virginia, Wisconsin, Iowa, Pennsylvania and Ohio singing the final product, “Forward and Away We Go”, which found ways to rhyme Obama’s name with “pajamas”, “Osama” and Joe Biden’s “drama.” It was very wide of the work of a “new Dylan”, but Springsteen claimed, “after I play this song in any of these swing states, the election is pretty much sealed!”
Beyond providing a jingle, Springsteen served three other political purposes. First, if Ronald Reagan tried to embrace the singer’s brand of patriotism in 1984 (only to be rebuffed), a President whose roots and connection to American values have been questioned arguably needed the Springsteen allure even more. Second, the only audiences whiter than those at Springsteen’s concerts might have been those at Romney rallies. Obama needed to win a certain percentage of white voters, and the campaign micro-targeted its celebrity endorsements toward blocks of voters.
Third, Obama’s and Springsteen’s messages overlapped. Obama had called for Americans to “reclaim” “American values”, such as the belief that this “country succeeds . . . when everyone does their fair share, when everyone plays by the same rules.” Springsteen believes that same “morality” underscores his music. Obama and Springsteen also targeted the same opponents. Obama criticized those who combined “breathtaking greed” with “irresponsibility” to plunge “our economy and the world into a crisis”, and Springsteen called the actions of those who contributed to the financial crisis “unpatriotic and un-American”. He spoke of the “angry patriotism” that underscores songs such as “We Take Care of Our Own”, which played at many Obama rallies and after Obama’s Democratic Convention speech.
Springsteen’s involvement in the campaign was no doubt good for business. (By the end of the Democratic convention, sales of “We Take Care of Our Own” jumped 409 percent, and Wrecking Ball rose from number 199 to 112 on the Billboard 200 chart.)But did Obama get the same sort of bounce from the singer? Probably less than some have suggested. (Ron Rosenbaum indulged in some hyperbole, for example, in his Slate piece, “How Bruce Springsteen Elected Barack Obama.”) As Springsteen jokingly predicted, Obama did win all the swing states where he sang “Forward and Away We Go”, but of those states the President only won the white vote in Iowa, and lost it nationwide by twenty points. As in 2004 and 2008, Springsteen’s campaigning for Obama in 2012 probably proves the rule that celebrity endorsements (as distinct from the financial support they might provide) have a negligible impact on campaigns.
pringsteen’s political partisanship distracts from what he has been more interested in and more effective at: establishing cultural influence. After reading a copy of Joe Klein’s Woody Guthrie: A Life in his early thirties, Springsteen aimed to become a “voice” for his “moment” in American history. In his keynote address at last year’s South-by-Southwest music festival, Springsteen admitted he could never be Guthrie, for he had “already gone a long way down a pretty different road” toward “the simplicity, and the tossed-off temporary feeling of pop hits.”So he sought instead to become the “strange product of Elvis and Woody Guthrie.”
But that still begged the critical question: For whom would Springsteen speak? After all, Guthrie sang about the forgotten, and Elvis sang about Cadillacs. Springsteen does both, and has typically been labeled a kind of lowest-common-denominator “blue collar troubadour.” That label never made much sense, however. According to Carlin, Springsteen never held a straight job and remained “steadfast in his determination to never, ever work outside the music industry.” Second, Springsteen, by his own admission, enjoys the “luxuries and the comforts of being a star.” But mostly, the label doesn’t fit because Springsteen’s real focus is simply American folk. He sings of day laborers and dreamers, to be sure, but plenty of deadbeats and derelicts, too.
In one telling scene in Bruce, Springsteen sits at a “battered spinet” on the sun porch of his Bradley Beach, NJ home just singing about the lives of those who walked by. His music is sympathetic yet honest storytelling about work, yes, but also about the lives, loves and losses of those folks walking by that Bradley Beach porch and through other towns across the country. Though escape and antisocial behavior are common themes in Springsteen’s lyrics, companionship offers the way toward salvation. Even in “Born to Run”, his epic celebration of abandon, the refrain is “we were born to run”, not “I.” Despite his own trouble connecting with others, Springsteen’s music argues that belonging gives more than it takes.
The same idea underscores Springsteen’s performances, his politics and his unabashedly idealist and liberal vision of the American promise: equality and opportunity through community. His communitarian idea is certainly not novel, nor is it the province of only one political party, but it isn’t cynically instrumental either. Springsteen sees it as his mission to measure the “distance between [the] American promise and American reality.” He pursues that mission—part celebration, part lament and part encouragement to close the promise-versus-reality gap—in albums and songs reminiscent of classic American jeremiads. These New World “state of the covenant” sermons always differed from their harsher European counterparts, because their religious and secular, political or artistic purveyors paired admonishment with celebration of America’s and Americans’ exceptional historical errand.3 The new world’s jeremiads, like Springsteen’s, pointed out the lapses but inspired just enough optimism to keep dancing on.
Two upbeat songs on Springsteen’s latest, Wrecking Ball, represent Springsteen’s latest jeremiad on American exceptionalism. “We Take Care of Our Own” rocks like an anthem about America’s promise but its lyrics read more like a mournful lament about the promises it fails to keep. And in “Land of Hopes and Dreams” Springsteen describes what he believes America can and must be. In this “Land” faith is rewarded through community. All folk benefit from the unique alchemy that occurs when “saints and sinners”, “losers and winners”, “whores and gamblers”, come together.
Does this message resonate? Some of Springsteen’s most popular jeremiad albums came about during moments of frustration and disappointment in the American zeitgeist: in the post-Vietnam and Watergate 1970s (1975’s Born to Run), before “morning in America” had fully dawned (1984’s Born in the USA), after September 11 (2002’s The Rising) and post-economic crisis (2012’s Wrecking Ball). Still, record sales do not equate with message resonance any more than correlation means causation. Maybe fans wanted good old-fashioned rock ’n’ roll, or maybe they wanted a reminder of Springsteen’s version of the American promise. Whatever the case, music, message or both clearly matched those moments.
t that election eve rally in Des Moines, Springsteen was not the star. He played at a separate stage, and the audience, though polite, was hardly focused on the music as they waited for the Obamas. Springsteen’s remarks, though earnest, were goofy and disjointed in between acoustic performances of his songs “No Surrender”, “Promised Land”, and “Land of Hopes and Dreams.”
Yet Springsteen sang those jeremiads with an intensity that marked his face with strain and his pace with purpose. Rather than the standard lyrics of “Promised Land”, Springsteen changed “If I could take one moment into my hands” to “If I could take this moment . . . .” He sang like a man desperate to belong to a moment and to a community but who first wanted to make each worth belonging to. The determination is indicative of Springsteen’s approach to tours, politics and jeremiads: He has said, “You come back and keep coming back until the people hear you. That’s the point.”
Springsteen’s music may be less artistically consequential than his fans believe, and his political support may carry less weight than those for whom he campaigns might hope. And maintaining his cultural voice poses a challenge, as he risks losing listeners due to overt partisanship. And though Bruce is full of stories of Springsteen cheering at little league games and popping into bars for a beer, the isolation imposed by fame might mean that one day the audience will “look up” at Springsteen and no longer “see themselves.”
But his 2012 successes and Carlin’s biography show that he will endure like any Jeremiah must. Wrecking Ball’s sales and the younger faces at his concerts suggest that Springsteen’s music, voice and version of the American idea still matter. His close relationship with his fans and love of country keep pulling him off the sidelines and out of his cage to urge the nation to do better. And what’s more, he seems driven to “keep coming back until the people hear” him.
Bruce concludes that Springsteen, aided by years of therapy and anti-depressants, finally settled sometime after 2003 into his most productive years and more comfortably into band and family life. He has been as interested in writing new songs as repackaging his vault of old material. And anyone who has seen him sprint laps around the arena floor at recent concerts can attest that Springsteen appears healthy enough to keep touring for years to come.
In the final refrain of “Promised Land” at the Des Moines rally, Springsteen made another change. Rather than the usual cadence, he ended the song with “And I believe…and I believe…and I believe in a promised land.” That repetition, his busy 2012, and the March 2013 launch of another leg in Wrecking Ball’s tour demonstrate that the 63-year-old Springsteen sees each verse, each jeremiad, each tour as an opportunity to get his listeners to see the light. As he says, “that’s the point.”
1Despite his early discomfort with merchandizing, bigger shows, and publicity efforts, business today is very good and well tended with tweets and a slick website. As for geography, Springsteen’s New Jersey home was a bus ride away from New York’s record labels, studios and clubs. It also gave him ready access to the tastemakers and DJs in the Washington, New York, Philadelphia and Boston markets.
2Journalists have long been in his thrall. Time and Newsweek, famously, each put Springsteen on their covers in the same week of October 1975, in part due to intra-town rivalry and in part because journalists were fans. It continues today; amid much journalistic attention lavished on Springsteen in 2012, New Yorker editor David Remnick wrote that Springsteen has “an ass finely sausaged into a pair of alarmingly tight black jeans.”
3One scholar, Sacvan Bercovitch, in his The American Jeremiad (University of Wisconsin Press, 1978), traces the form and function of the American jeremiad from Winthrop’s “City Upon a Hill” sermon aboard the Arbella in 1630 through artists such as Melville, Emerson and Thoreau.