Bruce Springsteen and the elusive American Dream
As we grapple with what has gone so wrong in contemporary America, revisiting Springsteen’s back catalogue helps to begin to explain it all
BRUCE Springsteen toured Australia for the first time in 1985, when I was 16. Up to that stage, he’d had a couple of minor hits here — ‘Born To Run’ and ‘Hungry Heart’ were already staples of FM radio — but was nowhere near being a household name.
But his seventh album, Born In The USA, released in 1984, had been his global smash breakthrough, and the Brian De Palma-directed video for ‘Dancing in The Dark’ was a regular on Countdown, alongside Prince’s ‘When Doves Cry’, various Madonna hits and Michael Jackson’s ‘Beat It’. The sight of Springsteen, a 30-something white man in a plain t-shirt and jeans among the splendid glamour, dangerous sexuality and androgyny of Prince, Madonna and Jacko on a television show devoted to pop music was slightly incongruous, but what did we know?
Within weeks of starting my first supermarket job, I’d used some of my pay to buy Born In The USA, and pretty soon I knew the riffs and lyrics of every song by heart.
It was the album I played when I was feeling down and needed cheering up — how could you not feel uplifted by a song like ‘Darlington County’ or ‘No Surrender’. But there was also something dark and meaningful about the stories told within those songs, of ordinary working class men and women struggling to keep their dreams alive as they confronted the realities of life in Reagan’s America.
When Springsteen’s Australian tour was announced, a friend from school somehow got hold of a couple of tickets to Springsteen’s concert at the Melbourne Showgrounds. The Boss’s live shows were legendary: three or four hour performances which left the audience exhausted and soaking in sweat as the E Street band took them on a roller coaster of emotions.
I came home excited about the gig to be met by the immovable force of my mother. It was a Wednesday night, and there was no way I was going to a rock concert on a school night, let alone on other side of town.
I don’t think I talked to my mother for a week after that and 35 years later, I still haven’t fully forgiven her. It wasn’t until almost three decades on when I finally got to see Springsteen perform live at the Rod Laver Arena for his Wrecking Ball tour in 2013. Through a quirk of the ticketing system, I somehow secured front row seats in the second tier, directly adjacent to an extended part of the stage where Springsteen performed part of the concert in the middle of the crowd. And it was during that part of the concert — I believe it was ‘Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out’ — that Bruce rushed past within half a metre of me, high-fiving everyone in sight. Somehow he missed my hand, but I reached out and managed to lay a palm on his sweaty back before he was gone.
About a fortnight before the 2020 US election, Springsteen released his 20th studio album, Letter To You. Recorded live in the studio with the E Street Band, it has been described as an elegy for his youth. The timing of the release was significant because in song, gesture and public comment, Springsteen has been a trenchant critic of Trump. Doing the publicity rounds for his new album, he predicted Trump would lose in a landslide, with the caveat that he would be moving to Australia if he was proved wrong.
It is no small irony that many of Springsteen’s biggest fans are the same people who wear red MAGA caps to Trump rallies. Springsteen has spent a career chronicling the heartbreaks, disappointments, dreams, tragedies, triumphs and adventures of the same white working class folk whose grievances Trump so effectively harnessed for his 2016 election to the White House. The same people from dying industrial towns in rust belt states with their noisy pickups and guns and simmering resentment at the lousy deck of cards life has dealt them.
In his songs, Springsteen tells short stories of these people’s lives, often bittersweet and sometimes just plain heartbreaking. His characters seek redemption and a small portion of dignity, and they often endure in the face of all odds.
Resilience, redemption, dignity. These have been the constant themes of his canon of work, and by articulating their lives, Springsteen has become a hero for working class white Americans. The same people who Trump sees as his base.
Yet Springsteen couldn’t be more different than Trump. If anything, he and Joe Biden are cut from the same cloth: both grew up in small town Catholic working class families and through a combination of luck and hard work, managed to escape. Trump, on the other hand, was born with a silver spoon in his mouth and his life has been one of privilege and inherited wealth.
In his outlook, Springsteen is a liberal; the racism, bigotry and misogyny that Trump espouses is anathema to him. Springsteen is a patriot who believes his country can and should be better.
Despite his liberalism, Springsteen has often been wilfully misinterpreted by the right and his music has been appropriated by those he is politically opposed to. Perhaps this is because at his heart, Springsteen is a populist who speaks for the everyman, and he appeals to the same people Right wing populists want to vote for them.
The most famous example of this is how Springsteen’s anti-Vietnam War song, ‘Born In the USA’ was adopted by Ronald Reagan as a hairy chested anthem of American might and power, when the message in the song was the opposite of that.
In any case, it is by listening to Springsteen that we can begin to understand the anger and grievance that propelled Trump to power and drives Trumpism. Springsteen rarely offers solutions for his characters, and when he does they are vastly different than those offered by Trump and his ilk. But as we grapple with what has gone so wrong in contemporary America, revisiting Bruce Springsteen’s back catalogue helps to begin to explain it all.
But with 20 studio albums over almost half a century as a recording artist, where do you start?
It’s Hard To Be A Saint In The City
When Bruce Springsteen burst onto the scene in the early-70s, it was in the persona of a streetwise gypsy troubadour, a dirty-faced urchin who had literally been brought up in the mean streets of his native New Jersey like a modern day Artful Dodger. Like the stories Bob Dylan had concocted about himself a decade earlier, it was a fiction but with an element of truth: Springsteen had already been a full-time musician for half a decade by the time he released his debut album, Greetings From Asbury Park, in 1973. ‘It’s Hard To Be A Saint In the City’ was an early crowd pleaser that Springsteen still regularly pulls out in his live shows, a strutting five minutes of street poetry over a raucous musical backing with Springsteen barely taking a breath as he portrays himself as a cross between Brando and Casanova, ‘the king of the alley’, ‘prince of the paupers’, and ‘a backstreet gambler’ trying in vain to avoid doing a deal with the devil. All in all, it was a long way from the blue-collar battlers he would later sing about.
The very first notes of the opening track of Born To Run establish the epic cinematic scope of Springsteen’s third album. A lone harmonica wails, a piano tinkles, a screen door slams and a young girl dances across the porch to the sound of Roy Orbison as her boyfriend arrives in a souped up car promising to take her away from all this. There’s the promise of the open road but also the sense that their destiny has already been set and dreams will be unfulfilled — but all that matters is right here, right now and the chance to escape, if only temporarily. Underneath the lyrics, the E Street Band builds intensity, climaxing in a soaring Clarence Clemons saxophone solo.
Racing In The Street
Fast cars are so common in Springsteen’s songs, they are almost a cliché. They serve as metaphors for his ideas of escape, abandonment and redemption and he usually invests them and the people who drive them with epic romanticism. ‘Racing In The Street’, the slow boiling centrepiece of Darkness On The Edge Of Town begins in the same vein, telling the story of a young man who lives for his drag racing . But Springsteen’s true genius comes in the third verse when he switches perspective to the drag racer’s girlfriend who cries herself to sleep each night praying that he will come home safe and unhurt, her “pretty dreams” now all gone. And meanwhile, the protagonist continues to risk his life street racing, aware but not really caring about the fate that may lie just around the next corner.
Because The Night
Before he had truly established his name as a recording artist in his own right, Springsteen had already begun earning sizeable royalties from cover versions of his own songs. The Pointer Sisters’ version of ‘Fire’ was a global smash in 1978, and Manfred Mann’s Earth Band hit number one with their cover of ‘Blinded By The Light’, which originally appeared on Bruce’s debut album, Greetings From Asbury Park. David Bowie also recorded a stunning version of ‘It’s Hard To Be A Saint In The City’ in the mid-70s. And when Springsteen finally achieved a top 10 hit of his own, it was with ‘Hungry Heart’, which he had originally written for The Ramones. ‘Because The Night’ was an out-take from the Darkness At The Edge of Town sessions which became a big hit with additional lyrics written by Patti Smith and released as a single from her 1978 album Easter. Both versions are impeccable atmospheric ballads and Springsteen has since performed the song countless times in concert.
The title track of his fifth studio album is perhaps the quintessential Bruce Springsteen story within a song. It is yet another melancholic tale of lost dreams — this time about two young lovers whose hopes are slowly extinguished after the girl falls pregnant — told with empathy, an eye for detail and poetic wordplay. It’s a song of regret and nostalgia, with the protagonist pining for the innocence of the lazy teenage afternoons he spent with his sweetheart at their favourite spot on the river. But now he is unemployed and the couple are barely talking. Near the end of the song, Springsteen sings ‘Those memories come back to haunt me/They haunt me like a curse/Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true/Or is it something worse?’ — arguably the best four lines of verse he has ever written.
From its cover of a grainy photo looking through a car windscreen at a storm up ahead to the subject matter, Nebraska is Springsteen’s bleakest album, conceived and recorded in the earlyl-1980s as Reaganism began to impact on working class America. The title track is based on the 1958 murder spree of Charles Starkweather and his girlfriend, which also inspired Terence Malick’s classic 1973 film Badlands, which in turn gave a title to the opening song on Springsteen’s Darkness On The Edge Of Town album. Circles within circles. The songs on Nebraska are peppered with similar stories of violence, death, crime and nihilism. The songs had been originally recorded as demos with sparse instrumentation, often just an acoustic guitar. Springsteen carried the cassette around in the back pocket of his jeans intending to record them properly with the E Street Band, but eventually concluded that the stark arrangements were the perfect pairing for the lyrics. ‘State Trooper’ is written from the perspective of a lone driver late at night on the New Jersey Turnpike, and the fact that the protagonist never actually encounters the State Trooper only makes the song more menacing. Springsteen plays a simple repetitive bluesy riff on the bass strings of his guitar, while vocally he was heavily influenced by Alan Vega of the electronic New York band Suicide with reverb and echo giving his voice an eerie, haunting quality, and those blood curling howls and screams at the end are truly frightening.
Born In The USA
Not only Springsteen’s most wilfully misinterpreted song, but one of the most misunderstood of all time. Far from a flag-waving ode to patriotism exploited by American conservatives, ‘Born In The USA’ was written as a critique of the way young men were exploited for political ends in the Vietnam War, and then abandoned by their government when they returned home. This was deeply personal for Springsteen, who had spent his late-teens and early-twenties living in fear of being drafted and watching his friends and contemporaries go off to the war, some of them never to come back home. But he had mostly avoided writing about Vietnam until he read Ron Kovic’s Born On The Fourth Of July, and through its author met other damaged Vietnam vets. Springsteen wrote the song about the same time as Nebraska and the original acoustic demo has a similar bluesy, heavily echoing sound. But once the E Street Band got hold of it, it was transformed into the massive stadium filler that is both Springsteen’s signature and his burden, opening with that instantly recognisable synthesiser riff and thumping snare drums and finishing in a wild crescendo of percussion, keyboards and electric guitar. The bombastic vocal delivery and over-the-top production is not to everyone’s taste, but more than 30 years later it remains one of his most important songs from his most successful album.
The Ghost Of Tom Joad
Understandably burnt out after the epic ‘Born In The USA’ world tour and 10 years of recording with the E Street Band, during most of the late-80s through to the end of the century, Bruce Springsteen worked as a solo artist. Settling down with his second wife, Patti Scialfa, on a semi-rural property, he became a family man with little interest in touring. Springsteen was now a multi-millionaire, but lyrically he continued identify with the plight of the oppressed and working poor. The Ghost of Tom Joad, an album released in 1995, was a stab at recording genuine acoustic folk and protest music. The titular Tom Joad was a character in John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath and the subject of Woody Guthrie’s ‘Ballad of Tom Joad’, and Springsteen’s lyrics evoke the dustbowl vagrants of the Great Depression portrayed in both the book and the song. The original recording was mostly acoustic guitar and harmonica augmented by steel guitar and light percussion and was covered two years later by Rage Against The Machine, whose guitarist Tom Morello was recruited by Springsteen to add a new dimension to his live show. Their duet became a highlight of Springsteen’s concerts and an electric version was re-recorded for 2014’s High Hopes album with Springsteen and Morello sharing lead vocals and guitar solos.
As he has moved through middle and now into old age, Bruce Springsteen’s career has veered through different genres and styles, at times deliberately seeking to distance himself from the stereotypical E Street sound and at others embracing it. This has resulted in albums as varied as his 2006 tribute to Pete Seeger’s protest songs, and the neo-Hollywood Country & Western of 2019’s Western Stars. ‘The Rising’ was not only Springsteen’s response to September 11, but the album was his first full studio recording with the E Street Band since Born In The USA. A gospel-like message of hope and resilience during one of the darkest moments in modern American history, ‘The Rising’ signified a return to form after a patchy decade during which Springsteen had been a prolific recording artist but looked and sounded like yesterday’s man in the golden age of Grunge and Hip-Hop. Re-uniting with the E Street Band was hardly a sign of a new direction, but Springsteen had subtly updated his sound enough to regain contemporary relevance.
Born To Run
This is where it all starts and ends for Bruce Springsteen, summoning the spirits of Dylan, Elvis and Phil Spector to produce his most enduring masterpiece. After two studio albums which had gained some critical acclaim but been commercial flops, when Springsteen entered the recording studio at the start of 1974, it was all or nothing in pursuit of his dream of stardom. This was his last roll of the dice, and he was determined to produce an epic for the ages. In his quest for perfection, Springsteen spent months labouring over the recording, adding dozens of overdubs which resulted in layers of strings, horns, keyboards and guitars competing for space in an epic wall of sound. But it would have amounted to nothing without a great song underneath. ‘Born To Run’ saw the emergence of Springsteen as a master wordsmith, combining the lyrical themes and imagery that would define his career: dreams of escape from small town blue-collar America, fast cars and the open road, do or die romance, and the redemptive power of rock and roll. He sings of a ‘runaway American dream’, a town that ‘rips the bones form your back, it’s a death trap, a suicide rap’, and the only way out is to find a fast car and hit the open road. It doesn’t matter where you’re heading, but if you hold onto your dreams someday ‘we’re gonna get to that place where we really wanna go and we’ll walk in the sun’. But until we do, we’re all destined to be born to run. Forty-five years later it has lost none of its power, and will remain a milestone in music history long after Springsteen has gone.