A few years ago, The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart suggested that Bruce Springsteen was the secret love child of James Brown and Bob Dylan, abandoned at birth on the New Jersey turnpike. Academics looking for Springsteen’s artistic lineage have often, like Stewart, made the association with Dylan. But when they have looked back a little further they have called Woody Guthrie and, even Walt Whitman, his predecessors.
Whitman committed himself to “ignoring the courtly muses of Europe” and strove to invoke “a race of singers” that would root their art in the lives of the popular classes in the United States. The shockwaves produced by his resolve to sing an American song, a song of the common people that celebrated the individual and the collective, were seismic. They moved out in all kinds of directions including into Spanish and down to Chile. When Neruda died at his home on Pacific coast of Chile in 1973, a few days after the American-backed coup against Salvador Allende, the photograph standing on his rough wooden desk was of Whitman. Twenty years later, Neruda’s ghost may have smiled, wryly, at Leonard Cohen’s observation that America is “the cradle of the best and of the worst”.
Whitman’s statement of intent in I Sing the Body Electric could well be applied to Springsteen: “I sing … the body electric, a song of myself, a song of joys, a song of occupations, a song of prudence, a song of the answerer, a song of the broad-axe, a song of the rolling earth, a song of the universal …” But Springsteen didn’t grow up in a house with books. When he tells his own story of artistic awakening it is often two electric moments in front of the television that come to the fore. The first moment came when, at the age of nine, he and his mother saw Elvis Presley for the first time. The next moment came at the age of 28 when he first saw John Ford’s cinematic version of John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath.
Elvis, in terms of spirit rather than sound, is clearly present in Springsteen’s first three albums culminating in the magnificent Born to Run, which crashed on to American radio in 1975 with a dramatic lyrical intensity riding a rushing wall of rock and soul. The title track is all about the desire to bust out of a dreary working class life. This period in his music, Springsteen would later recall, is about the young man out on the street. It speaks, to borrow the words of Frantz Fanon, another soul marked by Catholicism, to the desire “to come lithe and young into a world that was ours”.
Badlands, the opening track on Darkness on the Edge of Town, Springsteen’s fourth album, which came out in 1978 and is certainly one of his best, brings the desire for a full life into a ferocious clash, “a head on collision”, with a society that wants to teach young men to accept the discipline, limits and drudgery of working life. The desire for escape, to feel alive, even if for a moment, is also beautifully, although this time mournfully, presented in Racing in the Street. But elsewhere on the album, perhaps most powerfully in Factory, there is a sense of profound defeat. His next two albums, The River and Nebraska, both essential classics in the rock canon, continue this theme and speak, in sombre tones, to the moment when that desire is smashed, the moment when, in Fanon’s account of his coming to political consciousness, “I began to weep”.
Born in the USA, the massively successful 1984 album that, along with Michael Jackson’s Thriller, anchored American popular music in the 80s, reprises both themes – the desire for escape and the reality of defeat – but was sonically committed to engaging the hips before the head. A lot of people got the music but not the detail of the lyrics. It was two years later, at the height of his global fame, that Springsteen made his most overtly political statement yet by joining his guitarist Steven van Zandt on Sun City, the song that bought rockers and rappers together in a compelling collective declaration of refusal to perform in apartheid South Africa.
After Born in the USA, Springsteen moved on to a series of three albums dealing with what he later called “the man in the house”. His new songs, with themes like love over the long haul and fatherhood, didn’t have the same sonic vigour as his earlier work and weren’t as well received. But, more than 20 years later, it’s clear that there are some songs from this period, like My Beautiful Reward, an ode to a restless spirit trying to anchor itself in family, that have weathered a lot better than some of the first critical responses suggested.
Springsteen’s 1995 solo album, The Ghost of Tom Joad, a sonically stark solo album, marked a new direction in his work. Much has been made of the shift from stories of working class life in New Jersey to Mexican immigrants in Southern California, from women called Mary to women called Maria. But less has been said about the political shift marked by this album. In Darkness on the Edge of Town, the factory, a sinister presence, is just there, a brute fact. But inYoungstown, a song about the destruction of the steel industry in Ohio, Springsteen sings that “them big boys did what Hitler couldn’t do” – domination begins to take on personal agency. The title track not only references the main character in Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, but also quotes from the novel’s denouement.
Now Tom said “Mom, wherever there’s a cop beatin’ a guy
Wherever a hungry newborn baby cries
Where there’s a fight ’gainst the blood and hatred in the air
Look for me Mom I’ll be there
Wherever there’s somebody fightin’ for a place to stand
Or decent job or a helpin’ hand
Wherever somebody’s strugglin’’ to be free
Look in their eyes Mom you’ll see me
This album is not only a return to the weeping that begins with Darkness on the Edge of the Town. It is, for the first time, a call to resistance. Here Springsteen reaches the point at which Fanon, putting himself back together, commits to action. And by marking this shift in the words of Steinbeck, a genuinely popular writer in the 1930s, a time when novels held the place television does today, Springsteen also marked a commitment to connect his work to an American tradition of popular radicalism – a radicalism in the hands of ordinary people and rooted in the recognition of the dignity and capacities of each person rather than the sort of dogmatic and authoritarian activists, often more invested in abstractions than people, sketched out in Steinbeck’s earlier novel In Dubious Battle.
The Ghost of Tom Joad is celebrated by Springsteen aficionados and has certainly stood the test of time. But the lyrics are foregrounded to the point where the music almost disappears. You certainly can’t dance to it – you can’t even drum your fingers to it. Unsurprisingly, it has never had the sort of popular traction of some of the earlier albums. In the 70s Springsteen was one of a number of young rock stars shining with promise and passion. In the 80s he was a global superstar. In the early 90s his star was waning. But after The Ghost of Tom Joad he spoke to a much smaller, although more informed and committed, audience. It was The Rising, his hugely well received response to 9/11 released in 2002, that elevated him to the position of the unofficial American poet laureate. He became, like Steinbeck, a very popular figure singing the stories of people who are ordinarily not thought to count for very much in American society. Whitman would have approved.
Springsteen is the master of the album as a single thematic statement. But there’s also a growing body of work produced outside of his albums. Over the years he’s produced a set of sublime songs, often for films, that are also political interventions. In Streets of Philadelphia he inhabited the character of a gay man living with Aids. In Dead Man Walking he took on the voice of a man condemned to death. American Skin (41 Shots) is about Amadou Diallo, an African immigrant murdered by the police in New York. The NYPD responded by calling Springsteen a communist and refusing to provide security at his shows. He has also recorded beautiful versions of songs by dissident popular singers like the outlaw country singer Johnny Cash and the communist folk singer Woody Guthrie, who, like Steinbeck, was a hugely popular artists in the 1930s.
In 2005 Devils & Dust, a solo album with some superb songs that was written, in part, as a response to the Iraq War, continued to explore the vein of creativity first mined on The Ghost of Tom Joad, albeit with more accessible music. But while Across the Border on the Tom Joad album took on the persona of a man longing for a new life on the American side of the Rio Grande here, on Matamoras Banks, another exquisite song about a man longing for a new life on other side of the border, redemption is strictly metaphysical.
The lights of Brownsville, across the river shine
A shout rings out and into the silty red river I dive
After the dive into the river, the song shifts from the perspective of the protagonist to that of an observer.
For two days the river keeps you down
Then you rise to the light without a sound
Past the playgrounds and empty switching yards
The turtles eat the skin from your eyes, so they lay open to the stars
But this was not a permanent return to lament. The following year Springsteen deepened his engagement with the American radical tradition and issued a clear statement of political intent by recording a rambunctious album of folk songs first rescued, to borrow a phrase from EP Thompson, from the “condescension of posterity” by Pete Seeger, the communist folk singer who died while Springsteen was in South Africa. With songs likeWe Shall Overcome, which had become an anthem for the civil rights movement, this was an explicitly radical album that was difficult not to dance to.
Springsteen’s next two albums came quickly. Magic and Working on a Dream had their political moments but were largely rooted in a more light-hearted but often seductive pop sensibility. But it was Wrecking Ball, a response to the economic and social crisis that began after the financial crash, that took a clear political commitment into the heat of the current moment. Lloyd Gedye, writing in the Mail & Guardian, found it too obvious. For this reviewer it was stirring piece of work and Springsteen’s best since The Ghost of Tom Joad and the four indisputably great albums he put out between 1975 and 1982. It has laments, as achingly beautiful as any in the Springsteen canon, in songs like Jack of All Trades and Swallowed Up. But the politics here are as clear as those on any of the folk songs reanimated by Pete Seeger. In Shackled & Drawn, a song that any middle class person sinking into debt can claim as their own, Springsteen sings that:
Gambling man rolls the dice, working man pays the bills
It’s still fat and easy up on bankers’ hill
Up on bankers’ hill the party’s going strong
Down here below we’re shackled and drawn
And, inspired by the Occupy Movement, the album is also a direct call for action, an injunction to “send the robber barons straight to hell” accompanied, nogal, by the sound of a gun cocking. Springsteen has always been painstakingly careful to craft each album as a closely thought-out intervention. But in recent years he, noting that the light at the end of the tunnel is rapidly getting closer, has lightened up considerably. He’s now a lot more relaxed about letting his work out and, bit by bit, a vast treasure trove of unreleased material, Neruda-esque in scale, is being made available. High Hopes, his new album released just before he arrived in South Africa, is marked by this new lightness. It was recorded quickly, much of it on tour. Some of the songs are just there for the jol. Like Wrecking Ball, this is a strikingly sonically fresh album. A lot of its sound is centred around Tom Morello’s dazzling pyrotechnics on the guitar. Morello, from Rage Against the Machine, the most radical rock band to attain mass appeal since The Clash, also brings an unambiguous political commitment to the work. Guthrie had “This Machine Kills Fascists” painted on his guitar back in the 1930s; Morello often has “Arm the Homeless” on his guitar. American Skin (41 shots), previously unreleased on a studio album, appears on High Hopes, with the full Morello treatment, in the wake of the Treyvon Martin murder. So too is The Ghost of the Tom Joad. Although there is a playful feel to parts of the album, it is clear, given both the ease with which Springsteen writes new songs, as well as his abundance of unreleased material, that the decision to rerecord and rerelease this song, the first time that Springsteen has ever released the same song twice on two different albums, was carefully considered. It’s a renewed and reinvigorated statement of political intent.
Edward Said once remarked that he tended not to trust people who started out radical and had a lot more confidence in people who became progressively more radical as they got older. It’s difficult to imagine Said finding much space for his classical tastes in Morello’s blistering guitar work, but he would, it seems sure, feel a real kinship with Springsteen’s long journey from the street, to the home, out into the underside of the American dream and then into direct confrontation with the powers that be.
On tour Springsteen changes his set list every night, and usually takes a few requests too. No one knew what to expect when he stepped on to the stage in Johannesburg with the E Street Band and Tom Morello in front of almost 60 000 people. It also wasn’t clear what to expect from the audience. In 1984, Springsteen’s politics were clear enough if you paid attention. But many people, including many people in South Africa, didn’t pay much attention to the lyrics of a song like Born in the USA. But 30 years on Springsteen was arriving in South Africa with songs about men crossing into America from Mexico, an African man gunned down by the police in New York and open calls for resistance against violent cops and bankers, described as “marauders” and “vultures”.
Reports from Cape Town had suggested that the audience there had received the hits with rapturous enthusiasm but just didn’t get the fired up version of Sun City performed with Mos Def. Word was also received that most people missed the references to Sharpeville and Marikana that Springsteen slipped into We Are Alive, a song about generations of struggle in America off the Wrecking Ball album. In Johannesburg there were a few guys with Stars & Stripes bandanas tied on their heads who seemed unlikely to get anything out of the evening beyond a repetition of Ronald Reagan’s famous misreading of Born in the USA as some sort of patriotic anthem. When the band kicked into the first song, a cover of The Specials’ Free Nelson Mandela, one guy commented, perplexed, to his partner that he’d thought that the gig would be “more like Paula Abdul”. At that point it all seemed a little touch-and-go.
But in a typically generous show that included more than 30 songs over almost three and half hours, Springsteen played most of his biggest hits, including a lot of songs from Born in the USA, as well as work from his last two albums. Casual fans were richly indulged. And with the best rock band in the world behind him, every song was big, bold and clear. It was, to put it plainly, sheer fucking magic for anyone who has ever been moved by rock music. We didn’t get Sun City or the version of We are Alive with references to Sharpeville and Marikana in Johannesburg. But while he gave the audience all the hits, and, unlike in Cape Town, left his class politics in the songs, Springsteen took care to lay out his anti-racist politics in the clearest possible manner between the songs, dropping the names of Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X .
It has often been noted that Springsteen turns an audience into a congregation. But if anyone had come to the show looking for a white night out in Johannesburg with an American rock star they would, no matter how thick or drunk, have understood that this space was not for them. In one of the little eddies in the swirling crowd three Springbok-sized young men tried to aggressively push their way through to the front. They ran into an implacable wall of opposition. They, and the first person to take on the risk of violence that seemed likely to accompany a clear declaration that their behaviour would not be tolerated,, were all white and Afrikaans speaking. Some of the people who had just met the working class young man who took the lead in defending the space, and the quality of the space, in the crowd were gay, some were Indian. But it just wasn’t about that stuff. It was about being together and respecting the space and all the people in it. It was about telling the arseholes to back off, about knowing that despite their size and aggression it was okay because we were many and they were few. In that little space, in that little eddy in the crowd, it felt like the audience worked out pretty well.
Perhaps appropriately the rain started to come down during American Skin (41 Shots). But with Springsteen stepping out into the rain, and then bringing his whole horn section out to join him, the jol was not compromised. The rain interrupted The Ghost of Tom Joad by shorting a microphone. But when the song, now a duet between Springsteen and Morello, resumed it was bigger and stronger and more defiant than on the album, or any of the versions on YouTube – a moment of unambiguous artistic power and militancy. When the stage lights finally went down after Springsteen finished the show with a solo acoustic version of Thunder Road, Peter Gabriel’s Biko, as stirring a political rock song as any ever written, came up through the speakers on the stage.
It’s not clear how many of the almost 60 000 people in the stadium – most although certainly not all white and middle class – will, back in the day-to-day grind, give any thought to how they were moved by American Skin (41 Shots) or The Ghost of Tom Joad, or how these songs relate to the long and steadily growing list of people killed by the police in protests in South Africa this year. But as far as rock music goes, well, shit, this was as good as it gets.