New subscriptions will begin with the Spring 2004 issue, Backstreets #79
Issue #79 features:
Issue #80, due in August, will include Backstreets interviews with both Bruce Springsteen and Patti Scialfa, as well as our recent chats with Marah and Gary U.S. Bonds. We also present an in-depth look at the Boss and the King, celebrating 50 years since Elvis Presley's first single.
If you enjoy our website, we know you'll love the magazine, and subscribing is a great way to offer your support. Quite a few recent issues have sold out (or are heading that way fast)... so don't miss another issue!
If you're not ready to commit, you can order a single copy of this issue.
Published in Backstreets #78
By Backstreets Assistant Editor Andrew E. Massimino
Wherever there’s somebody fightin’ for a place to stand
The Boss getting the Bronx cheer? Say it ain't so! But it was so, and it spread from the concert halls to the online chat rooms and message boards faster than you could name all three Dixie Chicks. Okay, so it wasn't the first time. After the controversy surrounding the Reunion Tour performances of "American Skin," Bruce learned that the same folks who boo and hiss on one song might cheer like mad on the next. Some of those who sat enraptured at Bruce's extensive storytelling on past tours now feel compelled to yell "Shut up and play a damn song!" Go figure. So, what did Bruce fundamentally alter over the course of his 30-year relationship with his fans that would cause some to vehemently boo the man they just paid $75 to hear? What is Springsteen saying to the masses in 2003 that is different or opposed to what he has been preaching all along? People get ready, 'cause the answer is... not a damn thing.
If you booed Bruce Springsteen during his nightly P.S.A., or were one of the folks who posted online that you hated how political Bruce has become -- that he wouldn’t be getting any more of your money since he’s “gone liberal” -- well mister, you just haven't been paying attention. If you announced to your corner of the world that you were done with Springsteen, that you were hopping off the train after 20-some-odd years because of this, I'm here to tell you brother, you weren't ever on this train to begin with.
On the evening of November 5, 1980, one day after Ronald Reagan swept the Presidential election, Bruce Springsteen looked out at his Arizona audience and said, "I don’t know what you guys think about what happened last night, but I think it's pretty frightening. You guys are young -- there’s gonna be a lot of people depending on you comin' up, so this is for you." The post-script then, and I would argue that it remains, seemed to be, "Now, listen to my songs, and figure it out for yourself." He went right into a ferocious version of "Badlands," the one that appears on Live/1975-85. This method -- of drawing an outline with a few comments then filling in the colors and shades with his songs -- has been consistent throughout Springsteen’s career. After Bruce's most recent statement of vigilance he played either "Land of Hope and Dreams" or "Born in the U.S.A." The former seemed to suggest that we should strive for better because we can do better. The latter was a bit more powerful, a direct reminder -- reminiscent of 1985's "War" -- of what blind faith in government can bring.
Those who are thrown by Springsteen's P.S.A. have not acknowledged his carefully chosen social commentary all along. Everything is political. Just ask Bob Dylan, we live in a political world. Most of the organizations and charities with which Bruce has publicly aligned himself -- M.U.S.E., the Vietnam Veterans of America, Amnesty International, the Christic Institute, and even local food banks -- have political qualities or implications that affect the social fabric of this country.
In my opinion, however, this is not an ideological war between liberals and conservatives. But let's at least agree that over the years most fans have grown to realize that Bruce's politics tend to lean left. We all know the story of how Reagan tried to co-opt Bruce's Born in the U.S.A. image for his 1984 campaign. Springsteen had his say a few days later from the stage in Pittsburgh. Before delivering a powerful "Johnny 99," he wondered "what [Reagan’s] favorite album must've been. I don't think it was the Nebraska album. I don't think he's been listening to this one."
Still, I don't think it's ever been about Democrat vs. Republican, left wing vs. right wing. For Bruce Springsteen, I believe it's always been about the battle of the human spirit. Call it whatever you want -- the powerless vs. the powerful, the hungry vs. the overfed, those caught in the system vs. those pulling the strings -- but he has been consistent since day one. Maybe he feels a bit more urgency now; maybe having kids in this post-9/11 madness invigorates his desire to spell it out a bit more clearly.
As the 2003 summer tour gathered momentum and Springsteen became more familiar with the speech that rolled across his TelePrompTer each night, he seemed to want to add more to the story. One night in August he informed the audience that if they wanted to read a funnier version of what he just said they should read Al Franken’s Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right. (We can put that book next to A Pocket History of the United States, Bound for Glory, The Grapes of Wrath, and Journey to Nowhere -- all endorsed by Bruce from the concert stage and not exactly an apolitical reading list.) Anyone who pays attention to such things knows that Franken has morphed from "the Stuart Smalley guy" on Saturday Night Live to a prominent liberal pundit, a foil for the likes of Rush Limbaugh (side note: wouldn’t it be great to see Stuart Smalley have Rush on to compare 12-steps? Doggone it, I’d like that!). Bruce went as far as to bring Franken out on stage during the band intros on October 3 in New York. It was playful, but they both had to know how it would appear to some: "I endorse Al Franken’s ideology."
Earlier in the night, during the seemingly innocuous "Waitin' on a Sunny Day," Bruce kept imploring the crowd to sing louder for the chorus: "One more time if you wanna impeach the president!" He giggled, perhaps at his own instigating nature. Bruce has been around far too long not to know exactly what he’s doing. When he introduces Clarence and says, "Let's get a man in the White House who knows how to handle this mess!" we all know it’s ridiculous to suggest a Clemons ticket for 2004. But some conservatives in the crowd found Bruce's little dig at W. unnecessary, even offensive. Anybody with a computer and a phone line can instantly post their comments for the world to see, and on at least two right-wing web logs (“blogs”) it was reported as fact: "Springsteen Calls for Impeachment of President Bush." Adding some fuel to his mischievous fire, Bruce later singled out the Vice President as well. In the middle of the P.S.A. (in Boston, and later in Washington, DC and New York) when stating that all are welcome at the shows, Springsteen added with a sly grin, "except for Dick Cheney. I think that's where I draw the line."
Seven years ago, Springsteen expressed his personal political views during the 1996 campaign in California. He lent his voice, name, and time in an effort to defeat Proposition 209, a ballot initiative which was seen as a backhanded attempt to end affirmative action in that state. Attending a Los Angeles rally in late October of that year, he took the podium after the Rev. Jesse Jackson. Prior to playing "The Promised Land" he said, "I am here today because I believe it is very important to stop Proposition 209 in California. It's not a race and colorblind country -- if you think so, then there’s a job for you over in Disneyland. Affirmative action has been an effective tool since the beginning." The people of California liked the music but not the words; the measure passed by an almost two-to-one margin. Bruce Springsteen resumed his tour in support of The Ghost of Tom Joad the following night.
Many took his participation -- his taking-a-stand-activism -- as some kind of "final clue" that Bruce Springsteen had come out of the liberal closet and was ready to throw his heavyweight starpower around in support of all kinds of liberal causes. I imagine he fielded a few phone calls. Instead, Springsteen continued downplaying his icon status, playing to 3,000-seat theaters and singing songs about displaced migrant farmers, the country's working poor, and others "left behind." The songs were quiet, the message was loud and clear. Springsteen still cared about standing up for the little guy, giving a lift to the powerless, and shining a light on this world’s inequities -- more than he cared to embrace some grand political platform. Nobody wins unless everybody wins. It was that simple. And that hasn’t changed, sir.
Earlier this year, Springsteen released a statement in support of the Dixie Chicks and their right to free speech. Addressed in this column in the last issue [Backstreets #77], his April 22 statement denounced the treatment those artists received for something as basic and American as speaking one's mind. Now he's speaking his: reminding us all of the duties of citizenship, the responsibilities that come with it, and the ever-growing importance of being vigilant about the truth.
©1998-2004 The Backstreets Publishing Empire