From blacks brownbagging it on a New York subway to Ronald Reagan in Washington, 
everyone has jumped on Bruce Springsteen’s bandwagon. But his patriotic call’s not of the 
jingoistic variety so close to the hearts of  American conservatives. Rather, the 
message from the man from New Jersey is simple. The American dream may be in t
atters,but it’s not beyond repair.

Since the release of Bom in the USA, just about everybody has tried to grab hold
of that red kerchief in Bruce Springsteen’s back pocket and ride with him to the
top. Attempting to bask in the light of the Boss’s glory days, even Ronald Reagan
mentioned him in campaign speeches last fall in Springsteen’s home state of New
Perhaps Reagan had read his favorite columnist. George Will, a staunch
conservative and arguably the most powerful columnist in America, had gushed
over a Springsteen concert he had seen in Washington, D.C. “If all Americans—in
labor and management, who make steel or cars or shoes or textiles made their
products with as much energy and confidence as Springsteen and his merry
band make music, there would be no need for Congress to be thinking about
protectionism. No “domestic content” legislation is needed in the music industry.
The British and other invasions have been met and matched.”
One can imagine Ronnie settling down with some milk and cookies to watch
Dynasty with Nancy before his impending trip to New Jersey, a critical state in
the upcoming election, and saying to her: “You know, Mommy (believe it: that’s
what the leader of the most powerful country in the world calls his wife), this
young guy Springsteen is awfully popular with the kids and George Will likes
him. Why don’t I mention him on my campaign trip—might pick up a few votes
with the young people.”
Obviously Reagan and his toadies didn’t go any farther than Will’s column,
though Will admitted to having cotton in his ears and to having “not a clue
about Springsteen’s politics.”
It’s simple to interpret an album cover with “Born in the USA” emblazened
across a giant American flag as a call to the brand of old-fashioned
patriotism—read “call to arms/us against them”—that’s been the staple of
Reagan’s political career. Springsteen himself admitted as much when he said:
“The flag is a powerful image, and when you set that stuff loose, you don’t know
what’s gonna be done.”
The release of Born in the USA its huge success and that of
thetourtosupportithadcatapauitedSpringsteenfromrock’n’ roll star to media
megastar. He was in the midst of a tour that would eventually gross $30 million
from ticket sales alone and had a number one record that would sell more than
five million copies, earning him another $8 million. But Springsteen didn’t want
to be invited to the White House a la Michael Jackson for the requisite
handshake, medal and photo session . In concerts following Reagan’s attempt to
bring him into his fold, the Boss would joke that ” Mr. President obviously isn’t
listening to what I’m singing about.” Then he’d launch into a song like
“Downbound Train:”
I had a job, I had a girl
I had something going mister in this world I got laid off down at the lumberyard
Our love wen tbad, times got hard
Now I work down at the car wash, where an it ever does is rain
Don ‘t you feel like you’re a rider on a downbound train?
In an interview a couple of weeks before the election, Springsteen responded to
Reagan’s attempt to co-opt him.
“You see the Regan re-election ads on TV—you know: ‘It’s morning in America.’
And you say, well, it’s not morning in Pittsburgh. It’s not morning above 125th
Street (Harlem) in New York. It’s midnight and, like, there’s a bad moon risin’.
And that’s why when Reagan mentioned my name in New Jersey, I felt it was
another manipulation, and I had to disassociate myself from the president’s
kind words.”
Working class young people and yuppies from
America’s big cityheart, Vietnam vets and
grown-up war protesters, moms and dads with
MTV junkie kids in two—they were all part of
the Springsteen audiences.
In a way, you can’t blame Reagan for trying, even if it’s a little like Herbert
Hoover, the president who led America into the Great Depression, evoking
Woodie Guthrie. Springsteen has built a constituency that would be any
politician’s wet dream. To go to a Springsteen concert is to see America at close
to its polyglot best. Working class young people and yuppies from America’s bigcity
heart, Vietnam vets and grown-up war protesters, moms and dads
approaching middle age with MTV junkie kids in tow—they are all part of the
audiences that go to see Springsteen’s four-hour-plus concerts.
Even the one group that has never been part of Springsteen’s crowd is starting to
tune him in. Despite his strong rhythm and blues roots, he’s never had much of a
black following. But now there are signs that he’s making inroads with that
audience too.
The other night, waiting for a subway, at the end of the platform two middleaged
black men were wailing the Iyrics of “Born in the USA,” as they shared a
brown bag of wine. While that’s no litmus test, remixes of “Dancing in the Dark”
and “Born in the USA,” by Arthur Baker, who cut his funky teeth with rap master
Afrika Bambaataa, coupled with Springsteen’s show-stopping performance on
“We Are the World,” are turning his audience into a true rainbow coalition.
“The first day I can remember looking in a
mirrorand being able to stand what I saw was
the day I had a guihrin my hand. Music was a
reason to live. “
The breadth of Springsteen’s reach can be traced back to his New Jersey days. A
working class kid and lapsed Catholic, he found his salvation—his truth—early
and that was in rock ‘n’ roll.Springsteen traces his first dose of rock’n’roll
fevertoseeing Elvis Presley on The Ed Sullivan Show. “Man, when I was nine, I
couldn’t imagine anyone not wanting to be Elvis Presley,” Springsteen told Dave
Marsh in his bio, Born to Fun. Four years later, when Bruce put down $18 at the
local pawnshop for a guitar, his life changed for good. “Rock and roll has been
ever,vthing to me. The first day I can remember looking in a mirror and being
able to stand what I saw was the day I had a guitar in my hand… Music gave me
something. It was never just a hobby—it was a reason to live.”
His uncanny ability to convey that feeling in his music is key to his decade of
mushrooming success.
Springsteen’s rock ‘n’ roll obsession found outlet in a number of bands that
played the beach circuit from Asbury Park to Virginia Beach. Sucking in
disparate influences, including Chuck Berry, Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, Eric
Burden and the Animals, along with nuggets from the Motown and StaxNolt
rosters, he distilled a uniquely American sound. Instrumentally his music was the
perfect foil—sometimes raucous and raunchy,other times sweet and sentimental
— strong on pathos, but always shot through with hope.
John Hammond, the legendary record producer responsible for the signing of,
among others, Billie Holiday, Bob Dylan and Aretha Franklin, first heard
Springsteen in 1972 and was blown away. On Hammond’s recommendation, the
Boss was signed by Columbia Records. Soon Springsteen was being pushed by
Columbia as the “next Dylan.” The Dylan hype hurt and his first record,
Greetings From Asbury Park, flopped.
But it left little doubt where Springsteen was coming from. Songs from that
album, like “Spirits in the Night,” “Growing Up” and ” Blinded by the Light, “
were loaded with the juice of a rebel spirit, searching, albeit naively, for truth. A
year later Springsteen released The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle. It
contained more tales of the characters from the Boardwalk in Asbury Park and
streets of New York—all looking for salvation.
Meanwhile, if anyone was wanting of a little of that salvation, Bruce Springsteen
and the E Street Band, now a tight enough unit to rival the best in rock, were
ready to offer it. In certain parts of the States, people were getting the word on
the Boss. Playing the Eastern seaboard, Springsteen and the E Street Band were
achieving cult status, buoyed by fans who sung their praises with religious fervor.
It was during that period that Springsteen’s manager, John Landau, then a rock
critic, penned his famous review of a concert by the Boss in Boston, with the
prophetic statement: “I have seen the future of rock and roll, and it’s name is
Bruce Springsteen.”
I remember running into Bob Seger back then and he gave an equally ecstatic
report of a Springsteen show. “I caught Springsteen’s act in a small club in
Atlanta,” Seger said. “It was a place where nobody ever dances, and he had
everybody on their feet and shaking it. The way the guy works a crowd is
With 1 975’s Bom to Run, Springsteen began to reach a mass audience. When his
picture was plastered in the same week on the covers of Time and Newsweek,
there were those who thought he’d succumb, like so many before him, to all the
“The next thing you know there’ll be pictures of him in the tabloids with Britt
Eckland’s hands in his blue jeans as they tumble out of Studio 54,” said an
ardent Springsteen fan from the early days. “Then he’ll record some crummy
record about being too rich, too famous and too high.”
But the Springsteen records that followed, Darkness on the Edge of Town, The
River, and Nebraska, were a leaner, harderedged commitment to the concerns
always central to his music. Then in “No Surrender” on Born in the USA, he
summed it all up:
We busted out of class to get away from all those fools
We learned more from a three-minute record than we ever learned from school
Tonight I hear the neighborhood drummer sound
I hear my heart begin to pound
You say you ‘re tired and you just want to close your eyes and follow your dreams
We made a promise we swore we’d always remember no retreat no surrender. . .
Part of Springsteen’s allure, perhaps more than any other performer in rock ‘n’
roll, is that he packs a visceral hit. He taps an audience’s hidden rock ‘n’ roll
soul; if they had rock dreams for themselves, Springsteen’s the embodiment of
them. There’s a comfortable familiarity about his presence. He still lives in New
Jersey and shows up at the local bars to jam with whichever garage band is
playing that night. But there’s also a certain energy and intelligence that’s larger
than life.
“When you first meet him, you think, ‘Oh, another nice regular guy from New
Jersey.’ Then you listen to him for a while— he’s a great storyteller—and you
realize nothing much gets by him,” says John Tintori, who met Springsteen when
he was editing several of the Boss’s videos with director John Sayles. “We’ll
explain why we technically can’t do something he wants done in a video and he
immediately grasps the concept. You get the sense the guy has the kind of genius
where he could’ve excelled in any art form he were to choose.”
With Bruce there’s none of the removed other worldliness of a megastar like Michael
Jackson or the lascivious preening of a Mick Jaggerora Prince.
Fortunately, the form Springsteen chose was rock ‘n’ roll. The for-everyman spirit
he brings to it is still refreshing, especially when compared to the other
superstars who inhabit that terrain. With Bruce there’s none of the removed
otherworldliness of a megastar like Michael Jackson or the lascivious preening of
a Mick Jagger or a Prince. There’s no pretense, no posturing to stand between the
Boss and his audience.
Sure the Boss may strut and swagger once in awhile, like the young Elvis who got
him revved up when he was a kid. Hey, the best rock ‘n’ roll has always been
rebel music. But there’s no sign of degenerating, like Elvis, into the Las Vegas
shtick of coming on stage every night to tell the audience “I really mean
it—you’re beautiful.” Decadent materialism and nihilism, so often a part of the
rock ‘n’ roll star stance, get no play from Springsteen.
It is patriotism manifest in Springsteen desire
to give hope to people whose lives seem out of
What does get play is the plight of the common man and his search for respect.
You see there is something patriotic about Springsteen. His is not the fierce
nationalism of a Reaganite, but simple love and devotion to his country, to his
working class roots. It is patriotism manifest in Springsteen’s desire to give hope
to people whose lives seem out of control. It’s that spirit that led Springsteen to
play disarmament rallies a couple fo years back. It’s knowing what it means to
squeeze some bucks from the paycheck to catch your favorite act—the Boss, the
guy who kept a lid on ticke tprices a t$16 for four hours when the Jacksons were
charging $30 for a 75 minutes. During that tour Springsteen voiced his support
on stage for local food banks and other community action groups, as well as
digging into his own pockets, discreetly, to help them out.
The year of Born in the USA has also been the year of the rehabilitation of the
Vietnam vet. Long-overdue tribute is finally being paid to the men who fought
and died in the politicians’ dirtiest war. Although he managed to avoid the draft
by getting classified 4F, Springsteen knows it was guys from his background who
largely did the fighting and dying in Vietnam, including the drummer from his
firs tband. It’s that knowledge, no doubt, that’s made him a champion of
Vietnam vets.
Springsteen has done benefits and reportedly has contributed large sums of
money to vet counseling and rehab groups. When the memorial to New York’s
Vietnam vets was dedicated last May, it was “Born in the USA” that played at the
Shortly after the dedication of that monument, word got out that Springsteen
was about to get married. In fact it was frontpage news in newspapers across the
country and on People magazine, which had the tasteful cover “Who’s the Boss
Now?” Something about the media circus surrounding his impending nuptials to
actress-model Julianne Phillips seemed more absurd than these things usually do.
Here was Springsteen getting the media treatment afforded a Jackie Kennedy
Onnasis or Elizabeth Taylor. Days after the wedding, Clarence Clemmons,
Bruce’s close friend and sax player, showed up on The David Letterman Show
and worked as a flak catcher for his buddy. ” Now you girls out there who are
upset about this don’t be, ” he said. “Bruce is very happy and you should be
happy for him.”
A week later Springsteen is in New Jersey to shoot a video before leaving on his
European tour. He has his band assembled across the Hudson River from
Manhattan, inside Maxwell’s bar in Hoboken, a working class town, the birth
place of Frank Sinatra. Maxwell’s is the rock afficionado’s dream club —even for
name acts like Huster Du and the Minute Men, the cover never climbs past five
bucks. Outside, despite every effort at secrecy, a crowd is gathered, joined by TV
crews from every station in New York, anxious to grab a peak at the Boss. Inside,
the band is weary from a long day of shooting, but one more take is needed
before they wrap.
Even though he has sung the song about one hundred times that day, Bruce
attacks it with all his awesome vocal force. It’s a song about people getting caught
up in thinking their best is past—all those faded scrap book achievements of
youth. And here’s the Boss at 35, still screaming like an oversexed teenager on
stage in a dive in New Jersey.
“Yes,” he sings, “faded youth don’t have to mean the end of Glory Days.”
(J. Max Robirls is a New York writer.)