Born in the USA - Bruce Springsteen: Hero of the working class

Bruce Springsteen's songs chronicle his working-class roots and cover social and political commentary. On September 23, 2020, he turns 71.

 |  9-minute read |   23-09-2020
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I have seen rock concerts at renowned venues all over the world – Madison Square Garden (New York), Royal Albert Hall, Wembley Arena, Hammersmith Apollo (London), the forecourt of the Chateau de Versailles, Palais des Congres de Paris, Zenith (Paris), MMRDA Grounds, Brabourne Stadium (Mumbai), Palace Grounds (Bengaluru) and assorted smaller venues, including Billy Bob’s – the world’s largest Honky Tonk at Fort Worth, Texas. But in terms of mammoth crowd size (about 60,000 people), screaming fans, electric atmosphere, music superstars on stage, the concert at Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, New Delhi, on September 30, 1988, was something else! The stadium was the ideal choice because the musician headlining the concert was an arena rockstar.

Bruce Springsteen. Along with his E Street Band.

main_bruce-springste_092320110714.jpegBruce Springsteen got his first guitar on his 16th birthday. He hasn't stopped playing the instrument since. Today he turns 71. (Photo: Reuters)

The highly regarded singer-songwriter whose songs chronicled his working-class roots in New Jersey, the rock 'n' roll poet who radiated working-class authenticity and whose songs covered social and political commentary. With dozens of awards under his belt, including 20 Grammys, and more than 65 million albums sold in the US alone, making him one of the most successful musicians of all time.

The other singers were no less popular or influential: Peter Gabriel (solo artist, formerly of the progressive supergroup Genesis), Sting (solo artist, formerly of The Police), Tracy Chapman, Youssou N’ Dour. There was also the Indian violinist L Shankar, to add the local flavour. 

However, besides the musicians and the audience, the controversy was also an integral part of the concert. New Delhi was the India leg of the Human Rights Now world concert tour. The concerts were to assist Amnesty International in promoting the 40th anniversary of the 1948 UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights and encouraging public pressure on governments to fully implement the Charter. Some of the performers urged the Indian government to address alleged human rights abuses.

They also criticised the sponsor of the concert, a venerable newspaper, for high ticket prices and giving little prominence to the fact that the 14-nation tour was a benefit for Amnesty International and human rights. The newspaper was sponsoring the New Delhi show as part of its 150th anniversary. Its promotions highlighted the anniversary until they were changed after protests by the tour organisers. “We didn't come all this way for a birthday party,” Springsteen said.

The newspaper explained that they were told by the government not to highlight the connection between the concert and Amnesty International. The reason? The organisation had angered the government with several reports that year citing numerous allegations of human rights abuses.

But taking up causes has been Springsteen’s abiding philosophy of life which continues to date. He bashed President Trump as a “conman” on That’s What Makes Us Great (2017), his protest song with long-time collaborator Joe Grushecky: “Don’t tell me a lie, And sell it as a fact, I’ve been down that road before, And I ain’t going back.”

He has spoken about the Black Lives Matter movement, calling it one of tremendous hope that history is demanding. In his biweekly SiriusXM show From My Home to Yours, he recorded an episode offering prayers to everyone impacted by the ongoing Covid tragedy. He also blasted President Trump: “With all respect, sir, show some consideration and care for your countrymen and your country. Put on a f***ing mask. This is Bob Dylan with ‘Disease of Conceit’.”

Back to the show, Springsteen began, as he invariably does, with Born in the USA. It is considered a rock-and-roll anthem. The crowd erupted in joy and in unison sang along its surging refrain Born in the USA. With the turned up volume, the scale, and screaming out of the lyrics by Springsteen as if in joy, and according a triumphant look and feel to the song, most listeners regard it as an uncomplicated celebration of patriotism and readily give it their vocal support. The Delhi crowd was no different.

But little realising, like most listeners in the rest of the world, especially in the USA, that it is probably the most misunderstood song. It describes a Vietnam War veteran who returns home to desperate circumstances and few options. The meaning of "Born in the USA" is the distance between the grim verses and the joyous chorus. It is the space between frustrating facts and fierce pride. It reveals that all is not right with America, that to be “Born in the USA” is not a call to thoughtless flag-waving.

Since no music concert in India is complete without the dance, whether at the seats, or the aisles, or the ground, Springsteen took note of it. "New Delhi can dance!" he complimented. Many years later, Bruce stated that he had fond memories of India and would love to visit again.

One collateral bonus of the tour was that Springsteen met up with ‘The Epidemics’, a duo comprised of L Shankar and British keyboardist Caroline. ‘The Epidemics’ released Eye Catcher in 1989 which contained a studio track called Up to You, which featured an extended harmonica intro and outro by Springsteen. Although it was a studio album, Springsteen’s contribution was captured live. He joined the duo on stage during their set at the show- and his solos were seamlessly integrated with the studio track.

Born on September 23, 1949, in Long Branch, New Jersey, Springsteen was raised in a working-class household. His father had trouble holding down a steady job. His mother brought in regular income as a secretary. Springsteen and his father had a difficult relationship. Years later, Springsteen suggested that this fraught relationship had been important for his art because he would have written just happy songs, which he tried in the early 1990s without success. His parents' experience forged his own. They shaped his politics, and they alerted him to what was at stake when you are born in the USA.

Springsteen first fell in love with rock 'n' roll when he saw Elvis Presley perform on The Ed Sullivan Show. Springsteen's mother took out a loan to buy him a guitar for his 16th birthday, and he has not stopped playing the instrument since then. In 1967, an 18-year-old Springsteen was drafted for military service in the Vietnam War. Springsteen failed his physical. It allowed him to pursue music full time.

By the late 1960s, Springsteen was spending most of his time in Asbury Park on the New Jersey Shore, playing in different bands while he forged his unique sound and introduced audiences to the gravelly baritone voice for which he would later become famous. It was there that he first met the musicians who would later form his E Street Band. Around this time, Springsteen also acquired his nickname, ‘The Boss,’ because he had a habit of collecting money earned during shows and then distributing it evenly among his bandmates.

Springsteen released his first studio album in 1973. Greetings from Asbury Park, NJ garnered critical acclaim but slow sales. Many compared him to Bob Dylan for his introspective lyrics and poetic style, but this did not immediately help Springsteen make it big. Springsteen and the E Street Band followed their debut with The Wild, the Innocent & The E Street Shuffle later the same year, and again found themselves lauded by critics but largely dismissed by the public. In 1975, Springsteen released a third album, Born to Run, which skyrocketed him to fame. The album’s rebellious spirit captured the essence of the American Dream and connected with audiences of all ages.

More albums followed.

Darkness on the Edge of Town (1978), The River (1980) and Nebraska (1982), exploring themes about working-class Americans. 

His cross-country tours would make them famous for their marathon performances (three or four hours per show), boisterous behaviour and infectious energy, captivating audiences. During this time, Springsteen also became famous for his integrity and pride as a performer, as stories of his exhausting performances and perfectionism in the recording studio became legendary.

Springsteen's explosion into rock superstardom came in 1984 when he released Born in the USA. With seven singles hitting the top of the Billboard Charts, the album would become one of the best-selling records of all time. Then came Tunnel of Love in 1987. The album examined themes of love, loss, confusion, and heartbreak, tracing the extreme highs and lows of relationships.

Springsteen relocated with his new wife and family to California in the early 1990s. The albums he produced during this period — Human Touch and Lucky Town, released on the same day in 1992 — came from a happier place. Ironically as his personal life improved, his songs seemed to lack the emotional intensity that had made him so famous in earlier years. He was criticised by his fans. As happy as he may have been in his personal life, the early 1990s were not Springsteen's glory days as an artist. 

Springsteen was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1999.

Various albums followed. The Rising (2002) was mostly a reflection on the September 11 attacks. The Ghost of Tom Joad (2005), Devils & Dust (2005), Magic (2007), Working on a Dream (2009), Wrecking Ball (2012), High Hopes (2014), Western Stars (2019) came subsequently.

Like many of us, Springsteen is stuck at home because of the pandemic. But with his latest album Letter to You arriving on October 23 — and a raft of projects not far behind — he is making the most of his time. Were it not for the pandemic, Springsteen would right now be preparing for a world tour with the E Street Band. It was supposed to start in the spring of 2021.

Springsteen's last name is topographic and of Dutch origin (his ancestors were among the early Dutch settlers), literally translating to ‘jumping stone’ but more generally meaning a kind of stone used as a stepping stone in unpaved streets or between two houses. Springsteen has used his working-class background as a stepping stone to address the experiences and struggles of working-class Americans and advocating for their rights in a way that has created a huge political, social, and musical impact.

Bruce turns 71 on September 23, 2020. With years, he will continue to sing, inspire and create awareness.

There is a line in Born in the USA: “Nowhere to run, ain't got nowhere to go”. But Springsteen knows where to run, where to go.

Also read: It’s time The Boss rocks Ferguson and Cleveland

Writer

Ajay Mankotia Ajay Mankotia @ajaymankotia

The writer is an author, former revenue official and a music aficionado.

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