Discover more from The Lewsletter
A Chance to Make it Good Somehow
The unrealized idealism of Bruce Springsteen
It was September 1999 and Bruce Springsteen was playing in Philadelphia. More than a decade after his last gig with the full E Street Band, the turn-of-the-century Reunion Tour brought the whole gang to town for two weeks and six shows. I was seven years old and living in Ohio, so I wasn’t there for what a friend called the Jersey kid’s “hallowed return” to the Delaware Valley. But I’ve lived the final night of that storied run (long famed on the bootleg circuit) vicariously many times since Springsteen released a belated, officially mastered recording in 2020.
It goes without saying that it was a tremendous show. It’s also a fascinating time capsule. To me, the Reunion Tour demarcates The Boss’ apotheosis into an elder statesman of rock ‘n’ roll, when (to vastly oversimplify his career arc) he stopped trying to reinvent himself and embraced that most of his best work was already behind him. That there was enduring value in feeding old hits to hungry hearts. As he stepped out onto the First Union Center stage that night, two days after his 50th birthday, he was at a true middle age, both much younger than any time I’ve seen him in person and old enough to play songs he’d written literally half a lifetime ago. He was just starting his evolution from a washed-up rock star into a secular saint.
Yet the most-anachronistic part of the recording isn’t the music. Springsteen concerts double as charity drives. He typically partners with a local nonprofit group, invites a cadre of volunteers to collect donations, and shouts them out towards the end of the set. Anyone who makes it out the door with a full wallet after Springsteen closes his emotional rollercoaster of show with a personal appeal to donate must have a heart of stone. In my experience he usually works with a nearby food bank. This time he hosted the Kensington Welfare Rights Union, an advocacy group today known as the Poor People’s Army. Midway through the set, just before the band began the haunting “Streets of Philadelphia” — a deeply political song about poverty, loneliness, and the HIV/AIDS epidemic — Springsteen took a moment to dedicate the song to the KWRU, offering a message that went beyond simply passing the hat:
If you believe that we all have a right to a home and a living wage, health care for every family and their children. And if you believe that now and in the coming century, with the economy booming, that America has a historic opportunity and an obligation to live up to its promise of equal opportunity and economic justice for all. … They're an organization that works towards those goals. In October they're be conducting a March of the Americas, marching from Washington to the United Nations in New York to press for human rights, for food, housing, education, and a living wage. An economic human rights campaign. They'll be in the lobby when you leave. Please stop by and check out what they're doing, they could use your support and your help. Thank you. This is for them.
By this point Springsteen’s politics were well known. If the themes of his earlier music were too subtle, the success of “Born in the U.S.A.” had made them apparent to anyone who bothered to listen to the lyrics — though to be fair, Ronald Reagan didn’t, and neither do people who still blast it at Fourth of July barbecues and patriotic rallies nearly 40 years later — and it had been over a decade since Springsteen’s cover of “War” charted in the Billboard Top 10. His latest non-compilation album at the time was the intensely ideological The Ghost of Tom Joad. (The incipient tensions in the golden age of neoliberalism around that time were ripe for pop-culture critique.) Still, I never fail to be taken aback hearing this earnest, direct appeal from an artist who’d spent so much of his career letting his songs make his political statements for him.
Adding to the poignancy is the knowledge that the moment Springsteen spoke of passed us by. (I imagine future generations will bemoan our collective failure to get serious about climate change after the scorching summer of 2023.) As is so often the case in modern American politics — from the federal budget to COVID testing to the makeup of the Supreme Court (and the myriad downstream issues that depend on it) — there was a clear better path in front of us that our leaders, even the ostensible good ones, were not interested in following. Like so many characters eloquently sketched in his songs, Springsteen dared to dream of a future that the world was too cruel to abide.
Seventeen years later, in September 2016, The Boss was back in Philadelphia for a particularly momentous stadium show. This time I was lucky enough to be there; I took my future mother-in-law, and I’ve been dining out on those brownie points ever since. Springsteen’s over-four-hour set (the second-longest of his storied career, two weeks before his 67th birthday) was the best concert I’ve ever seen, Bruce or otherwise. The recording is up there with the legendary Hammersmith Odeon, London '75 as the live albums I revisit most often.
About halfway through the marathon show, the tone abruptly shifts. Right on the heels of the invigorating but not particularly deep “My Love Will Not Let You Down,” the band launches into “Death to My Hometown,” perhaps the most-overtly angry song he’s ever written. The third single from 2012’s Wrecking Ball, for which Springsteen wrote his first music about “a guy that wears a tie,” “Death to My Hometown” presents a scathingly bleak portrait of corporate greed and unaccountability. The lyrics are as unsubtle as the title suggests, decrying the plutocrats who “destroyed our families, factories, and they took our homes” yet still “walk the streets as free men now.” Not even Reagan would misunderstand the rage Springsteen communicates to the crowd.
Before anyone can throw a brick, Springsteen takes the boil down to a simmer. “Jack of Trades,” off of the same album, is more intimate than bombastic — and feels all the more damning for it. At first the narrator, a down-on-his-luck blue-collar worker assuring his wife that they’ll get through the latest financial hardship, feels like a familiar Springsteen archetype: He could pass for a middle-aged version of the protagonist from “Factory” or “The River.” But as the song goes on it becomes increasingly clear that he, too, is a victim of the late-aughts financial crisis. “Banker man grows fat, working man grows thin,” he bemoans, more focused and clear-eyed than the broken heroes of “Meeting Across the River” and “Badlands.” It’s a remarkably dour tune to be echoing through an open-air stadium, and it’s a testament to Springsteen’s incredible charisma that you find yourself hanging on every note of the simple melody even from the recording.
Lest anyone in the audience’s fist remain unclenched, he triples down with “American Skin (41 Shots),” the most-controversial song in his repertoire — New York police officers tried to organize boycotts of his concerts when he first started performing it. The lyrics include graphic descriptions of the murder of Amadou Diallo, repeatedly referencing the “41 shots” NYPD officers fired at the unarmed victim. Springsteen even devotes a verse to an imagined conversation between a mother and son about the dangers of racial profiling. The world briefly seems to stop turning as Springsteen’s voice echoes a cappella through the bleachers: “You can get killed just for living in your American skin.”
And then — “a-one, two, three, four!” The final notes of “American Skin” are still ringing as the band jumps into “The Promised Land.” Perhaps the über-example of Springsteen’s defiant optimism, the live arrangement’s prominent choral harmonies underscore his confidence as he declares “I ain’t a boy, no I’m a man, and I believe in a promised land.” It even feels in conversation with the preceding songs. The line “I just want to explode, explode and tear this whole town apart” reframes urban destruction as a figurative demonstration of passion instead of “Death to My Hometown’s” financial ruin. The soaring harmonica interludes rebut the mournful outro of “Jack of All Trades.” The violent imagery of “American Skin” seeps into the narrator’s metaphors for his own desperation.
It’s a remarkable sequence of music that never fails to stop me in my tracks, and it’s as pure a distillation as you’ll find of the ideological foundation of Springsteen’s music. Things are bad, really bad, really really bad. But if we can make our way through this darkness then the light of day is just around the corner. It’s noble, if occasionally tragic, to believe that better days will shine through. Maybe it’s corny to admit that I find something profound in this extended musical interlude, but I do. As a Jew, the simultaneous acknowledgment of the world’s pervasive ills alongside a pledge to keep the faith that we can better the world resonates with me. There’s even something Seder-like in Springsteen’s presentation, squeezing a moral meditation into an extended evening of song and revelry. (No wonder Adam Sandler’s mother thinks he’s one of us.)
Two months after this sonic sermon, Donald Trump was elected President. It was a fitting punchline to a bad joke: After all, the protagonist of “The Promised Land” doesn’t seem like he ever actually got there.
There’s something Classically tragic about how Springsteen understood the antiestablishment alienation of our time in a way that most politicians he supports didn’t (and still don’t). A reliable Democratic Party soldier during campaign season, the social critiques of his music know no partisan boundaries. Wrecking Ball, written well into Barack Obama’s presidency, feels as much like a response to the bipartisan willingness to let the robber barons who crashed the economy go unpunished as it is to the Great Recession itself; its spiritual predecessor, The Ghost of Tom Joad, was likewise a product of the Clinton years. How many of Springsteen’s characters would have been convinced by the political counter-messaging of “America is already great”?
Many have observed the strange irony that a wealthy celebrity can be seen as the avatar of the working class. As both men toured the country in the summer of 2016, Springsteen used his platform to inspire empathy and community. Trump’s voice proved louder.
In March, Bruce returned to the Delaware Valley for the first time in seven years. Contrary to his recent (and not-so-recent) Philadelphia precedent, his performance that night — and again when I saw him in Foxborough last week, as he has kept to an uncharacteristically static setlist through this extended tour — felt conspicuously apolitical. “War” and “American Skin” were nowhere to be found, let alone deeper cuts like “Youngstown” and “Livin’ in the Future.” The only song off of Wrecking Ball was the title track about bulldozing the New York Giants’ old football stadium, which absorbs political meaning by osmosis from the rest of the album but loses its metaphorical pretensions absent that context. Similarly, “The Promised Land” came across as a generic anthem of defiance when sandwiched between “Kitty’s Back” and “Candy’s Room.” (It’s still great.) The set’s only somber moments were more personal: A poignant pairing of “Last Man Standing” and “Backstreets” as a tribute to recently deceased boyhood bandmate George Theiss, and an acoustic “I’ll See You in My Dreams” as the final encore. He didn’t even play “Born in the U.S.A.” (arguably his best-known hit) or “Streets of Philadelphia” (which won both a Grammy and an Oscar and is normally a staple in the song’s eponymous city).
There are a few possible reasons for this. The obvious one is that politics don’t fit the mood of this tour. Outside of his numerous obligatory hits (I mean that as a compliment) and the showcases for the expanded touring band (“Kitty’s Back” for the horn section, “Nightshift” for the chorus), the songs seem to have been selected to maximize the E Street Band’s wall-of-sound sound. The emphasis on energy is evident from the first notes. Instead of 1999’s soulful “Incident on 57th Street” or the slow burn of 2016’s orchestrally enhanced “New York City Serenade,” his 2023 concerts have mostly kicked off with the rollicking “No Surrender.” What’s more, while Springsteen has very conspicuously not said anything suggesting that these are his final shows, there’s a particularly nostalgic tone to the standard setlist that evokes a fairwell-tour vibe. Interrupting the flow of consecutive encore bangers by slotting the mediocre “Glory Days” between “Rosalita” and “Dancing in the Dark” — and embracing the “Born in the U.S.A.”-esque misconception that it is a celebratory song rather than a depressing one — felt like an unintentional metaphor.
Another likely factor is that The Boss’ politics have evolved over the last few years. Like many American liberals, Springsteen’s views seem to have softened, and perhaps even moved to the right, in the service of the cross-ideological movement to return to pre-Trump political norms. Less than a decade after writing one of his multiple songs comparing corporate greed to armed warfare, he cut a Super Bowl ad about the sanctity of “the middle” so both-sidesy it might have made David Brooks blush. It’s not news that Springsteen and Obama are friends, but it was still odd to see a man famous for singing “War! What is it good for? Absolutely nothing!” host a recurring podcast with a President who drastically expanded the U.S. military’s capacity for drone warfare. In recent years he even caved and gave überfan Chris Christie the time of day after years of studiously ignoring the Republican politician’s pleas for friendship.
Or perhaps, after decades of watching us fail to take care of our own and bring this fair city’s light to the darkness on the edge of town, the answer is in his lyrics. “Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true?” he once asked. Springsteen has spent his life waiting for a moment that just won’t come, for a savior to rise from these streets. That must rip the bones from your back. A half-century after releasing his first album, who could blame him if he ain’t got nothing to say?
Yet Springsteen can’t help but give us reason to believe in the land of hope and dreams. I was prepared to end this essay on a nihilistic note, to seal our fate tonight in the fight for a better world — until I thought back to the opening verse of last week’s concert. Maybe Bruce really is tired and he just wants to close his eyes, and follow his dreams down. But as he continues to remind us, we made a promise we swore we’d always remember: No retreat, baby, no surrender.
Thanks for reading The Lewsletter! If you enjoy my writing, Liking and sharing this post and signing up for a free subscription are the best ways to support my work.