Bruce Springsteen's Serenade for an Uneasy America

Inside the Veterans Amphitheater in Virginia Beach, donation canisters for the local food bank are a familiar sight. Stephanie Gordon, the volunteer manager of the Foodbank of Southeastern Virginia and the Eastern Shore, has enlisted twelve staff and volunteers to canvass the grounds. Bruce Springsteen, she tells me, asked the food bank to be there, through their affiliation with Feeding America. For every dollar someone contributes, the food bank can purchase $6 worth of food.

The presence of a local food bank has been a hallmark of Springsteen’s shows for more than thirty years. But as much as things change they still say the same. For Gordon, part of being here is to let concert goers know that there is an issue. Across the country, there are children who are hungry and families who are food insufficient. The numbers of people who are hungry, she tells me, are increasing every year. It’s hard to pinpoint why but it’s due to a multitude of factors: jobs, circumstances, housing, medical issues and the cost of eating healthily.

“The biggest misconception in society is who we feed. The majority of people we still feed are in school. There are mothers and fathers are working everyday. They say the jobs are there and people are doing fine but there are still a large number of people who have been laid off and have taken a job that pays less than what they used to make. So they may have a job but they are settling for a less paying job and not having enough to make ends meet.”

I'll mow your lawn, clean the leaves out your drain
I'll mend your roof to keep out the rain
I'll take the work that God provides
I'm a Jack of all trades, honey, we'll be alright

When Bruce Springsteen sang “Jack of All Trades” on Wrecking Ball, It was sung as a weary summation of the human cost of the Great Recession and economic crisis that began in 2008. Springsteen was more pointed about it in “Death to My Hometown” talking about the plundering and machinations caused by financial speculators:

They destroyed our families, factories
And they took our homes
They left our bodies on the plains
The vultures picked our bones

Eight years after the financial crisis, by all accounts things are better. The stock market reached new highs in 2016. The government announced that wages had increased at the fastest clip in many years. The unemployment rate is below 5%. A quick look at Fact Check shows that the economy has added more than 9 million jobs during President Obama’s tenure. Corporate profits are up dramatically; real weekly wages are up 3.4 percent. There are 15 million fewer people who lack health insurance.

But statistics can be deceiving.  For much of the recession, many people stopped looking for work, slipping through the rolls of those who were counted as unemployed. Some economists posited at the height of the recession that if you included them and those who moved to part-time work, the unemployment rate could well have exceeded 20%.

That is at the heart of "underemployment" when people are not actively seeking employment or who are not in their chosen profession--or as the Food Bank’s Gordon said, can’t find enough work. Although the number of long-term unemployed Americans has dropped under Obama, it is still higher than at the start of the Great Recession. In July 2016, the U.S. underemployment rate was on a downward trajectory but still at 12.7 percent.

There has been an unsettling frustration about the sluggish growth rate of the economy. When you take into account the growth in income equality, you can understand the country’s anger that has been directed at the top 1% and that was such a focal point of protsts in major cities and the election primary season. There is a lingering anxiety stemming from the Great Recession and an uneasiness that is perhaps permanently ingrained in our psyche.

On Labor Day in Virginia Beach, Bruce Springsteen has chosen a special song to play. It’s the song “Factory.”

Through the mansions of fear, through the mansions of pain,
I see my daddy walking through them factory gates in the rain,
Factory takes his hearing, factory gives him life,
The working, the working, just the working life.

It’s like an old folk song, played with a subtle piano and organ and violin accompaniment.

It’s rueful and sanguine seems reflective during an election season when so many of our plants have shut down or relocated to other countries--and headlines about our decline in industrial production abound. The great artists like Bruce Springsteen always makes their songs relevant to the times in which they are sung.

“We Need You”

Shortly after September 11, 2001, Bruce Springsteen was out one day when he heard someone shout “We need you.” The comment jolted Springsteen into a writing spree and reflective album called The Rising.

Fifteen years after 9/11, its sobering anniversary brings out many unspeakably sad stories. It is custom but difficult to  watch the morning’s events in real-time when MSNBC broadcasts the original footage from that morning on The Today Show. Each anniversary more and more stories emerge of the hidden victims who still cope with the day's devastating losses. This being a milestone anniversary causes time for reflection. Are we safer than we were before 9/11? A majority of Americans don't think so according to an NBC news poll.  What is our role fighting terrorism in a post-9/11 world? It’s a hotly debated question and one of the elephants in the room in the presidential campaign.

“When was the last time Springsteen made a great album?” someone recently posed on Facebook. I think the answer is in Springsteen's albums beginning with The Rising and continuing through Devils and Dust, Magic and Wrecking Ball. Collectively they are a soundtrack for the events that have shaped America in this century in the context of 9/11, the wars that followed, our response to catastrophic events like Hurricane Katrina and the expanded role of the government in our lives.

We always react to music in the context of our own lives and what is happening around us. I first became aware of Bruce Springsteen when I was a rising junior in high school in Ridgefield, Connecticut, a colonial era town just over the New York border. I had been writing a music column for about a year. Bruce Springsteen was playing at the Palace Theater in Waterbury and I wanted to go. One day I got a return call from a Columbia Records publicist Glen Brunman. Without as much as a hello, he said three words: “Standing room only,” then adding what I already knew instinctively: “I think you’re crazy if you don’t go.”

The mention of Springsteen's father during “Factory” brought back that night almost forty years ago.  It was August 1976 during another election season between Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter. It was also the year after both Time me Newsweek ran cover stories the same week. I missed seeing Springsteen play ten nights at a historic run when he crawled over the tables of the Bottom Line club in Greenwich Village. I was in the words of Shaun Cassidy “born late.” It was the album title about those of us who had been born a decade late and didn't come of age during the epochal events of the Sixties. I was doing my best to try and catch up to the history I thought had already passed me by.

When Born to Run came out, I was ready to jump into the debate about the “new Dylan” who, just two years before, had been the subject of Jon Landau’s famous concert review: “I have seen rock’n roll future and its name is Bruce Springsteen.” In all of the hype surrounding its release, Born to Run, with its cinematic and anthemic songs, had a high bar to reach. One day I ran into the editor of our high school paper carrying the album under his arm as he went into the library. As we passed through the turnstiles, I asked him what he thought. He posed the question everyone was asking. “Is he the savior? I don’t think so but it’s a good album.” Savior or not, I was pretty sure it was the greatest record I’d ever heard.

In the intimate Palace Theater,  I felt at the show--the amazing emotional experience reaffirming everything I liked about rock and roll. It was everything and more.  Bruce brought his Jersey Shore entourage. The Miami Horns came "straight from the Paradise Room in downtown Asbury Park" to play guitarist Miami Steve Van Zandt’s horn arrangement in “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out.” They gave a full Stax arrangement of “Raise Your Hand” and rocked the house down with "You can't Sit Down." Springsteen’s E Street Band saxophone player Clarence Clemons got the biggest introduction. “King of the World, Master of The Fucking Universe, Your Next President….” (That prediction did not come true. In November Jimmy Carter was elected the next president.) By the time he finished “Rosalita,” Springsteen poked fun at his own fame: “Rosie I ain’t no freak ‘cause I got my picture on the cover of Time and Newsweek!”

The sound was clear. I could feel the rumble of Garry Tallent’s bass run through my spine. Bruce began a long introduction to "It’s My Life," one of a tradition of long spoken introductions. The foreboding sounds and subtle wails of the guitars painted a harrowing backdrop. I literally felt like he put me  in the kitchen trembling with suspense. Every night around 9:00, his father would withdraw to the kitchen and turn out all the lights. Coming home late at night, Bruce would stand in the driveway hoping to sneak through the back door. The only light he could make out came from his father’s cigarette. He'd call his son’s name and they’d sit down for a while before the conversation would degenerate. “He asked me where I was getting my money, who I was running around with and what I thought I was doing with my life. I remember I always shook him off and ran through the back door telling him it was my life and I could do what I wanted.”  And then he began singing the words Eric Burdon made famous: “It's a hard world to get a break in…

There was a new song that sounded like it was still a work in progress. It was called “Something in the Night” that would appear on his next album Darkness On The Edge of Town and summed up the yearning and restlessness.

Sometimes you gotta stop running
Sometimes I want to stop my fooling around
Somehow I got stuff running around my head
I can't live with or live down.

For the next forty years I would see the events of my lifetime filtered through the lens of Springsteen's songs. Wars. Politics. The Economy. Natural Disasters. Relationships. Marriage. Children. 

There was the night at Madison Square Garden he debuted a new song “The River,” which he dedicated to his sister and her husband who had been laid off from construction. Their story was symbolic of the economic malaise thst was gripping the country. The stark Nebraska with all of its isolated and ostracized characters, was like a soundtrack for all who populated the fringes and the country's dark underbelly.

“I heard the president mentioning my name,” Springsteen responded one night on the Born In The USA tour. President Ronald Reagan had  invoked Springsteen in his comment on a campaign stop in New Jersey.  “I wonder if he ever heard this song.” He went into “Johnny 99” about an unemployed auto worker who stares down death row with “debts no honest man can pay. ”  When the oil boom went bust in Texas, Springsteen sang about families losing their homes and living out of their cars. “Seeds” was a precursor to the same circumstances of the housing bust that would play itself out two decades later. Different time, same story.

“Born in USA,”  which was co-opted and misappropriated as a patriotic anthem, dealt with the displacement many Vietnam veterans faced coming home. The specter of the war  loomed over Springsteen who lost one his early band members to the war. I was just a child when I began seeing images of the green jungles of Vietnam on the evening news. As Walter Cronkite gave the daily body count, I asked my father who was winning the war. The silence of his long pause spoke volumes, his voice getting lower: “No one really is.”  Next door my neighbor Billy, about ten years older, seemed larger than life with his record collection and Fisher stereo system he earned from caddying. After high school, he went to Vietnam and came home safely but had recurring health problems because of exposure to the jungle defoliant Agent Orange. The day I came back to Ridgefield to get my marriage certificate, the town clerk  told me he had passed away. “He was never the same after he came home,” she said in a few words that still affect me every time I replay them.

One night in Washington, D.C.., Springsteen. attended an event in which, coincidentally the former defense secretary and architect of the Vietnam War strategy, Robert McNamara, was present. Springsteen didn’t cross his path but wrote a sobering song about the solemnity of the Vietnam Memorial Wall. "The Wall" is a fitting tribute to the more than 50,000 names that are ingrained in granite and comfort for anyone who has dealt with the emotion of seeing a friend or family member’s name in the memorial’s directory and on the wall.

If, as it is said,  people change but the stage is the same, it can also be said that while history may not repeat itself, we make many of the same mistakes. I have seen in my lifetime our country’s leaders' aversion to following the advice of our first president who warned us about becoming involved in foreign entanglements.

Following the invasion of Iraq after the turn of the century, Springsteen assessed the loss of life and treasure in Devils and Dust and Magic. When Springsteen played in Washington, D.C. this summer, one of the charitable groups present in the concourse was training service dogs to help veterans make the transition back to civilian life.These dogs miraculously can sense a change in body smell to alert them to waken soldiers and avert episodes of nighttime flashbacks..

“There ain't no help the cavalry's stayed home,” Springsteen sang in “We Take Care of Our Own.” It was in reference to Hurricane Katrina that leveled New Orleans. But the song might be apt for the inadequate response to the issues faced by returning soldiers from Afghanistan and Iraq. The failings of the health system to provide mental health counseling and the problems that have been documented in the VA Health system loom in the the current election.

In a divisive presidential race, nominees are quick to cite statistics to enhance perception of their self-awareness of issues. When Matt Lauer interviewed Donald Trump during MSNBC's Commander In Chief Forum at the Intrepid, he stated there are twenty suicides a day among military servicemen.

“Twenty-two,” Trump chimed back.

Since campaigning for President Obama in 2008, Bruce Springsteen has refrained from endorsing any candidates. That doesn’t mean he has been silent. On the anniversary of 9/11, Springsteen was playing in Pittsburgh at the Consol Energy Center and played four songs from The Rising early in the set. “Someone gave me a copy of the Constitution of the United States. It does say 'Fuck Trump' on the front of it. And this was his request," he said.

Springsteen proceeded to play an acoustic version of "Long Walk Home," a track from his 2007 album, Magic, a song that explored the loss of the country's ideals that were collateral damage in the name of national security:

"My father said "Son, we're lucky in this town,
It's a beautiful place to be born.
It just wraps its arms around you,
Nobody crowds you and nobody goes it alone
Your flag flyin' over the courthouse
Means certain things are set in stone.
Who we are, what we'll do and what we won't

The great artists and songs reflect the times not only in which they’re written but when they’re played. Take for example the song “American Skin(41 Shots).” The song was written about an event that occurred nearly twenty years ago. Amadou Diallo was approached by three police officers who thought he was armed while coming home. After pulling out a wallet that was mistaken for a gun, a series of forty-one shots were fired. The officers were later exonerated. (One of the officers was recently named one of the NYPD "Seargents of The Year" for a helicopter rescue of some stranded boaters in Jamaica Bay, according to a New York Post story.)

When Springsteen introduced it this month in Washington, D.C. it came after the aspirational “Better Days” and “The Promised Land.” The juxtaposition itself made a statement with its brilliant sequencing in a year of violence and police shootings in Ferguson, Baltimore, St. Paul and now Tulsa.

“People who think Bruce isn’t political,” my friend Rico Vaccaro said, “just don’t know Bruce.”    

“You could really feel things picking up in Chicago when he did ‘41 Shots,” a caller said on The SiriusXM show E Street Nation. In this show, Springsteen sequenced  it with “Murder Incorporated” during a month in which Chicago had nearly ninety murders.

The song is arguably Springsteen’s most controversial and is still a lightning rod.  When he first sang it at Madison Square Garden, news stories followed about the police reaction. At Shea Stadium the New York Police department threatened that it wouldn't provide a police escort from the show.

 This September in Philadelphia, pictures emerged of some fans putting up their middle fingers during the song. This elicited back and forth discussion on the Facebook forum Bruce Book that was finally stopped by the site’s moderator.

If there was any unsettling feeling during the song in Virginia Beach, it quickly dissipated as Bruce launched into “The Promised Land.” With only his harmonica, he ventured out into the audience as fifteen thousand people sang in unison. “Blow away the dreams that break your heart/blow away the lies that leave nothing but broken-hearted,”

“I believe in the promised land” is central tenet in Springsteen’s orthodoxy, an affirmation about a greater sense of purpose that grows in its fervor with every passing show and every time it is sung. As a father holds his young daughter on his shoulders in the pit visible on the video screens, it's as much an affirmation about her future as it is for the rest of us, maybe even more.

“I Want To Know If Love Is Real”

When the floodlights go on as is tradition during “Born To Run,” Springsteen sings the song that has defined him. It’s also the title of his new five-hundred page autobiography set to release on September 27, four days after his 67th birthday. “I want to know if love is real,” is the bridge of the song and a question he has said recently he is still trying to answer  today.

There is a scene in the film Springsteen and I when the singer and guitarist Steve Van Zandt turn to the back of the stage. What they see is the answer to the question. In perfectly cut out letters matched to the seats in sequence is the answer to the question: “Love Is Real.” It was put together by a team of Italian fans who worked with the stadium and painstakingly put each person’s part of the letters underneath their seat to display.that night. Such a collective  experience is at the heart of the Springsteen community which has grown globally on air, on social media, in stadiums and in the pits of sports arenas and stadiums.

In the youth of his twenties and thirties, Springsteen would play two sets with an intermission. Now his shows are nearly double what they were without a break as if he was drinking from the fountain of youth. Sometimes the sheer breadth of the marathon overlooks the great multi-generational experience itself. Shows are rarely the same and on any given night, you're likely to hear ten songs you didn't get the night before. The advent of E Street Radio, a 24-hour Springsteen channel on SiriusXM channel has helped to bring the community together. It has been fostered by the artist himself. Springsteen biographer Dave Marsh, who co-hosts the weekly “E Street Nation” show, recalled the day he got a call from the artist’s management saying, “Bruce is okay with you playing anything you can find.” Marsh admitted he had to hear it repeated three times to fully comprehend.

As his on-air compatriot Jim Rotolo said, it prompted a mad dash to contact collectors and get them to dust off the boxes of cassettes underneath their beds. The station now has electronically indexed everyone of his songs and can tell you when and where and how many times they’ve been played.

One of the most rewarding things for Rotolo has been to get to know families of inter-generational Springsteen fans. While on location in Philadelphia, Rotolo welcomed high school student Madison from Ohio who made the pilgrimage to Philly, her fifth stop on The River Tour this year. Her father was originally helped by Bruce Funds, the online website that accepts donated tickets and financial contributions to help purchase tickets for new fans. She gives a shout out to Donna, the site's administrator and Mitch Slater, for helping her on her journey. She has also appeared on fan Jessie Jackson's podcast.

Springsteen’s music has special resonance for another woman whose mother was a nurse in Vietnam and later in a factory and is celebrating her 70th birthday at the Philadelphia concert. The experience of being in the pit where Springsteen hand selects song requests from signs is reported on the Facebook pages of Calling All Springsteen Fans, BruceBook and Bruce Buds among others. The next best thing to being there is reading about it. Caryn Rose, who has been covering Springsteen shows for years for the fanzine Backstreets, wrote about the experience in her book Raise Your Hand. She was a teenager living in Stamford, Connecticut when she snuck out to buy a ticket to see Springsteen play a concert in New Haven, Connecticut on the Darkness On The Edge of Town tour. The experience changed her life. Flash forward to this month where she detailed on her three-month project  of ranking over three hundred of Springsteen’s songs for Vulture Magazine.

The release the book Born To Run (and accompanying album Chapter and Verse) has prompted a deeper self-reflection not only among Springsteen. He first disclosed that he had been suffering from depression in Peter Ames Carlin’s biography Bruce several years ago. Now he has been forthcoming about the depression that plagued his father and has affected him. The disclosure has spurred a greater national conversation that will likely grow as he begins a book tour.

For those of us who saw him play the entire double album The River this year, like the artist, it prompted our own greater self-reflection. Springsteen said that in the end the record was about the passage of time.

When a woman sitting next to me on the metro saw me writing notes for a review, she struck up conversation. As as I was getting off the train, I felt a tap on my shoulder when she said: “The way I think about the passing of time is about who you were, who you thought you’d become and who you ended up being.”     

At a Springsteen show it is a communal celebration that transcends the fantastical characters and epics of his songs. It's like a mirror and greater narrative of our own lives and the experiences we share. It is still, after all these years, transcendent. Perhaps in some way more because of the own life xperiences we bring to the table.

When filmmaker Brian Koppelman appeared on Jeremy Dylan’s podcast My Favorite Album, he talked about the impact of Jason Isbell’s Southeastern. He hadn’t felt such emotions in listening to a record for twenty years.

“The way we reign in our emotions as adults is deadly,” Koppelman reflects. “Music leapfrogs us forward. It provides the emotional resonance of the best art provides.”

Someone posted  on Calling All Springsteen Fans, “I've been chasing down these emotions for 42 years.” It's why we're still going to concerts. There's something out there. There's something in the night.

Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavor On Your Bedpost?”

"Transistor radios? who remembers transistor radios?" Bruce Springsteen asks Virginia Beach.

When the applause roars, he has a comeback. 

"Impossible," he says wthbemused and giddy with laughter.

Springsteen says he used to stick the radio under his pillow and listen to music every night. His goal was to stay up all night one night a week

His favorite song was by Lonnie Donegan and it was called “Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavor.”

In the middle of middle of night he’d sneak out of his house with the radio.

“At night the streets were mine,” he said as if previewing a passage from his new book. “In in the day I had to run.”

Everyone gathered around to hear the radio on those nights, he shared. It was likely that he heard some of the great British invasion bands and American rock and roll that inspired him to write over three hundred songs. Just then he went into “Save My Love,” with his lifetime friend and rock and roll compatriot trailing on harmonies, the band striking up the sound of a great pop single that would have sounded great on the radio those summer nights.

Van Zandt used to talk about the young Springsteen always had one more song in his notebook. Who would have thought that a throwaway song, an outtake from the Darkness On The Edge of Town sessions, could steal the night four decades later.

Close to the end of the show, Springsteen dedicates a song to the Foodbank. “This is the 'Land of Hopes and Dreams’,” he says declaratively.

You can take it as a song introduction--or a statement--or both. It’s arguably his most aspirational song and populist song.

“You don’t need no ticket, you just get on board,” Springsteen says of the train that’s bound for glory, and there's room for everybody--saints and sinners, losers, winners. It doesn’t make a difference.

Rock and roll provided salvation in the first go round for Springsteen and it continues to take us to a higher plane.

In in the words of Curtis Mayfield there's good news to share.

People get ready.

There's a train boarding.