I do things with words, mainly English and Arabic
New friends and acquaintances are generally surprised to find that I am a huge and longtime fan of Bruce Springsteen. It isn’t generally seen as an obvious fit with being a feminist, bookish, Arabic-studying, anarchist-leaning disliker of most things USA whose other musical tastes (at least in public!) tend to lean towards ouds, punk or classical.
Such mistaken opinions often stem from assumptions about The Boss’ politics which rest on never having looked beyond the chorus of Born In The USA. Too many other people have explained that this song, in fact, a condemnation of the Vietnam Draft and of the US government’s treatment of its working-class conscripts for me to need to go into the details. As the glorious Dan Savage occasionally puts it (in a very different context), Shall I Google That For You?
But whilst my love of Springsteen does have a lot to do with a good guitar riff and liberal use of minor keys, his show at Wembley Stadium on June 15th was a searingly wonderful reminder of the passion and anger that he can still – pushing 64 – wrench out.
I first saw Springsteen in 2002. Whilst I was sitting in Bethlehem, under curfew, in the midst of a massive Israeli army reinvasion of Palestine, I got an email from my Mum asking if I wanted to go to his show at Earl’s Court. Well, obviously, yes. I grew up on Springsteen; Mum used to crank Born In The USA (the album) up as high as it would go and take her angst at suddenly and unwillingly being turned into the single mother of teenage girls out on the hapless ironing. Earl’s Court was amazing – a surprisingly small venue for such a big name, so a level of intimacy probably only experienced in the UK since about 1979 by the lucky sods who got tickets for the Albert Hall shows.
My second Springsteen show was Old Trafford in (I think) 2009. Again with Mum, as well as my husband. It was drizzly and grey, but the man seems to have such an infectious enthusiasm for playing that the three-hours-plus he still manages are always terrific.
But Wembley this June was something very, very special. So special that it rated 5-star reviews from both the Guardian and the Telegraph. Both reviews pick up on the many heart-warming elements of the show – his tradition of pulling up a partner from the crowd for Dancing in the Dark (which appeared in the 1984 video for the song, with future Friends star Courtney Cox in the role) this time a woman whose son was waving a “$1 to dance with my mum” sign (and Bruce pocketed the dollar, too). His collection of sheets of cardboard requesting some of his more obscure numbers – and then playing them.
What the reviews don’t pick up on – and maybe it was just a figment of my imagination, but I don’t think so – is that this was an angrier Springsteen than I have seen before. Yes, he was wonderfully enthusiastic when the crowd picked his offer of playing the whole of 1978’s Darkness On The Edge Of Town album right through. And yes his band show just as much joy and verve as Bruce does – I’ve never seen anything like Nils Lofgren’s one-legged spin during his guitar solo from anyone over 25 before, certainly.
But other songs that made an appearance included Lost In The Flood from Springsteen’s first album, 1973’s Greetings From Asbury Park. That song – like Born In The USA a dozen years later – is an uncompromisingly bleak image of the results of the USA’s war on Vietnam, although it also features a kind of poetic phrasing which shows why Springsteen was greeted in his early years as ‘the new Bob Dylan’ (personally I would think of Dylan as a whining git who paved the way for Springsteen… but I’m sure plenty of people would hate me for that). But to me, Lost In The Flood has a kind of cold-blooded youthful arrogance to it which is almost spine-chilling in its evocation of the casual violence of a militarised society:
The ragamuffin gunner is returnin’ home like a hungry runaway
He walks through town all alone–“He must be from the fort,” he hears the high school girls say
His countryside’s burnin’ with wolfman fairies dressed in drag for homicide…
…That pure American brother, dull-eyed and empty-faced
Races Sundays in Jersey in a Chevy stock super eight
He rides ‘er low on the hip, on the side he’s got “Bound for Glory” in red, white and blue flash paint …
And some kid comes blastin’ ’round the corner, but a cop puts him right away
He lays on the street holding his leg, screaming something in Spanish, still breathing when I walked away.
But Darkness…, too, is a really angry, bitter album, delivering bitingly bleak images of America and especially its marginalised. The final verse of the title track says:
Some folks are born into a good life,
Other folks get it anyway, anyhow,
I lost my money and I lost my wife,
Them things don’t seem to matter much to me now.
… I’ll pay the cost,
For wanting things that can only be found
In the darkness on the edge of town.
Whilst Badlands, one of the album’s singles, also proclaims:
Poor man wanna be rich
Rich man wanna be king
And a king ain’t satisfied
‘Til he rules everything
And from the same album comes Factory:
Early in the morning factory whistle blows
Man rises from bed and puts on his clothes
Man takes his lunch, walks out in the morning light
It’s the working, the working, just the working life
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
End of the day, factory whistle cries
Men walk through these gates with death in their eyes
And you just better believe, boy, somebody’s gonna get hurt tonight
It’s the working, the working, just the working life
Cause it’s the working, the working, just the working life
Some of the other tracks may not be so overtly political, but Adam Raised A Cain is a supremely dark portrait of American masculinity and family values, whilst most of the other tracks are solid examples of Springsteen’s characteristic blue-collar, anti-establishment aesthetic.
But the politics on June 15th weren’t just historical. Although late 80s/early 90s albums like Tunnel of Love and Lucky Town might have moved away from social commentary, Springsteen’s more recent work is as furiously political as anything he’s every written.
(As an aside: for me, there was also a strange generational thing going on at this show. I don’t know a lot of Springsteen’s newer material in depth – I tend to default to his late 70s/early 80s albums – but Mum and I seemed to be surrounded by people who knew all those tracks well. But when the older material came on – particularly the run-through of Darkness…, which I discovered I’m pretty much word-perfect on – something happened I’ve never seen before, which is that the smartphones came out so that people could google lyrics to songs they didn’t know. Needless to say this did not make me happy).
So, from the recent material one of my favourites (which wasn’t played in June, I don’t think) is Youngstown, the story of the decline of the US steel industry, in terms which capture exactly the kind of sinister, glorious, destructive traits of industry:
Well my daddy worked the furnaces
Kept ’em hotter than hell
I come home from ‘Nam worked my way to scarfer
A job that’d suit the devil as well
Taconite coke and limestone
Fed my children and make my pay
Them smokestacks reachin’ like the arms of God
Into a beautiful sky of soot and clay
and also capture the great contradictions – of how industrial labour is hard, dangerous and bloody, but it also breeds communities which are proud, if ultimately dependent upon it, and which are wrecked when the forces of capital find cheaper places to exploit:
Well my daddy come on the Ohio works
When he come home from World War Two
Now the yard’s just scrap and rubble
He said “Them big boys did what Hitler couldn’t do.” …
… Now sir you tell me the world’s changed
Once I made you rich enough
Rich enough to forget my name.
Youngstown may not have gotten an outing at Wembley, but tracks like Wrecking Ball, Death To My Hometown and The Rising most certainly did, and they are all pugnacious songs, delivered with real anger and, one suspects, disappointment – however naïve that might be – in the brief promise that many left-liberals detected in Barack Obama.
Nothing can recapture the sheer energy of a concert like June 15th, but to sign off, here are a few YouTube videos from the night:
And this – no joke – seems to be all three-and-a-quarter hours of sound recording, with still photos.