The Boss paused twice for reflection in the course of his last Wembley concert, on 6 July – twice in three and a half hours of an otherwise relentless exuberance. We all fell silent, gazing at the tiny figure holding the microphone, or at his huge video doubles, projected onto screens standing to either side of the forty-foot-high speakers. The sound, travelling across the arena, lagged fractionally behind the image, whose lips moved out of synch with the words we heard. The single, central figure, necessarily remote, could not quite sustain the illusion of intimate speech. But it was there if you listened with eyes closed. Personal sincerity, electronically amplified and directed at seventy thousand other persons, is hard to pull off, and hard to take whether pulled off or not. Bruce Springsteen, however, managed not to sound nauseatingly heartfelt. His voice lacks pretension, disclaims rhetoric and self-regard; he is, apparently, without design.
The first of these moments of booming meditation was an introduction to ‘My Hometown’ (from his latest album Born in the USA), and Springsteen made it both personal and typical: he spoke of his sadness at the economic and industrial decline, his shame at the racial conflict, which had marked and marred his place of origin. He ended: ‘So this is from my hometown to your hometown.’ The applause that followed was a collective recognition: the local, specifically American resonance of ‘hometown’ touched on everyone’s sense of place.
In the song, as in many others by Springsteen, this sense of place is bound up with a sense of loss; home is not where the heart is, but where it once was. In the opening verse, an eight-year-old boy runs with a dime in his hand to pick up a paper for his ‘old man’. Then he stands in his father’s lap, steering the ‘big old Buick’; his father tousles his hair and says:
Son, take a good look around,
This is your hometown.
And the chorus says so:
This is your hometown.
This is your hometown.
This is your hometown.
It’s beautifully judged: the pleasure of repetition is a child’s pleasure, marking time with a sign of security. The child is in control, in the driving seat of his life, his future guaranteed by his protective father. And indeed, at the end of the song, the child, now grown up, has a boy of his own; like his father before him, he places the child at the wheel and tells him:
Son, take a good look around,
This is your hometown.
But the song ends there, on that line, with no reassuring chorus, because, in the intervening years, ‘troubled times’ have come – blacks and whites fighting in the street (the year is 1965), the closure of the textile mill, the bankruptcy of local businesses (the recession of the late Seventies). On Main Street the stores are vacant and the windows whitewashed; the parents lie in bed, talking about
Packing up our bags, maybe heading South.
The father’s gesture to his son is the same gesture, but empty of content: or rather, the content is what was once there, the social and economic stability which have gone for ever. ‘Take a good look around’ has passed from a ritual of possession to one of valediction.
The myth of home and family is treasured in small-town America, and within that myth the relation between males (fathers and sons, or brothers) has a special force. Springsteen’s song is deceptively plangent in tone. The story is inexorable and its irony unsparing; nothing is shirked, there is no soft focus in the words.
Later on, in the second of his reflective moments, Springsteen spoke of a time when he and his band were playing in Memphis. After the gig he and his lead guitarist drove out to Graceland, the high-walled estate where Elvis Presley was immured in his decay. Springsteen climbed the wall and tried to charm his way past the guard at the front door. ‘I tried everything,’ he said; ‘I told him I was on the cover of both Time and Newsweek.’ The guard, unmoved, maintained that Presley was away, at Lake Tahoe; Springsteen was ‘escorted’ to the gate and thrown out. He and Presley never met, and a year later Presley was dead. This anecdote was the prelude to a nostalgic version of Springsteen’s favourite Presley song, ‘Can’t help falling in love’. The implication was clear: like many of his generation, Springsteen identified with Elvis as a source or ‘father’ of his own music; the story tells of a failed attempt to turn (or return) to that source. (The song ‘My Father’s House’, from Nebraska, tells explicitly of a similar failure.) But Springsteen was also alluding to the privilege and corruption which sealed up Presley’s final years. After ‘Can’t help falling in love’ he went without pausing into ‘Born to run’, the anthem which made him famous, which got him on the cover of Time and Newsweek, and which tells, not of stasis and decline, but of escape and survival. In paying homage to Presley, Springsteen was also affirming his independence, singing and shouting a determination to break out of the sickness of Graceland as vehement as his desire to get in.
Approaching Wembley in the hot sunshine, we run a touts’ gauntlet: overpriced t-shirts, posters, programmes, tickets. After these Stations of the Boss, we cross the precinct on a carpet of crushed cans, climb the staircase to the turnstiles like slowed-down salmon, and have our own (uncrushed) cans taken off us by the stewards. We enter the arena. Here the choice is between the usual spectators’ places around the pitch, where you can see what’s going on in relative comfort but with a slightly uncomfortable detachment, or the pitch itself, covered with sand and tarpaulins, where you can stand with the real fans. ‘Stand’ is the word – there’s hardly room to turn around, let alone sit down. In the front ranks, people’s heads are so close together that their hair looks from above like a thickly woven rug. The crowd was not packed so densely at the Dylan concert this time last year. They press against the barrier at the foot of the stage – for a moment it looks frightening and dangerous. Stewards pass along the front rank, handing out paper cups of water to the thirsty and faint; the paper cups are hurled back empty, in what looks funnily like ingratitude (perhaps there’s no room even to drop them). Eventually the hand-to-hand service can’t cope: they bring out a hosepipe and play it over the wilting mass. The sun beats down; it’s three o’clock, and Springsteen won’t come on till four. If you are in that front section, you have given up, for the duration, the prospect of material well-being: your ribs will be bruised, your feet trampled, your neck cricked, your face sunburnt; you won’t be able to leave for a drink, or a piss, you have come to shout yourself hoarse and wave your arms above your head, one frond of a giant seaweed swayed by the current of sound. The sound is also a blast, a whirlwind; when the concert ends you may well be temporarily deaf.
Subtlety would be wasted here. What you hear is what you know; if you don’t know the words of a song, don’t bother trying to make them out. The sound is a physical element in which you move and breathe; even at the far end of the stadium it bounces under the roof of the stands and crackles overhead in a tangible fiery din; at the front it seems to be coming from inside and outside your body at once. In the songs you know, recognition acts in tandem with this tremendous force, as though you were creating it. This is the secret of the great electronic rites that bash the eardrums of the uninitiated: they are rites of collective recognition.
Throughout the concert, Springsteen, as he always does, moved around the stage, jumping from level to level, running to the front or along the boardwalk which extends on either side. His ‘show’ is famous; you know you’ll get your money’s worth, and without being made to feel guilty about it, either; the man enjoys it, lives for it, thrives on tour. Periodically he led the entire band, except the keyboard player and drummer, in a dancing line along the boardwalk, playing to the seated spectators on the right or left, who responded like a football crowd to a goal, rising to their feet in a paroxysm of excitement and adulation. In the set pieces (of which ‘Glory Days’ was the most prolonged and splendid) Springsteen conducted the audience, voice and body; seventy thousand roared the chorus, seventy thousand swayed and waved to the rhythm he set. The mass of people on the pitch undulated back and forth so that the ground beneath them, and not they themselves, seemed to be heaving. During ‘Dancing in the Dark’ (like ‘Glory Days’ a song from Born in the USA) Springsteen repeated a scene from the video recording, beckoning a girl from the audience to dance with him. It’s hard to believe this wasn’t a set-up, and in any case the audience was distracted, for the one and only time, by the spectacle of a fan who had clambered up the gantries around the giant speakers and was cavorting bare-arsed on the canvas roof of the lighting platform.
All the time he moved, Springsteen was also singing or playing; he gave himself over to what he did, and at the end showed no trace of fatigue or surfeit. His show was more than complete, it was excessive, extravagant, yet not disgusting. If he had chosen to play on for another hour, or another two, everyone would have stayed in rapture. He is said (perhaps apocryphally) to have played through the night, for 12 hours, at the Los Angeles Colosseum. The two moments of reflection I have described must therefore be seen in context. They were the only moments in which Springsteen stood still; the only moments in which the driving rain of sound held off; the only moments in which unanticipated words were spoken and understood. They were breathing holes in pack ice; they indicated that the Springsteen show isn’t all of Springsteen. The Boss has something else to say.
Springsteen’s nickname was given to him by white, blue-collar, small-town America – his first and still his most loyal and fervent constituency. It’s a gesture against the real bosses, local and national big shots, factory managers, businessmen, politicians and police chiefs. Springsteen’s authority is not that of an employer or official, but of an interpreter. Like Ronald Reagan, he is thought to speak for, as well as to, a social group denominated ‘ordinary people’: disadvantaged whites, small farmers and factory workers, truck-drivers and garage mechanics, the holders (or losers) of millions of dirty and ill-paid jobs. Reagan gets away with this – despite the stupendous gap between his own life-story and status and those of the people he purports to represent – by a trick of dissociation. Shaking hands with his electorate, he picks its pocket: but his right hand appears genuinely unaware of what his left hand is doing. Springsteen’s claim, you might think, is equally spurious: is he not a spectacular example of the great rock’n’roll swindle, getting rich by singing about being poor? And yet, such dishonesty, whether conscious or not, is as inseparable from art as from politics. The idea that Springsteen could truly belong to the American community from which he draws his material is a delusion. Of all the blue-collar life stories in his songs, how many could be his own? What matters here is not the man’s good faith, but the artist’s work. Just as Springsteen is not summed up by his carnival mastery on stage, so his being a rock’n’roll millionaire doesn’t cancel him out.
The concert opened with what is currently his most famous song, ‘Born in the USA’. This is the title song of his latest album, on the cover of which, facing the broad red and white stripes of the American flag, he stands with his back to you, holding a catcher’s mitt in his right hand. His white sleeveless t-shirt, blue jeans and red mitt echo the national colours. The picture of him is truncated: you see only the arms and half the body from mid-torso to mid-thigh. Of course you know who it is (and he’s featured full-face and full-length on the inside sleeve): yet the image attributes to Springsteen the representative anonymity of an American Everyman. His popularity has been linked with the Reagan gospel of American values and American self-belief. But the man facing the flag doesn’t have his hand on his heart.
‘Born in the USA’ opens with a crashing percussion phrase, three times repeated; then Springsteen’s voice, raucous and marking heavy time, bursts out:
Born down in a dead man’s town,
The first kick I took was when I hit the ground.
So much for ‘my hometown’: and the story that follows is uncompromisingly bitter about the Land of the Free. The young man goes to Vietnam ignorant and uncaring; he returns jobless and unwanted.
Came back home to the refinery
Hiring man said ‘Son, if it was up to me.’
Went down to see my VA man
He said ‘Son, don’t you understand?’
I had a brother at Khe Sanh
Fighting off the Viet Cong
They’re still there, he’s all gone.
He had a woman who lived in Saigon
I got a picture of him in her arms.
After these exact and violently laconic sketches (the last a fit Pieta for the Vietnam years), Springsteen faces, it seems, a present as bleak as the past:
I’m ten years burning down the road,
Nowhere to run, ain’t got nowhere to go.
But this isn’t quite the end, since all along the music, the beat set at the start of the song, has been telling a different story to the words – a story of defiance and endurance, of having ‘nowhere to run’ and yet being ‘born to run’, a story of escape from the ‘dead man’s town’. Having ‘nowhere to go’ turns out to be itself a place; and, as though to confirm his emancipation, the singer at the end of the song is no longer the ‘son’ whose ‘fathers’ have let him down (‘Son, if it was up to me ... Son, don’t you understand?’), but a ‘long-gone daddy in the USA’, a ‘cool rocking daddy in the USA’. Springsteen’s lament for the deceptions and disillusionments of the American dream is also a rite of passage into creative autonomy.
The question of what it means to be ‘born in the USA’ is a pressing one for Americans. Faced with the warps and injustices of the country’s history, and the apparent insanity of its present imperial order, some deny its right to be constituted at all. ‘I see the United States government as a little baby brat,’ says an Indian woman to Studs Terkel in his American Dreams: Lost and Found (1982). ‘It’s a 200-year-old kid. They gave us dual citizenship in 1924. How can a little teeny stupid 150-year-old government grant citizenship to a Yakima Indian who has been here for eight million years? ... How can a lying little trespasser that doesn’t know how to act right grant anything to anybody?’ For the Californian poet Gary Snyder, ‘the “USA” and its states and counties are arbitrary and inaccurate impositions on what is really here’: the collection from which this quotation comes is Turtle Island (1974), ‘the old/new name for the continent’, and the poems ‘speak of place, and the energy-pathways that sustain life. Each living being is a swirl in the flow, a formal turbulence, a “song”.’ But to many of Springsteen’s songs (‘Nebraska’, ‘Atlantic City’, ‘State Trooper’, ‘Darlington County’, to name only the ones where it provides the title) the geography of ‘states and counties’ is indispensable. The USA is ‘really here’ for him, and for his audience. What it means to be born in it is, however, something else. For Springsteen, home is there to be left, the county or state line there to be crossed. The true hero of his America is the man who disowns it in ‘Atlantic City’ –
Well I got a job and tried to put my money away
But I got debts that no honest man can pay
So I drew what I had from the Central Trust
And I bought us two tickets on that Coast City bus
– or the man in ‘Darkness on the Edge of Town’ who is willing to
pay the cost
For wanting things that can only be found
In the darkness on the edge of town.
I wish Springsteen had sung this, the greatest of his songs, when I heard him at Wembley: but perhaps it would have been out of place on that sunlit and floodlit occasion.