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Into the Fire

Springsteen's plunge into partisan politics

By Bruce Robinson

In 1984, a musically clueless Ronald Reagan tried to co-opt Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the USA" as a campaign theme song. Never mind that the song was a pointed indictment of the government's failure to make good on its promises to Vietnam-era veterans, the Great Communicator's operatives couldn't see past the chiming chorus and tried to recruit Bruce to the Gipper's cause. Springsteen demurred.

Four years later, another Republican presidential hopeful, Sen. Bob Dole, again attempted to adopt the Springsteen anthem for his campaign. The Boss quietly told him to knock it off.

Fast forward to 2004. After steering clear of electoral politics for his entire career, Springsteen announces that he and a host of other high-profile rock artists (REM, Dave Matthews, the Dixie Chicks, Pearl Jam and others) will play a series of highly publicized concerts called Chords for Change in a handful of "swing" states, in support of the Democratic presidential ticket.

"I felt like I couldn't have written the music I've written and been onstage singing about the things that I've sung about for the past 25 years and not take part in this particular election," Springsteen said.

It's about damn time.

Springsteen came of age during an era of unprecedented musical activism. Like most of his fellow boomers, he grew up hearing the topical acoustic urgings of Phil Ochs, Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie and a young Bob Dylan as the soundtrack to the Civil Rights movement of the early 1960s. A few years later, the music and the politics were both electrified, as the Vietnam war polarized generations like never before.

By the time the Boss-to-be released his debut in 1972, Vietnam was history. Springsteen soon found his voice as a blue-collar sympathizer, chronicling the deflected dreams and dogged determination of the American underclass in a way few of his contemporaries even attempted. Songs like "The Promised Land," "Night," "The River" and many more gave potent voice to the disappointments, defeats and unquenchable hopes of his generation, while Springsteen's live shows with the E Street Band were cathartic marathons dedicated to the redemptive power of communal rock and roll.

But while Springsteen's songs have portrayed individuals at the mercy of forces far greater than they can even recognize, he has never before sought to publicly connect the dots between the circumstances of his characters and the real-world policies that define their lives.

Like many others who have been galvanized to action over the past four years, Bruce appears to be more committed to domestic regime change in general than the specific policies of the Democratic standard-bearers. In his recent New York Times op-ed piece announcing the Chords for Change concerts, Springsteen wrote that while Kerry and Edwards don't "have all the answers, I do believe they are sincerely interested in asking the right questions and working their way toward honest solutions."

And that, it seems, is enough for Bruce to stake some of his own hard-won cred on their ticket. As he told Ted Koppel on Nightline earlier this month, "I stayed a step away from partisan politics because I felt it was always important to have an independent voice. I wanted my fans to feel like they could trust that. But you build up credibility . . . and I think there comes a time when you feel, all right I've built this up and it's time to spend some of it.

"I think this is one of the most critical elections of my adult life."

Even before the Chords of Change concerts were announced, Kerry was using Springsteen's "No Surrender" as an unofficial theme song. In it, the Boss sings, "We learned more from a three-minute record than we ever learned in school."

May his political educating prove equally effective.

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From the August 25-31, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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