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Excerpt: "On his European tour, the Boss assails the banks and inveighs against the 'robber barons.' Yet among stadium rockers, he is a lone voice."

Bruce Springsteen performs on stage in Milan, 06/07/12. (photo: Daniel Dal Zennaro/EPA)
Bruce Springsteen performs on stage in Milan, 06/07/12. (photo: Daniel Dal Zennaro/EPA)

Bruce Springsteen: Last of the Protest Singers

By Ed Vulliamy, Guardian UK

10 June 12


On his European tour, the Boss assails the banks and inveighs against the 'robber barons'. Yet among stadium rockers, he is a lone voice.

nder a full moon rising above the old Olympic stadium in Rome during the summer of 1993, Bruce Springsteen paused to catch breath between gale-force blasts of music - it was another of those thermo-charged, three-hour concerts - to cue his next number, Darkness on the Edge of Town. I was taking time out from frontlines in Bosnia, back across the Adriatic where no one gave a damn, for a bit of dolce vita.

"I wanna dedicate this song," gasped Springsteen, "to the people of Bosnia-Herzegovina!" The crowd, if it heard, was puzzled, and I was dumbstruck with gratitude - Springsteen? Here in Italy, ranting on about Bosnia? How good can this guy get?!

Last week in Berlin, he did it again - only this time his message, like his new album, Wrecking Ball, concerned a matter of more universal and mainstream concern: the looting of our economies and lives by banks brazenly gorging on our money. He railed against "greedy thieves" and "robber barons", saying from the stage that "in America a lot of people lost their jobs and I know that in Europe and Berlin also times are tough". He sang: "The banker man grows fatter, the working man grows thin …/ … Now sometimes tomorrow comes soaked in treasure and blood / Here we stood the drought, now we'll stand the flood … / ...If I had me a gun, I'd find the bastards and shoot 'em on sight / I'm a Jack of all trades, we'll be all right". Cop an earful of that!

Next month, after playing Sunderland, Manchester and the Isle of Wight, the Boss heads for London, where the darkness from the edge of town infests the steel and glass of the City and thereby all our lives. His concert falls on Bastille Day, only a week before the most aggressively corporate Olympics Games ever staged. The day also marks the centenary of the birth of Woody Guthrie, the father of American folk protest, of whom Springsteen is regarded as some kind of electric superstar incarnation. (Or at least that is how he seems to see himself.)

Why would we who love Springsteen's music and share his rage not await this night with bated breath? On the other hand, why does it matter so much? Why is it always Springsteen, and at this level of stadium rock and record sales, only Springsteen?

There are very few rock superstars from the Anglo-American axis who have played at this level over time - and a quick survey shows how far they have bloated away from serious commitment. Perky Sir Paul McCartney rounds off the jubilee for Her Majesty's whooping, servile subjects. Sir Mick Jagger showed a sign of rigor mortis by refusing to serenade the burghers of Davos, but struts and frets his years upon the world's stages to little cogent effect. Of the young ones, Coldplay filled the Emirates stadium with even less political content than Arsenal.

Across the Irish Sea, U2 traded Sunday Bloody Sunday for one of the great tax avoidance scandals in showbiz, and when a group of protesters raised a defiant balloon at Glastonbury, they were roughly handled - leading many to wonder that if you cannot peacefully and safely protest at Glastonbury, where can you?

The American greats are more complex. Bob Dylan cannot be said to count - he inspired a generation but now orbits another planet, despite playing Ballad of a Thin Man to very great effect during the 2003 Iraq war. Neil Young, author of Ohio back in the day that four protesting students were murdered by state troopers, veered into a Reaganite moment during the 1980s, but re-emerged to record the only album by a big star to overtly challenge war in Iraq. He was cheered by half his audiences, booed and middle-fingered by the other half. But last week, he did something weird, releasing God Save the Queen, perhaps ironic in the mode of Springsteen's Born In the USA, or - as Young has explained - integral to Canadiana, but the video taken from his new album is as bulimic as any other TV content of late. Aerosmith, Bon Jovi et al are simply excruciating.

Some do pronounce: Sting added rainforests to Tantric sex and Jarvis Cocker cares about melting ice caps, but so what? It's the banks, stupid - the looters, foreclosers, launderers of drug profits, arms deals and tax evasion, the new zillionaire global dictatorship that brings Death to My Hometown, as a new Springsteen song goes. Who is going to sing about them?

There is a roll of honour. In the UK, the estimable folk bards and balladeers: Dick Gaughan, Chris Wood, Martin Simpson, Martin Carthy and their small, devoted following. Billy Bragg lays claim to Orwell. In Ireland, rebel folk endures and develops, uniquely - just listen to Lizzie Nunnery's England Loves a Poor Boy.

In America, Jefferson Starship remains an unreconstructed project to plant a tree of liberty both from somewhere out there and within. Patti Smith strikes up People Have the Power on the stroke of midnight every New Year's Eve, even though they don't. Steve Earle clenches his fist and urges "Come back Woody Guthrie". But these are venerable - dare one say it, elderly - people, apart from the Dixie Chicks: blacklisted across American radio and their CDs ploughed into the ground at what amounted to musical book-burnings in George W Bush's America, after mildly criticising the then president.

Ah, then there's Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine, now The Night Watchman, singing for striking teachers and assailed unions - playing both his own subversions and acquainting young America with the great radical folk canon. Morello became the watchman after an attempt to have his band crushed by the patriotic tsunami that followed 9/11, during which their music was blanket-blacklisted. Morello's response was to team up for a series of live performances with no equal in modern America: a blood-vessel-bursting account of The Ghost of Tom Joad - invoking Steinbeck's hero - with the man who wrote the song: Springsteen. Now, Morello features on the new album.

Even on this list, Springsteen stands alone for sheer stature, durability and profile. None of these others have been singing for 40 years to stadiums worldwide. His adrenalin-pumping shows are woven into American life, yet subvert its capitalist fundamentals, that innate American principle of screw-thy-neighbour, in favour of what he insists to be "real" America - working class, militant, street-savvy, tough but romantic, nomadic but with roots - compiled into what feels like a single epic but vernacular rock-opera lasting four decades.

Springsteen does this because he believes in what he says, and because it is easier to be an American leftwing patriot than a British one. We do not have that "redneck left", of blue-collar scaffolders who smoke weed and listen to Springsteen and even the Grateful Dead. And he gets away with it. As Glenn Stuart, front man for the tribute B Street Band, observes: "He's never been Dixie-Chicked".

Springsteen made his name in part by challenging and rejecting Reagan's attempted appropriation of Born in the USA, the irony of which the then president was too dim to grasp. But it wasn't only Reagan: Springsteen is so popular astride political fissures that Chris Christie, the recently elected Republican governor of his home state, New Jersey, wanted Springsteen to play at his inaugural bash. Springsteen refused, but the episode demonstrated Stuart's point that "either they don't hear what he is saying, or they just overlook it".

This leads to charges of ineffectuality. And to pointing out that Springsteen is himself a millionaire with a 378-acre horse ranch. It is further argued that the blue-collar working class for which Springsteen stands is largely Republican, though this was not true of the industrial and post-industrial swing states of Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan in which Springsteen performed for Barack Obama last time round.

Certainly, though, they do not account for feudal America's desperate poor - at food collection points and homeless shelters, working in fruit fields or online shopping warehouses, living in trailer parks across the edge of town - let alone the ghetto. But there it is: a song called American Skin (41 Shots), about those fired by New York cops, killing a young black man called Amadou Diallo in 1999 - and that is real American roots folk at its best.

Springsteen throws down a challenge no other superstar - or craven politician for that matter - has the vim, guts or gusto to even consider. That's why it matters. And he does so with an album at No 1 in the Billboard charts, with five stars from Rolling Stone and lyrics like this: "Yeah, sing it hard and sing it well / Send the robber barons straight to hell / The greedy thieves that came around and ate the flesh of everything they've found / Whose crimes have gone unpunished now / Walk the streets as free men now."

Bring on Bastille Day, bring on the Boss! your social media marketing partner


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+36 # Lisa Moskow 2012-06-10 12:09
Yay Bruce.

Being a musician is hard enough without having to deal with being Dixie-Chicked.
+40 # ShaggyCent 2012-06-10 12:31
A little too much gush but well said. The voice of the people's struggle has left our music for the most part and this is an extreme loss.
+29 # susanao111 2012-06-10 13:07
I applaud Bruce Springsteen for his work over these over many years. His lyrics and music is a tribute to the working people.However he is not the last of the protest singers.
There have been many before him and will be many after
him. There are also many now who don't have the access to major stages yet. Every generations produces singers who promote the struggles for the rights of the everyday people. To list who isn't a protest singer now even if they were then is useless.
+20 # cordleycoit 2012-06-10 13:24
When I wander about the country I hear the voice of the land sometimes the Boss some times Willie, some time Treudeaux, there's LaFarage and Townes the Star Walkers or you can hear North By North, or a naming song by Utah around a jungle fire, some brave soul singing a McMurtey song. The music's there be it the Boss or someone else 'standing in the fire' Bro, where the hungry for freedom are.
+18 # AEH 2012-06-10 14:11
So eerie - I was just listening to The River...... ("I got a job working construction for the Johnstown Company
But lately there ain't been much work on account of the economy
Now all them things that seemed so important
Well mister they vanished right into the air...." ) & thinking about how I didn't get it at the time (was that '81?). What an amazing human being - scarily sexy AND a brilliant mind & soul at the same time. Gee.
+17 # dick 2012-06-10 14:15
Wall St. banksters are WHITE. Country music lovers believe, "The enemy of my enemy (non-whites, non-Anglos) is my friend." LOTS of bank $$ in the entertainment Industry. Obama was elected to clean house on Wall St. Instead he got deeply in bed with the most destructive crooks in US history. If he had gone after the crooks, from the bully pulpit & AG's office, Obama would be a hero to a broad cross section of Americans. He chose Goldman Sachs trickle down & campaign bribes. He betrayed US.
-48 # 4merlib 2012-06-10 14:26
Where does the Boss keep HIS money?
+43 # WestWinds 2012-06-10 15:19
He owns and runs a soup kitchen for indigents in New Jersey. He has for decades. You will find him there at Christmas filling up cups and bowls and spreading good will, full stomachs and cheer.
+8 # tabonsell 2012-06-11 16:11
Doesn't matter.

He earned his money without stacking the deck, dealing from the bottom, rigging the game and then bribing the referees and umpires as did those he rails against.
+37 # animas 2012-06-10 14:42
Don't forget about Joni Mitchell, who has been singing about all kinds of important issues for 40 years... She's been reporting back the issues:
• They pave paradise and put up a parking lot...
• Big business bickered until the bitter end...
• These lesions once were lakes .... if I had a heart I'd cry...
• Shine on Vegas and Wall street place your bets... shine on all the fisherman, with nothing in their nets...
• Please delivery me from this sanctimonious skunk, how can he speak for the prince of peace when he's hawk right militant...
• ONward Christian soldier though shalt not kill, but men love war, that's what history if for.. a mass murder mystery history, HIS story.. but me love war...
• The dawn of man comes slow... Thousands of years and here we are still worshipping our own egos...
+27 # DaveHOz 2012-06-10 15:17
I very much admire Bruce Springsteen's work, but I don't think it's fair or accurate to call him "Last of the Protest Singers" -- We have Ani DiFranco, Steve Earle, Emma's Revolution, etc. I guess the difference is, those artists aren't "superstars"... But maybe being a "superstar" isn't the most important thing in the world...?
+26 # fredboy 2012-06-10 16:21
Only a few modern singers dare look into our national soul.
How I miss the 60s...
+19 # wfalco 2012-06-10 17:50
Bruce can be accurately referred to as "Last of the Protest Singers" because of how the times they have certainly changed. Although it is true that the DiFrancos and Steve Earles are out there and may be as lyrically relevent as The Boss, they are only heard by a niche group of listeners. Bruce transcends those relatively small niches and has the capability to reach Millions. In today's world this matters.
Of further importance(and here I go with some "gushing") is that Bruce blasts it out and is unmatched in personal stage charisma. Keep in mind there are some "cool" college aged kids that will go see this guy in a concert in 2012. Forget about his huge popular "hits" popularity of the mid 80's-the recent stuff is better ( see "The Rising", "Magic", and "Wrecking Ball.")
+16 # Observer 47 2012-06-10 18:08
Mr. Vuillamy, don't forget John Mellencamp. He's worked tirelessly for the world's underdogs for decades, and I would say that he has superstar status. He always walks the walk.
+14 # tomo 2012-06-10 19:35
The ghost of the great Howard Zinn hovers over the unsilenced Bruce the Boss--and guides him in the paths of righteousness!
+11 # Smiley 2012-06-10 19:49
There are some great protest singers out there like David Rovics who will never be superstars BECAUSE they are protest singers. Today's major media won't allow it. Guys like Springsteen can do it because they became famous first and bring in huge bucks.
+9 # Terrapin 2012-06-10 20:51
Bruce ... A Stand-Up AMERICA!
Worth more to the past PRESENT and Future of the United States of America than ALL the trash on this sorry political scene.
+3 # Montague 2012-06-10 21:58
The Boss sings that he'll take a gun and shoot bankers and the Guardian writer, overcome with sentimental gush for his hero, thinks it cool. He won't do it, but encouraging violence aint cool, is against all RSN stands for, and some demented fanboy could be inspired to stupid acts. Bruce and Bono and all the rich rockers who want to be one with the people could easily give away all but a couple million $ to good works and they'd still be way better off than most of the fans who support their music.
+3 # Valleyboy 2012-06-11 02:50
Rather than encouraging violence, Bruce is chanelling the spirit of a wild american working man, as described The Grapes of Wrath. This type of man sees the betrayal of society by the bankers and believes justice would be served simply and directly by taking his gun and shooting him.

I recommend you read the Grapes of Wrath. It's a fantastic book and so relevant to our time.
+3 # Valleyboy 2012-06-11 02:46
I was never a huge fan, but his new album just jumps out as the most important in at least a decade.

The song that first got me was "Death to my Hometown" (the best lyrics are in the last paragraph above). I heard on BBC 2 in Belfast while sitting in traffic in a rental car on Easter Friday. It grabbed me with it's thumping beat and wild fiddle riff. I've been describing it as a "stonking" song, to various puzzled responses!
The words are just so true.

The ghost of Tom Joad is the best song he's realised, if you haven't heard it, check it out.

Also the concert he did in Dublin with that massive folk band of his is incredible. Such a huge group of talented musicians and they knit together so well. He does American folk standards rather than his usual stuff. It's out on DVD and album.
+7 # PunksUndead 2012-06-11 08:45
I guess it all depends on what you are listening to. Punk and Hip-hop (not radio rap) have been putting out protest songs from the start and continue to do so today.
+2 # wrodwell 2012-06-11 08:47
Wow! "If I had me a gun, I'd find the bastards and shoot them on sight!" Hey, Bruce, they're not hard to find. As a Jersey Boy, you might not be too familiar with Manhattan but if you're serious, take the Path train from Jersey to NYC 's World Trade Center stop, then walk over to Broadway and down about 5 or 6 blocks to Wall Street. That'll get you into the right neighborhood; the rest is up to you.
+5 # lark3650 2012-06-11 08:51
Much can be achieved through the universal language of music...Pete Seger has been doing it for well as Peter, Paul and Mary and the late great Harry Chapin. Music brings people together.
0 # RICHARDKANEpa 2012-06-11 10:53
Springsteen came to Philadelphia at the same tour that he played at an Atlantic City casino with peace no where in the agenda. Though I was to late to get tickets, but looked hard to signs in the press and internet for peace feedback
-12 # Martintfre 2012-06-11 11:24
Another guy getting rich telln ya how miserable life is.
0 # Broger 2012-06-13 11:45
Another guy with uber-talent who could just ignore all the heart piercing misery, but instead sympathizes with us. I see the value there. What do you see?
0 # Montague 2012-06-11 11:56
Valleyboy, next time someone's charged with incitement to murder maybe their defence will be that they were only "channeling" the spirit of another person who believed it serves justice to kill. And by the way this is contrary to RSN nonviolence policy.
+3 # noitall 2012-06-11 12:28
Where are the promoters and backers that would call these people of will together to rally the numbers and coordinate enlightenment. There are so many stories going around and nothing REAL from the mainstream media. Citizens are ignorant of the deep shit they are in. A cheap concert featuring all those with a voice in the entertainment world would start the chatter and open eyes to the true condition. Perhaps true leaders would emerge. SOMETHING has to happen and it will only happen by the actions of the People; the govt. has no interest in changing the status quo.
+4 # Skippydelic 2012-06-11 23:28
The reasons that there's not a lot of 'protest music' today in the way that we had back in the 60's aren't all that hard to understand:

1) The Big Corporate Machine controls both the music business *and* radio; they're not going to *allow* anything that threatens their control! Springsteen gets away with it because he's been a 'superstar' for so long; regardless of his politics, he makes *money* for the record company, so they give him a bye...

2) We don't have The Draft today. Remember, back in the 60's, we didn't have the *volunteer* military that we do today; EVERY young man worried about being drafted and sent off to Vietnam! It wasn't a just war, and a *lot* of people questioned it; that grew into the anti-war movement, which bred the counter-culture , and the protest music was a part of the times! Today, our military is *all* volunteer, and if our young men and women get sent off to war, people just think, "They knew what they were signing up for". No questioning whether the current wars are just, or whether we should be sending our soldiers halfway around the world to fight.

Springsteen, of course, has the ability to wrap up his anger at the state of our country into anthems - think "Born In The USA" - that *totally* subvert peoples' understanding of what he's *really* singing about! A GREAT Artist, to be sure!!!
0 # BgCricket 2012-06-13 19:01
Wrodwell: Please relax...along with all of you who take Bruce as the man himself behind all these words.

Again and again, he has shown a literary tendency in how he presents his song...through story. Often there is a protagonist, that we shouldn't have to explain, is not Bruce himself. So many of his songs are stories. Do you really think Bruce himself is still waiting in the car, as Mary's dress sways? -Or is that a typical guy, with typical dreams of Mary?

In other songs, he narrates the anger that is out there, yes. But in doing so he channels it too.

Reagan very stupidly didn't get it, but his fans do. And last, we need to remember that he is successful enough that he doesn't have to do this. He could just relax and swim like so many other big guys do. Smoothing it all over.

It's clearly his choice to fight this fight. He's still in NJ, backing the effort,as he has been from the beginning. And probably he still sees a lot, between the information from his home neighborhood and from the vantage point of his wealthy status. When you get rich, you do see how it shakes. He's still in there, unlike many of the other big stars.

For sure he knows how it stacks up. Lucky, he hasn't moved on like other stars with similar knowledge. He's still there.

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