How Ronald Reagan Ignited Bruce Springsteen's Politics
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Excerpted from "Bruce Springsteen and the Promise of Rock ‘n’ Roll" by Marc Dolan. Copyright © 2012 by Marc Dolan. With the permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.
In the same week that “The River” hit No. 1, in a seemingly unrelated event, Gov. Ronald Reagan of California was elected the 40th president of the United States, garnering a whopping 489 Electoral College votes, while incumbent Jimmy Carter received a mere 49. During the last days of the campaign, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band were on tour, of course, still promoting the month-old “River,” but they had election night off. The next night, on November 5, they played a concert at Arizona State University in Tempe that was virtually identical to the one they had played in Los Angeles the previous Thursday — except that it was longer. “All you guys in the aisle find your seats, OK?” Bruce announced three songs in. “There’s gonna be a real long show.”
That night Springsteen rambled, more than usual. Before the postindustrial triptych of “Independence Day,” “Factory” and “Jackson Cage” midway through the first set, he began a long monologue, although not about his father, whom he frequently talked about before “Factory.” Instead, Springsteen used this opportunity to talk about his love of pop music, about what it had meant to him growing up. Spontaneously, falteringly, he offered the most coherent argument he would ever make for the essential unity of the two distinct compositional strains that had flowed into “The River,” its idealistic and pessimistic “hearts”:
I never did good in school, never did good, and they always figured that if you’re not smart in school, it’s because you’re dumb. But I always felt that I never really learned anything, or learned anything that was important to me, till I started listening to the radio back in the early ’60s. And it seemed that the stuff that I was hearing off the radio in all those great songs was stuff that if they knew how, they’d be trying to teach you in school … but they just didn’t know how to. They always talked to your head, they could never figure out how to talk to your heart, you know. And it seems that, like all those singers and all those groups, there’s one thing that they just knew: what it was about. And when I started listening, I found out that the first time … that, instead of the fantasies that you have when you’re a little kid, I had dreams now and that they were different, it was different, and that if that was possible, that I didn’t have to live my life the way that I was, that things could be better. If you just go out, take a chance, find out what’s going on …
It was only toward the end of the first set in Tempe that Springsteen finally addressed the election. “I don’t know what you guys think about what happened last night,” he said as a transition between “The River” and “Badlands,” “but I think it’s pretty frightening. You guys are young, there’s gonna be a lot of people depending on you coming up, so this is for you.” When you listen to recordings of this concert, during this speech you hear scattered cheers from the crowd, but nowhere near as strong as when Springsteen actually started the next song.
Springsteen’s comments before “Badlands” in Tempe that night were virtually the first recorded statement he ever made about politics. At the MUSE concerts a year earlier, he was practically the most apolitical performer on the stage. He had played a small acoustic benefit for George McGovern’s campaign at the Red Bank Drive-In in 1972, but there is no other record of his ever endorsing a political candidate up to this point, or even expressing displeasure with one as he did in the wake of Reagan’s election. In subsequent interviews, he would admit that he had maybe voted once, but no more than that. Like the draft or Kent State, politics was something that happened outside of his life, to his life, while he was trying to make his dreams come true. And he was obviously not the only American who viewed politics that way, especially not in the fall of 1980. Ronald Reagan’s victory, much closer in the popular vote than in the Electoral College, reflected the will of about a quarter of the electorate; only a little more than half of those eligible to vote had done so that year. Like Bruce Springsteen, many other Americans at that point in our history were essentially apolitical.