Bruce Springsteen’s new album Wrecking Ball opens with drums bearing down like a juggernaut, a hopeful guitar and piano refrain fluttering like a pennant, and rousing choruses of “We take care of our own, wherever this flag’s flown”, which the Boss delivers in the style of a man straining every sinew of his brawny body on some arduous task of manual labour.
This is Springsteen in his favourite guise: as New Jersey’s supreme blue-collar rocker, the voice of the American working man, backed by the rumbling urgency of the E Street Band. It’s the role with which he made his name in 1975, when his breakthrough album Born to Run landed him simultaneous cover stories in Time (“Rock’s New Sensation”) and Newsweek (“Making of a Rock Star”).
Born to Run told the stories of young men making feverish attempts to escape small towns and dead-end jobs (“And you’re just a prisoner of your dreams, holding on for your life ’cause you work all day”). Its epic sound conveyed the ennobling idea that workers in America’s factories, mines and steel mills weren’t just units on a production line but individuals with desires and aspirations.
This time, the focus has shifted – and grown bleaker. Wrecking Ball’s landscape is one in which there are no jobs, dead-end or otherwise. “Where’s the work that’ll set my hands, my soul free?” Springsteen asks in the opening song. If Born to Run was about the dignity of the worker, then Wrecking Ball is about the dignity of work itself – and the corresponding indignity of not being in work.
The timing is pointed: it’s Springsteen’s intervention, in US election year, in the national debate about high unemployment and the worst levels of social inequality since the Depression. The album inveighs against a Wall Street and Washington elite, which, in Springsteen’s eyes, has escaped scot-free from steering the US into the calamity of the financial crisis. “What was done to our country was wrong and unpatriotic and un-American, and nobody has been held to account,” he said at the album’s launch.
Stirring words – but who is listening? America’s manufacturing workforce has decreased by almost one-third since 1975. Is Springsteen’s blue collar grandstanding an anachronism?
“I don’t always love the stuff he does but this one took me back to when I first heard Born to Run. I rode around in the car and listened to it, like, five times,” says “Southside” Johnny Lyon, an old ally of Springsteen’s whose band, Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes, emerged in the 1970s from the same New Jersey working-class background.
Lyon, 63, comes from the coastal town Ocean Grove, where he still lives. Springsteen grew up in Freehold, 20 miles inland. Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes took their name from the nearby seaside resort Asbury Park, which also gave Springsteen the title of his first album, 1973’s Greetings from Asbury Park, NJ.
Lyon and his band played – still do – a similar type of bar-room rock as Springsteen at his most rambunctious. The Boss’s sideman Steven Van Zandt was a member of the Asbury Jukes before leaving to join the E Street Band. Springsteen wrote songs for them, such as the title track to their 1978 album Hearts of Stone, a gritty, stomping blend of Stax soul and rock and roll. Wags have called it the best album Springsteen never made.
Both Lyon and Springsteen cut their teeth on the New Jersey club circuit. “You’d play in a bar in Asbury Park and the people who’d come in, none of them were wealthy, they were all working class people, going out on a Friday or a Saturday night, and you had to provide that energy, you had to be honest with them. They didn’t want dilettantes, they wanted you to work,” Lyon remembers.
Musical influences were R&B and soul, the Rolling Stones, Van Morrison, Elmore James. In Springsteen’s case, there was folk too, Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan. The genesis of his famously committed performing style lay here, playing in New Jersey’s clubs and bars to people letting off steam after a week’s work. It was no-nonsense rock, played from the heart by hard-working bands, a weekend mirror image of blue collar toil: work as play. Not for nothing was one of Springsteen’s early bands called Steel Mill.
“It’s for people who want to let loose, they don’t want to sit there and contemplate the origin of the thing,” Lyon says. “For us growing up, if you didn’t keep people dancing, if you weren’t passionate that way, they’d go to the next band.” He growls approval at Wrecking Ball’s anti-banker, blue collar populism. “Yeah, that’s right, goddammit. If I was chief executive of Goldman Sachs I couldn’t sleep at night with my million dollar bonus knowing that 10 per cent of Americans are out of work.”
Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes were among a number of blue collar rockers who rose in the wake of Born to Run. Others included John “Cougar” Mellencamp and Bob Seger. The style – big guitars and drums, impassioned singing, strident anthems about ordinary folk – became known as “heartland rock”. It was an antidote to a general mood of uncertainty in the late 1970s, a time of economic decline whose effects Springsteen portrayed in 1978’s Darkness on the Edge of Town.
Heartland rock is an extravagantly American style of music, expansive and powerful. Yet in the hands of Springsteen in the 1970s and 1980s it was put to work lauding those in America who didn’t have power: workers in a deindustrialising economy, those being left behind. The style reached its apogee in 1984 with Born in the USA, Springsteen’s biggest-selling album. The title track was about a Vietnam veteran going off the rails, abandoned by his homeland. Yet its tub-thumping choruses – Springsteen bellowing, “I was born in the USA!” with patriotic fervour – dwarfed the more nuanced message the song wanted to transmit.
“It wouldn’t have sold 18m records if people had fully understood it,” says Eric Alterman, English and journalism professor, columnist for The Nation magazine and author of the Springsteen biography It Ain’t No Sin To Be Glad You’re Alive. One of those who chose to misunderstand “Born in the USA” was Ronald Reagan, who adopted the song for his “Morning in America” re-election campaign. Standing in front of the Statue of Liberty, he spoke of “the message of hope in the songs of a man so many young Americans admire: New Jersey’s own Bruce Springsteen.”
The endorsement bemused Springsteen. It was a sharp lesson in populist politics. For much of his career he refused to declare a party allegiance. The first politician he endorsed was Democrat John Kerry in 2004; the motive was disgust at the Bush administration’s misappropriation – in Springsteen’s view – of 9/11. He lent his weight to Barack Obama’s campaign, playing at Obama’s inauguration in 2009. But Wrecking Ball betrays frustration with establishment politics. Springsteen has said he will support Obama but won’t help with his re-election campaign.
Alterman likens Springsteen’s politics to those of an old-fashioned New Deal social democrat, an outlook formed, ironically, at a time “when that category was all but disappearing from America’s political discourse”.
“If you look at the Republican candidates, one thing they all agree on is that if you’re not a success in America it’s your own fault,” he says. “Whereas Springsteen is saying, ‘No, there are a lot of cards stacked against an awful lot of people,’ and that we need to have a sense of solidarity, a sense of the dignity of their stories. It’s a completely different view. In some ways it’s un-American, in some ways it’s the America of the New Deal.”
The Depression was an era of work songs, and on Wrecking Ball, Springsteen revives the work song for a new era – a new Depression. The album mixes different genres of music, from blue collar rock to gospel, Celtic folk and rap, as if casting them all as branches of the same working class vernacular.
Labour is portrayed as heroic: “I always loved the feel of sweat on my shirt,” he sings. The type of manual work that the characters in Born to Run found stultifying has now become, in Springsteen’s eyes, a cause for celebration. It’s a romantic vision of an America that has ceased to be.
‘Wrecking Ball’ is out on Monday (Tuesday in the US) on Columbia Records. Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes start a US tour in Chicago, tonight and will be in the UK in June. Eric Alterman’s ‘The Cause: The Fight for American Liberalism from Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama’ will be published by Viking in April