World Tour Ends : Springsteen: The Power of Idealism

Times Pop Music Critic

When Bruce Springsteen takes the stage tonight for the first of four concerts at Los Angeles' Memorial Coliseum, it will mark the end of a 15-month world tour that has seen the rock singer and songwriter evolve into a socio-cultural influence unmatched in pop music since Bob Dylan and the Beatles more than two decades ago.

Springsteen has become such a powerful blue-collar symbol of American idealism that President Reagan and Democratic candidate Walter F. Mondale each tried to imply during the 1984 campaign that Springsteen was on his side.

He rejected both attempts, choosing instead to urge his audiences to live up to the responsibilities of citizenship by getting involved with grass-roots organizations, such as local food banks, and by studying the issues.

The Positive Side

At a time when rock music is being attacked as a corrupting influence on young people, the 36-year-old Springsteen represents the positive side of the music, exhibiting a deep-rooted love of country. His music is in no way simple flag-waving, however. Many of his best songs speak eloquently to the way American society--through governmental indifference or commercial greed--has robbed people of their aspirations.

Springsteen is not just an American phenomenon. His current "Born in the U.S.A." album has sold more than 14 million copies internationally. More than 1 million ticket orders were received for his recent London shows.

Springsteen's current tour is believed to be the biggest in pop music history. He will have been seen by an estimated 5 million people by the time he leaves the Coliseum stage Wednesday night.

Springsteen's impact on popular culture goes far beyond just gate receipts. He has become a leading symbol of the country's idealism for a wide cross section of Americans.

'People Do Have Faith'

"For years, it was hard for people to find a rock star that you could believe in any more, but people do have faith in him," said Bill Graham, a San Francisco-based concert promoter who has presented hundreds of rock acts over the last 18 years.

"It's like he stands for everything we were taught to believe about hard work and integrity in this country."

After seeing Springsteen in concert last month, Jack Newfield, a liberal columnist for New York's Village Voice, likened Springsteen's populist stance to the "early novels of John Steinbeck." He added that Springsteen has once more given patriotism a good name.

Even conservative columnist George F. Will, who acknowledges that he is no fan of rock music, points to Springsteen as a national role model.

After attending a Springsteen concert, Will wrote: "If all Americans--in labor and management, who make steel or cars or shoes or textiles--made their products with as much energy and confidence as Springsteen . . . make(s) music, there would be no need for Congress to be thinking about protectionism."

Many Springsteen fans criticized Will's remarks as superficial because they did not note Springsteen's disenchantment with various aspects of public policy. Still, it is easy to understand Will's enthusiasm, and why ticket brokers are able to command as much as $500 for choice $17.50 seats for the Los Angeles shows.

Energy, Commentary

Both on record and during his four-hour performances, Springsteen combines in his music the festive energy of Elvis Presley's early work with the thoughtful, literary-bent social commentary of Bob Dylan's prized mid-1960s albums like "Highway 61 Revisited" and "Bringing It All Back Home."

Although Springsteen's mid-1970s songs were fueled with a rock-as-inspiration vision that celebrated the pursuit of the American Dream, his more recent work has concentrated increasingly on what he sees as the tarnishing of that dream.

His 1982 album "Nebraska" was an especially stark examination of the despair in the level of society that is cut off from opportunities and hopes. He spoke in that album and others about such varied matters as Vietnam veterans returning home to indifference, people humbled by unemployment and those who feel isolated from their government and families.

In "Johnny 99," a song from the "Nebraska" album that he has sung on most stops of this long tour, Springsteen paints a chilling portrait of a man pushed so far that he strikes back savagely. As the songwriter often does, he writes in the language of his characters:

Now judge I got debts no honest man could pay/ The bank was holding my mortgage and was takin' my house away/ Now, I ain't saying that makes me an innocent man/ But it was more 'n all this/ That put that gun in my hand.

Although the message of that album was cheered by the older, long-standing Springsteen fans, it had little effect on rock's traditional video-conscious, teen-age audience. With his next album, "Born in the U.S.A.," (1984) Springsteen set out to attract that wider audience by making the music brighter and more accessible.

Breakdown in Values

The words, however, remain as gripping. "My Hometown," another key number on this tour, tells about a couple in their mid-30s realizing that shifting economic conditions are forcing them to move on, cutting them loose from the sense of community they have known since children. It is a reference to the larger breakdown in American values and traditions that Springsteen notes in many of his songs.

Despite these bleak messages, Springsteen injects his albums and concerts with an optimism and faith. In "No Surrender," a song from the latest album, he proclaims:

We made a promise we swore we'd always remember/ No retreat/ No surrender.

This combination of thoughtful message, uplifting spirit and flavorful music has given Springsteen an unusually wide demographic appeal. His fans range from teen-agers, drawn by his muscularity, good looks and catchy hit singles, to middle-aged, more intellectually oriented fans who might once have listened to Dylan. Like most white rock stars, however, Springsteen has not developed a sizable black following.

Springsteen was viewed as such a powerful symbol that during the presidential campaign, Reagan and Mondale each tried to imply that the New Jersey-born rock star was on his side.

In a Sept. 18, 1984, speech at Hammonton, N.J., Reagan invoked the name and message of Springsteen in suggesting that the two men have similar optimistic views of America.

'A Thousand Dreams'

"America's future rests in a thousand dreams inside your hearts," Reagan said. "It rests in the message of hope in songs of a man so many young American's admire: New Jersey's own Bruce Springsteen. And helping you make those dreams come true is what this job of mine is all about."

Springsteen quickly disassociated himself from Reagan's comments, and during his next concert he speculated sarcastically about which of his albums was the President's favorite. He said he was sure it was not "Nebraska," the brooding 1982 portrait of alienated and victimized Americans.

When Democrats tried to turn that rejection into an endorsement for Mondale, Springsteen instructed aides to deny the suggestion. He did, however, begin exploring a personal form of grass-roots activism.

At concerts, he used song introductions to urge audiences to live up to the responsibilities of citizenship. He also began endorsing food bank programs in various cities and made personal donations to the food supply groups, usually $10,000 to $25,000. Those donations are believed to total $1 million.

As his popularity has increased in recent months, Springsteen has become even more outspoken on stage in his statements about the tarnished edges of the American dream.

'Promise Is Eroding'

Introducing an acoustic version of Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land" last week at the Oakland Coliseum Stadium, Springsteen told 50,000 fans: "What is so great (about this song) is that it gets right to the heart of the promise of what this country is supposed to be about.

"As we stand here tonight (however), that promise is eroding every day for many of our fellow citizens. If you talked to the steelworkers, I don't think they'd believe this song is true any more. . . . I don't know if it is."

Springsteen began playing in clubs around his native Freehold, N.J., while still in his teens and later released two albums on the Columbia label. It was not until his third album, "Born to Run" in 1975, that he attracted a wide audience. He emerged with such artistry and promise in that album, however, that both Time and Newsweek did cover stories on him the same week in 1975.

Even with that acclaim, Springsteen did not achieve a Top 10 single until 1980, when "Hungry Heart," a good-natured sing-along about needing companionship, reached No. 5 on the national charts.

Despite having an intensely loyal following that enabled him to be a strong concert draw, Springsteen did not join the ranks of the industry's superstars until "Born in the U.S.A." Things have moved so fast for him since then, however, that Newsweek, on Aug. 5, did a second cover story on Springsteen.

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