He could have played the Kingdome in Seattle, thirty miles away, where the air is clear and the ambiance more upscale. But the smaller Tacoma Dome has better acoustics, and anyway, Springsteen — although he's something of an upscale guy himself these days — maintains a well-known interest in the embattled world of the working class. Tacoma, in its bilious way, was perfect.
He really was sick, though — white as a sheet when he took the stage and wiped out for sure when he left it four hours later. But he never let it show. He kicked off with a booming, boot-stomping "Born in the U.S.A." and then descended into several songs from his starkly brilliant Nebraska album, keeping the audience with him all the way. He's got his raps down on this tour, talking about "powerlessness" at one point and, at another, "blind faith — whether it's in your girlfriend or the government." "This is 1984," he tells the howling crowds, "and people seem to be searchin' for something."
In Tacoma, before counting off the haunting "My Hometown," he delivered an extended plug for a community-action group called Washington Fair Share, which recently helped force the clean-up of an illegal landfill and is working to overturn Governor John Spellman's veto of a "right to know" law that would require local industries to inform employees of all toxic chemicals they're being exposed to on the job. "They think that people should come before profit, and the community before the corporation," Bruce announced. And then added, pointedly, "This is your hometown."
This is world-class rock & roll, all right, but something more besides. And in 1984, Bruce Springsteen has become something decidedly more than just another rock star with an album to flog. He is a national presence, his charisma co-opted by as unlikely an adherent as Ronald Reagan — even as Springsteen himself pokes relentlessly through the withered and waterless cultural underbrush of the president's new American Eden. In pursuit of what can only be called his dream, Springsteen has been tenacious: dropping out of Ocean County College in his native New Jersey in 1968 to take his unlikely chances as a songwriting rock & roller and stubbornly waiting out a devastating, yearlong legal dispute with his then manager, Mike Appel, that prevented him from recording for nearly a year in the mid-Seventies. After selling 2 million copies of his 1980 double album, The River, he followed it up with Nebraska, a striking, guitar-and-voice meditation on various kinds of pain and craziness in the American hinterlands, and then followed that up with Born in the USA, which treats some of the same themes within a full-bore band context and has suddenly become his biggest album to date.
As the tour progressed, Springsteen sat down for interviews in Oakland, California — where he plugged the Berkeley Emergency Food Project — and in Los Angeles, where he maintains a house in the Hollywood Hills. Asked how he keeps his tightly structured stage show fresh down to the last mock-rambling anecdote, he said, "It's a matter of: Are you there at the moment? Are you living it?" It's a test he appears to pass both on and off the stage.
"Born in the U.S.A.," the title track of your current
album, is one of those rare records: a rousing rock & roll song
that also gives voice to the pain of forgotten people — in
this case, America's Vietnam veterans. How long have you been aware
of the Vietnam vets' experience?
I don't know if anybody could imagine what their particular experience is like. I don't think I could, you know? I think you had to live through it. But when you think about all the young men and women that died in Vietnam, and how many died since they've been back — surviving the war and coming back and not surviving — you have think that, at the time, the country took advantage of their selflessness. There was a moment when they were just really generous with their lives.
What was your own experience with
I didn't really have one. There wasn't any kind of political consciousness down in Freehold in the late Sixties. It was a small town, and the war just seemed very distant. I mean, I was aware of it through some friend that went. The drummer in my first band was killed in Vietnam. He kind of signed up and joined the marines. Bart Hanes was his name. He was one of those guys that was jokin' all the time, always playin' the clown. He came over one day and said, "Well, I enlisted. I'm goin' to Vietnam." I remember he said he didn't know where it was. And that was it. He left and didn't come back. And the guys that did come back were not the same.
How did you manage to escape the draft?
I got a 4-F. I had a brain concussion from a motorcycle accident when I was seventeen. Plus, I did the basic Sixties rag, you know: fillin' out the forms all crazy, not takin' the tests. When I was nineteen, I wasn't ready to be that generous with my life. I was called for induction, and when I got on the bus to go take my physical, I thought one thing: I ain't goin'. I had tried to go to college, and I didn't really fit in. I went to a real narrow-minded school where people gave me a lot of trouble and I was hounded off the campus — I just looked different and acted different, so I left school. And I remember bein' on that bus, me and a couple of guys in my band, and the rest of the bus was probably sixty, seventy percent black guys from Asbury Park. And I remember thinkin', like, what makes my life, or my friends lives, more expendable than that of somebody who's goin' to school? It didn't seem right. And it was funny, because my father, he was in World War II, and he was the type that was always sayin', "Wait till the army gets you. Man, they're gonna get that hair off of you. I can't wait. They gonna make a man outta you." We were really goin' at each other in those days. And I remember I was gone for three days, and when I came back, I went in the kitchen, and my folks were there, and they said, "Where you been?" And I said, "Well, I had to go take my physical." And they said, "What happened?" And I said, "Well, they didn't take me." And my father sat there, and he didn't look at me, he just looked straight ahead. And he said, "That's god." It was, uh...I'll never forget that. I'll never forget that.
Ironic, then, that today you're the toast of the
political right, with conservative columnist George Will lauding
your recent Washington D.C. concert and President Reagan invoking
your name while campaigning in your home state, New
I think what's happening now is people want to forget. There was Vietnam, there was Watergate, there was Iran — we were beaten, we were hustled, and then we were humiliated. And I think people got a need to feel good about the country they live in. But what's happening, I think, is that need — which is a good thing — is getting' manipulated and exploited. And you see the Reagan reelection ads on TV — you know: "It's morning in America." And you say, well, it's not morning in Pittsburgh. It's not morning about 125th Street in New York. It's midnight, and, like, there's a bad moon risin'. And that's why when Reagan mentioned my name in New Jersey, I felt it was another manipulation, and I had to disassociate myself from the president's kind words.