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Bruce, you ain't da boss of dis Garden Stater
By Jack Cashill
“I’ve gone to fifteen Bruce Springsteen concerts,” my long time best friend, a Newark, N.J. fire chief, told me the other day, “but I’ve gone to my last one.”
My friend was furious at Springsteen’s announced decision to launch a nine swing-state tour to help defeat George W. Bush. Having attended more 9-11 funerals than Springsteen concerts, he was not thrilled by the Boss’s call for a “more humane” foreign policy, let alone his plea for “economic justice.”
“The guy’s as bad as Michael Moore,” the fire chief added, ”just another fraud.”
I could not disagree. I just wondered why it had taken my friend so long to figure it out. The fact is that Bruce Springsteen has been posturing as the poet laureate of New Jersey’s working classes for the last thirty years with little knowledge of work, less understanding of class, and, most shockingly, no feel at all for the people of New Jersey.
I know something about the Garden State. I was born and raised there at the same time as the Boss was. Like my fire chief friend, I grew up in Newark, then arguably the roughest city in America, during a period of difficult and dangerous racial transition.
When I first heard the lyrics of Springsteen’s early theme song, Born to Run, I thought they were comical.
Freehold, the town Springsteen was running from, is exactly the kind of pleasant shore town that my friends and relatives were running to. Exiled from their homes in the sad, unsung Newark diaspora, they could afford nothing closer than the Shore, an hour away. And truth be told, Springsteen and his chums in this suburban car culture weren’t exactly running anywhere. At the same age, my friends and I were taking the bus.
As to actual work, according to Time Magazine, Springsteen labored for a few weeks at age 18 as a gardener. And that was it. By the early '70s, he had left his leafy “death trap” behind and was busily reinventing himself as a Dylanesque folk singer/songwriter in Greenwich Village.
Although the Village is only five Holland Tunnel minutes away from Jersey City, it might as well be five light years away. This radical enclave has held its collective nose up at New Jersey’s “bridge and tunnel trash” for a century. The only kind of politics a Jersey boy could absorb here are the kind that have informed Springsteen’s lyrics ever since—elitist, leftist, and out of touch. He sure as hell didn’t learn about “economic justice,” the progressive code word for socialism, at my exit on the Garden State Parkway.
Either by instinct or design, Springsteen buried his Village politics under the noisy energy of his rock and roll and the raw charm of his New Jersey persona. When his fans heard his pseudo-anthem “Born in the USA,” they didn’t hear—or didn’t pay much attention to--the lyrics that lead up to this refrain, like the following:
Or, even more pointedly:
Springsteen’s leftward drift culminated in an anachronistic bit of foolishness called The Ghost of Tom Joad. Joad was the protagonist of The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck’s sad saga of the Depression, an event that Springsteen tries to will back to life through his lyrics:
Happily for Springsteen, this 1995 folk album proved that silliness was no obstacle to winning the Grammy. The album may also have helped assuage the Boss’s conscience about the $14 million LA mansion in which he lived. Indeed, had he really been interested in “economic justice” and “civil rights,” as he boasts, he would have bought a $140,000 house in South Central for himself and another ninety-nine $140,000 houses for the neighborhood’s neediest families.
Springsteen showed just how far out of touch he was with his roots in June 2000 when he debuted “American Skin,” a song about the tragic police shooting of Amadou Diallo in New York. Although the police were pursuing a black rape suspect who had been attacking black women in a black neighborhood, and the shooting of this African immigrant was transparently accidental, the boss knew better.
If there were an injustice in this case, it was that four honest police officers were tried for murder largely to discredit Mayor Rudy Guliani and to thus advance Hillary Clinton’s senatorial bid. Springsteen may not have understood this, but his working class fans surely did. They were catching on to the Boss’s essential fraud.
“We don't need a millionaire coming down here and making money off our backs,” New York PBA President Patrick Lynch told a cheering crowd of police and supporters, “on a terrible, terrible tragedy.”
The president of the state chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police, Bob Lucente, summed up Springsteen’s seeming transition. “He has all these good songs and everything, American-flag songs and all that stuff, and now he’s a floating fag, and you can quote me on that." This statement cost Lucente his job, but one can rest assured that the World Socialist Web Site did not support Lucente’s right to free speech as it did noisily for Springsteen.
In the wake of September 11 th, Springsteen feinted at patriotism but not for long. Although he tells us that he “supported the decision to enter Afghanistan,” the president did not get the Boss’s approval to liberate Iraq. Thus by the Spring of 2003, Springsteen was calling for Bush’s impeachment. Now, he is working for the election of the Kerry-Edwards ticket despite the fact that both of those Senators also supported the liberation of Iraq.
Springsteen, however, does not speak for the Garden State. In the week I just spent at my family’s ancestral stomping grounds in the proudly working class Seaside Heights, I saw a thousand American flags and a hundred banners proclaiming support for our troops but not a single John Kerry bumper sticker.
The week climaxed with a family Irish-Italian-American luau in honor of my one cousin’s graduation from college and my other cousin’s imminent departure for Iraq. Steve, a police officer and Marine reservist, was honored to be serving. He had no regrets. His father, Mick, the same age as the Boss, was proud to send his son off.
For the record, Mick had lost both his alcoholic parents by the age of twelve. The last white kid in his Newark neighborhood, he took to the streets stealing cars. He spent ages 13-18 in New Jersey’s toughest reform school, married the cook’s daughter upon leaving, and then found economic justice the old fashioned way--with a sledge hammer in his hands and a dedicated wife by his side. Today, he has three great kids, two summer homes, a boat and a successful salvage business. And although Mick has only a sixth-grade education, he understands that to leave Saddam in power to murder and maraud could pass muster as a “humane foreign policy” only in Hollywood.
Talk to Mick before you write your next song, Boss.
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