The laptop video is shaky, and I've seen the song performed a dozen times—so my tears catch me by surprise. When Bruce Springsteen wrote "Badlands" more than 30 years ago, he said he was inspired by the "everyday kind of heroism" of family and friends he saw struggling to eke out a living in the decaying, blue-collar, north-central New Jersey neighborhoods where his father worked as a bus driver. Today, in the wake of the financial meltdown, Springsteen's badlands have a longer reach. The middle-of-the-night fears the lyrics describe mirror the experiences of many of us now.
But "Badlands" is an anthem, not a dirge. Its bitter observations are buoyed by ringing guitars. Sitting in my Los Angeles apartment, I watch the vast, multigenerational crowd on the computer screen shout the chorus as Springsteen performs in April in San Jose. Their excitement grabs me and pulls me in. My tears are happy ones. Hope, the song insists, is possible. Change can come.
This September, Springsteen will turn 60. In the months before his birthday, he will have traveled across America and Europe, putting on more than 50 concerts. At every one he will play several roles—hero, leader, preacher, rebel—the performances unfolding like a novel. His audiences will hold up homemade signs naming rare B sides and rock classics, and he and the band will play them from memory. He will ask fans to "remember your neighbors," and food-bank reps will traverse the crowds in search of donations.
By writing about his roots, he moved from seedy shore-town gigs to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. His first hero was Elvis, yet the songs—such as "It's Hard to Be a Saint in the City"—that won him a recording contract were full of religious imagery. The first time I heard one of those songs, the pounding drums and urgent voice thrilled me. "For You," released in 1973, was about a girl who threatened suicide. I was in my mid-20s, and what struck me was the singer's understanding of the dangerous glamour of self-destructive behavior. Jimi and Janis were dead, but there was Springsteen, holding out the possibility that rock 'n' roll and I could grow up together.
"Thunder Road," released in '75, suggested "maybe we ain't that young anymore." Springsteen had just turned 26, but he was already reaching beyond rock's traditional trust-no-one-over-30 audience. Over the years the guitars would still ring and the live shows rock, but Springsteen's audiences were pushed to think, too—and later, to act.
When Springsteen read Vietnam vet Ron Kovic's memoir Born on the Fourth of July, it inspired an L.A. benefit concert as well as the 1984 hit "Born in the U.S.A." Its verses are an angry commentary on the treatment of returning vets, but many listeners—including Ronald Reagan—mistook the title for an upbeat slogan. Springsteen later expressed resentment for people who attributed to their own party "anything and everything that seemed fundamentally American, and if you were on the other side, you were somehow unpatriotic." His own "American music," he said, was written "about the place I live and who I am in my lifetime."
But who is he? Songs from his current tour have him adopting the voice of a carpenter, a murderer, a laid-off steelworker. He finds in his own experiences enough parallels to sing with conviction. In inviting audiences to connect with his characters, he's inviting them to connect with themselves.
My friend Steve saw Springsteen perform in Los Angeles in April. He and his wife arrived early to get a number for the general-seating lottery. Because they're grownups and getting loaded in a parking lot no longer appeals, they visited a nearby museum. Their lottery number yielded seats in the third row—a Bucket List moment, Steve said. They were close enough to Springsteen to see streams of sweat "pour off his hands." We feed off his energy, he said, and in turn become energized. Suddenly we can dance all night—or even change the world.
Ariel Swartley wrote The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle for the essay collection Stranded: Rock and Roll for a Desert Island (Da Capo Press, 2007).