The Ones Who Had A Notion

“I don’t know what you guys think about what happened last night, but I think it’s pretty frightening…”

It’s 1980 and Ronald Reagan has just won his first presidency. Bruce Springsteen is playing a show in Tempe, AZ. He’s only just begun using his music to explore the political and cultural climate of his times; “The River,” the title cut from his latest album, is more preoccupied with the story of its drained lovers than it is with the forces that brought the pair to their knees. Their circumstances merit a single line: “Lately there ain’t been much work/on account of the economy.”

So this is a little unexpected, this sudden flash of awareness, as is the anger with which it’s delivered. Since that night, of course, Springsteen has become synonymous with a specific (if occasionally broad) political viewpoint, a form of liberalism that’s more FDR than Obama, even if he supported the latter in recent elections. And for fans, that specific moment on that particular night is a signpost in Springsteen’s legend, a loose thread that he would continue to pull until the rock star mythology he was building would deconstruct itself around him, even as he was finding greater and greater success around the globe.

What caught me off guard hearing this moment again was the audience reaction. It’s easy in hindsight to fit these copule of sentences into the larger narrative of Springsteen’s career. But at the time, in that moment…what did the faithful expect from their Boss? The greatest party act of all time, three-plus hours of sweat and blood and soul, a keen observational eye for the details that can build and break a heart…but political commentary?

Depending on the recording, the audience response is a bit different–Springsteen’s own official release (YouTubed above) indicates a pretty immediate warm response, like he’s preaching to the choir. I have a bootleg of the same show, and it’s more of a mixed vibe, loud but maybe not totally comprehending. There’s cheering, for sure, but also a few boos.

That reaction–more incredulous than supportive–throws the moment into new, sharp relief. It sketches a broad portrait of these fans as willing participants in Reagan’s own mythology, a pageant of convenient lies that would insure the rich got richer and the poor got fucked. They don’t sound like they appreciate their favorite rocker coming out against their shiny new president; they just woke up to morning in America, and here’s Bruce trickling down warm piss on their legs. They didn’t spend ten bucks on a ticket for politics.

Bruce doesn’t belabor the moment, as he would during later tours; during Magic shows, a single stab of sharp invecitve was replaced by a litany of political injustices recited off a teleprompter at the foot of the stage. In 1980, he tears into “Badlands” and lets his music speak for him.

There’s almost a Dylan-goes-electric “Judas” quality to the moment. It’s one of those instances where an artist you thought was one thing suddenly transforms into something completely different, and those in attendance have no choice but to react. For his part, Springsteen doesn’t draw a line in the sand between himself and the audience.

Instead, he leaves it to us to determine our own reactions. He takes the boos, and the cheers, and he speaks his mind and plays his music. He knows that blind faith in rock stars, or anything, will get you killed.