The Observer Profile: Bruce Springsteen

For 35 years, Bruce Springsteen has been the authentic, poetic voice of the blue-collar States, a liberal courted by all shades of politician to endorse their campaigns. As the latest presidential campaign nears its end, he has now cast his vote

Bruce Springsteen has never taken lightly his position as the prince of blue-collar America. For many years, he avoided passing comment on subjects that could divide the nation's heartland. 'I don't like the soapbox stuff,' he said some years back. 'I don't believe you can tell people anything.'

But last week, he decided to tell his large fan base that he was supporting Barack Obama in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, offering a statement on his official website. 'Senator Obama, in my view, is head and shoulders above the rest,' he said. 'He has the depth, the reflectiveness and the resilience to be our next President. He speaks to the America I've envisioned in my music for the past 35 years.'

Coming as it did, just days before the Pennsylvania primary on Tuesday, it was a timely and significant intervention. Polls suggest Senator Obama has been losing working-class support since he was quoted as saying that embittered small-town America clings to guns and religion. In a very tight campaign, Springsteen's support could be influential in bringing blue-collar voters back into the Obama camp.

One of the most successful music acts in history, Springsteen has a long history of political involvement. But for many years, it was restricted to issues that, while overtly liberal, were non-party political - the boycott of apartheid South Africa, support for non-nuclear power and international human rights. What's more, most of this activity took the shape of benefit gigs and records.

In the Eighties, at the height of his fame, he rebuffed the Democratic candidate Walter Mondale's efforts to gain his endorsement when Mondale was running against Ronald Reagan. Springsteen, though no supporter of Reagan, preferred to remain aloof from the mudslinging business of electoral politics.

That all changed four years ago when, frustrated and angry with the Bush administration, he took part in the Vote for Change set up with the express purpose of mobilising people to vote against Bush. He even appeared at John Kerry rallies singing his composition that Kerry adopted for his campaign, 'No Surrender'. However, it might say something about the limits of even Springsteen's popularity that, in the event, Kerry lost.

Though Springsteen received some flak, he emerged characteristically unscathed. Too careful in his pronouncements to suffer the obloquy that, for example, the Dixie Chicks received after they made anti-war and anti-Bush comments, Springsteen's message none the less was and remains very similar to that of the female Texas singers.

Last year, Springsteen performed on The Today Show in America and introduced his song, 'Living in the Future', with an attack on 'rendition', 'illegal wiretapping' and 'voter suppression'. The mood has shifted in America, but in any case no one was ever going to call the Boss a Hollywood phoney, much less mount a boycott of his music.

Thirty five years after he staked out his distinctive corner of the American imagination with Greetings From Asbury Park, Springsteen continues to be a byword for authenticity in an industry not overburdened with the stuff. Few stars have managed to achieve global acclaim and extraordinary wealth (he's sold more than 65 million albums in the US alone) while retaining an image of down-to-earth integrity.

But Springsteen has done just that and he's done it, to a large extent, by creating his own mythology. His music and lyrics have produced a coherent fictional world of broken dreamers chasing a promised land that is tragically out of reach. Utilising his keen eye for cinematic imagery - two-lane highways in the middle of the night, screen doors slamming, rusting industrial landscapes - he has transformed cliches into vivid snapshots and almost singlehandedly reassembled modern Americana.

In his live performances, epic communions with worshipful fans, he brings a wholeheartedness to the proceedings that is unmistakably genuine - and as professional as it is passionate.

As he told David Hepworth, director of the Word magazine: 'You have a duty to be living in the moment when 8 o'clock comes around.' Springsteen's gift has been to inhabit the moment in such a ways as to allow those watching to believe they live in Bruce's world. It's an illusion, perhaps, but an honest one.

And somewhere in the middle of it all is the beating heart of his own story. He grew up in Freehold, one of the forlorn towns in which New Jersey seems to specialise, the son of a bus driver and a legal secretary. He didn't fit in at school and was a regular truant, then quickly dropped out of college. His relationship with his father, a man who seems to have personified small-town disappointment, was often tense and difficult.

Springsteen paid joking homage to his late father when he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. 'I've gotta thank him,' he said in his acceptance speech, 'because what would I conceivably have written about without him? You can imagine that if everything had gone great between us, we would have had a disaster.' But on another, more reflective, occasion, he said of his father: 'I've always felt like I'm seeking his revenge.'

It was watching Elvis Presley on The Ed Sullivan Show that the young Springsteen suddenly encountered both liberation from and affirmation of his surroundings. Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis and Hank Williams, he later said, 'told the story of the secret America'.

It was this America, containing the lost and the forgotten, in which Springsteen felt at home. 'He's the original nine-stone weakling nobody took any notice of,' says Hepworth. 'He is his own greatest invention and he has great respect for that.'

His parents moved to California when he was still a teenager, but Springsteen remained in New Jersey, launching himself as a musician in various bands. The move from playing small clubs on the eastern seaboard to filling sports stadiums around the planet has become justly celebrated. He started out with guitarist Steve Van Zandt (who went on to enjoy a second career as an actor in The Sopranos) and keyboard player Danny Federici, who died last week from cancer. The three of them would play together for 40 years.

In 1972, John Hammond, the Columbia Records A&R man who signed Bob Dylan, took Springsteen on. Two years later, critic Jon Landau saw Springsteen perform and wrote: 'I saw rock'n'roll future and its name is Bruce Springsteen.'

Landau would go on to co-produce Born to Run, Springsteen's third and breakthrough album. Three bestselling albums later, Springsteen released Born in the USA, the pinnacle of his commercial career. It coincided with the high-water mark of the Reagan presidency - indeed, the Republicans attempted to appropriate the title track - and, as a consequence, Springsteen's protest songs were misconstrued as a crude celebration of American patriotism.

By now the nine-stone weakling was pumped up with bulging biceps and bulging record sales and he looked, on the surface, the embodiment of the American dream that the characters in his songs only glimpse from afar. And if that wasn't enough, the following year, 1985, he married model/actress Julianne Phillips. He could have been stranded on Planet Celebrity. Instead, his marriage broke up, he took up with his backing singer, Patti Scialfa, whom he married in 1991 (they have two boys and a girl) and he withdrew from the frontline of fame. He moved to California and his most notable album in the Nineties was the spare and solemn The Ghost of Tom Joad. It wasn't until after the events of 9/11 that Springsteen returned to the centre stage of the American drama.

Relocated back on the east coast, living on a farm 15 minutes from Freehold, he released The Rising in 2002. It championed the firefighters who died at the World Trade Centre and sought to draw something of value and dignity from the debris. Patriotic without being bombastic or sentimental, it was his most successful album for more than a decade.

As with many Americans, it was the Iraq war that brought an end to this vision of national unity. 'You don't take your country into a major war on circumstantial evidence,' he said on US television. The war made Springsteen a partisan in the 2004 election. But both Hillary Clinton and Obama say they will withdraw the troops from Iraq, so why has he taken sides now?

'You can be sure he's thought a lot about it,' says Hepworth. 'He's a very serious individual. And he has an agenda.'

Perhaps he sees in Obama someone not unlike himself, a man who can talk without irony of dreams and visions, someone who's come from an unpromising start to pursue what Springsteen calls America's 'collective destiny', someone, in short, who has created himself out of the bones of his contentions. Or perhaps he couldn't leave his brother alone like this, on the streets of Philadelphia.

The Springsteen lowdown

Born 23 September 1949, New Jersey.

Best of times In 1975, when Born to Run was released, Springsteen appeared on the covers of Time and Newsweek in the same week. In 1984, Born in the USA sold 15 million copies in the States alone and went on to become one of the bestselling albums of all time. He has been married to Patti Scialfi, with whom he has three children, for 17 years.

Worst of times A legal battle with his former manager kept him out of the studio for a couple of years up to 1977. His first marriage - to Julianne Phillips - only lasted for three years. They filed for divorce in 1988.

What he says 'The best music is essentially there to provide you something to face the world with.'

'I think that your entire life is a process of sorting out some of those early messages that you got.'

'Blind faith in your leaders, or in anything, will get you killed.'

What they say 'It's not eternal youth he symbolises so much as a version of middle age that you wouldn't be afraid to look at in the mirror.' New York magazine

'You can always trust what you hear on a Bruce Springsteen song.' New York Times

'He is a rock'n'roll, working-class hero, a plain-spoken visionary.' Rolling Stone


Andrew Anthony

The GuardianTramp

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