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June 13, 2019updated 29 Jul 2021 10:23am

What do the songs of Bruce Springsteen tell us about the American city?

By Andy Walton

In cities across the world, Bruce Springsteen remains a huge attraction. His concerts pack stadia – last time he toured the globe, in 2016, he outstripped Beyoncé, Coldplay, Adele and the rest to be the year’s top grossing artist.

His live shows are legendary. What, though, about the influence that cities and towns themselves have had on his music? With his new record Western Stars out this week, let’s look at the urban landscapes that shaped the Boss and his songs.

Springsteen was brought up in small town New Jersey and bounced back and forth to California in search of success. His first couple of records contained hints of his urban influence.

1973’s Greeting’s From Asbury Park, N.J. left fans in no doubt where he was coming from. Containing a track which sounds more like a question you might ask City Mapper (Does This But Stop At 82nd Street?) one of the standouts was It’s Hard To Be A Saint In The City. Springsteen recounts a stifling day on New York’s public transport: “It’s too hot in these tunnels, you can get hit up by the heat/You get up to get out at your next stop but they push you back down in your seat/Your heart starts beatin’ faster as you struggle to your feet/And you’re out of that hole, back up on the street.”

His 1975 third album, the breakthrough Born To Run, began to showcase the key theme of his early career – getting out of provincial backwater towns and searching for salvation on the road. In Thunder Road, (“this is what I feel like inside,” said Nick Hornby about it), Springsteen croons, “It’s a town full of losers, I’m pulling out of here to win.” Born To Run itself spells it out even more clearly: “Whoah baby, this town rips the bones from your back, it’s a death trap/It’s a suicide rap, we gotta get out while we’re young/’Cause tramps like us, baby we were born to run.”

He further explores the frustration of small town life on arguably his best record, 1978’s Darkness On The Edge Of Town – naming his career-long fascination with the liminal spaces at the periphery of the urban and rural. By the time of 1980’s The River, he’s yearning for nearby New York without yet naming it. “Well look over yonder see them city lights,” he sings on Ramrod.

1982’s Nebraska moves the scene to the great plain states, with the title track telling a tale of murder. “From the town of Lincoln, Nebraska/With a sawed off .410 on my lap/Through to the badlands of Wyoming/I killed everything in my path.”

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He swings back to the East Coast for his most complete vision of a single city: “I bought us two tickets on that Coast City bus… Put your makeup on, fix your hair up pretty/And meet me tonight in Atlantic City.”

If Nebraska is Springsteen’s mid-period highpoint, Born In The USA is his best-known record from the time. The title track itself was laughably misunderstood by Ronald Reagan who used it in his 1984 re-election campaign, oblivious to its searing attack on the country’s failure to help Vietnam veterans. It starts with a withering assessment of where small town America had got to: “Born down in a dead man’s town…”

Springsteen was becoming a major chronicler of the American economic shift under Reagan. His biggest statement yet was My Hometown, which encapsulated the decline in heartland towns. “Now Main Street’s whitewashed windows and vacant stores/Seems like there ain’t nobody wants to come down here no more/They’re closing down the textile mill across the railroad tracks/Foreman says these jobs are going boys and they ain’t coming back/To your hometown.”

By 1992, one of the biggest stars in the world, divorced and living in California, Springsteen makes no bones of his dissatisfaction. 57 Channels And Nothin’ On, from Human Touch, lays it out clearly: “I bought a bourgeois house in the Hollywood hills/With a truckload of hundred thousand dollar bills.” Released the same day, another album, Lucky Town, saw him drifting. Streets Of Philadelphia also came out around this time, accompanying the groundbreaking film about HIV/AIDS.

By 1995 Springsteen made clear a link long evident in his work. While John Steinbeck was the chronicler of the Great Depression, Springsteen’s homage, The Ghost Of Tom Joad told tales of migrants seeking a living in the NAFTA era. “Families sleeping in their cars in the southwest/No home, no job, no peace, no rest,” he sang on the title track. Youngstown made the case clearer. “From the Monongahela valley to the Mesabi iron range/To the coal mines of Appalachia, the story’s always the same/Seven hundred tons of metal a day, now sir you tell me the world’s changed/Once I made you rich enough, rich enough to forget my name.”
In the midst of Bill Clinton’s boom, Springsteen disappeared. It took a dramatic assault on one of his most cherished cities to wake him from slumber. 2002’s The Rising was his stirring, heartfelt love letter to New York City. On Empty Sky, he recounts the aftermath of the attacks. “Blood on the streets, blood flowing down,” before looking to the site of the former World Trade Centre, “I hear the blood of my blood crying from the ground/Empty sky, empty sky, I woke up this morning to the empty sky.”

A song written a few years earlier, about economic devastation in the Rust Belt was repurposed as an elegy for the twin towers, My City Of Ruins. “The boarded up windows, the empty streets/While my brother’s down on his knees/My city of ruins.”

Springsteen, re-energised, hit the road with The E Street Band for the first time in years. With George W Bush in power, he was politicised more than ever in opposition to the Iraq War. 2007’s Magic saw him rail against the calamitous conflict, asking who would be the Last To Die. “The sun sets in flames as the city burns/Another day gone down as the night turns/And I hold you here in my heart/As things fall apart… Who’ll be the last to die for a mistake?/Darling your tyrants and kings fall to the same fate/Strung up at your city gates/And you’re the last to die for a mistake.”

He also began to grapple with the economic calamity just around the corner. On Radio Nowhere he painted a bleak picture. “I was trying to find my way home/But all I heard was a drone/Bouncing off a satellite/Crushing the last lone American night. This is radio nowhere, is there anybody alive out there?”

By 2012, wry observation had turned to fury. Wrecking Ball summarised his late-period anger at the betrayal of those small communities he’d once seemed so keen to escape. Death To My Hometown is damning. “Well, no cannonballs did fly, no rifles cut us down/No bombs fell from the sky, no blood soaked the ground… But just as sure as the hand of God/They brought death to my hometown, boys… They destroyed our families, factories, and they took our homes/They left our bodies on the plains, the vultures picked our bones.”

The title track picked up the theme. “Now when all this steel and these stories, they drift away to rust,” he sang, “And all our youth and beauty, it’s been given to the dust/When the game has been decided and we’re burning down the clock/And all our little victories and glories have turned into parking lots… Bring on your wrecking ball.”

Returning to his immigrant tails, Springsteen pre-figured Trumpian attacks on those from beyond American shores. “I docked at Ellis Island in the city of light and spire/I wandered to the valley of red-hot steel and fire,” he sings on American Land. “We made the steel that built the cities with the sweat of our two hands/We made our home in the American land… They died building the railroads, they worked to bones and skin/They died in the fields and factories, names scattered in the wind/They died to get here a hundred years ago, they’re still dying now/Their hands that built the country we’re always trying to keep out.”

His social conscience re-fired, Springsteen’s 2014 record High Hopes resurrected an old track he’d written about the killing of a black boy by police. It had never been more topical. American Skin (41 Shots) became a rallying cry amid the Black Lives Matter moment – showing Springsteen hadn’t lost touch with issues affecting urban communities: “Is it a gun? Is it a knife? Is it a wallet? This is your life/It ain’t no secret, no secret my friend/You can get killed just for living in your American skin.”

Which brings us to 2019 and the release of Bruce Springsteen’s 19th studio album. Western Stars is full of the wide-open skies of the American continent.  Examining smaller US cities, The Boss visits Arizona for Tucson Train. “I come here looking for a new life/One I wouldn’t have to explain… If I could just turn off my brain/Now my baby’s coming in on the Tucson train.” Meanwhile, he hits the South on Somewhere North Of Nashville.

Often misunderstood as jingoistic and two dimensional, Bruce Springsteen is actually a chameleon, constantly inspired by his horizons, from the small towns of his youth, to the cities of his later life. A songwriter so quintessentially American that his universal themes are understood everywhere. Many of us come from provincial towns, many of us love the excitement of big city life. No-one captures it with such passion and joy as the man from New Jersey.

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