“Some things are more important than a rock show and this fight against prejudice and bigotry — which is happening as I write — is one of them.”
So wrote Bruce Springsteen last week, explaining his decision to cancel his concert in Greensboro, North Carolina.
North Carolina had just passed House Bill 2, which – as Springsteen noted – “the media are referring to as ‘the bathroom law’. HB2 – known officially as the Public Facilities Privacy and Security – dictates which bathrooms transgender people are permitted to use.
“To my mind, it’s an attempt by people who cannot stand the progress our country has made in recognising the human rights of all of our citizens to overturn that progress…”
Those of us who know him would expect nothing less from Bruce Springsteen.
After all, this is the man who, four years ago, told the world of his decades-long battle with depression. I genuinely believe he did so for no other reason than to help de-stigmatise something which afflicts millions of people.
I’ve known Springsteen – through his music – since my mid-teens, when my favourite teacher, the late Oliver Ryan, urged me to look past the apparently-jingoistic nature of “Born In The USA” and – as he counselled – “Listen to the lyrics”.
That same time, President Reagan could have done with Ollie’s wisdom. Ronnie’s advisors apparently hadn’t read the lyrics either. When Springsteen denied Reagan permission to use “Born In The USA” as a campaign song, Reagan referenced him anyway.
“America’s future rests in a thousand dreams inside our hearts. It rests in the message of hope in the songs of a man so many young Americans admire: New Jersey’s own Bruce Springsteen. And helping you make those dreams come true is what this job of mine is all about.”
An infuriated Springsteen questioned whether the president had ever listened to his songs at all. It has been suggested that this was the moment which politicised Springsteen and made him the outspoken liberal he is today. That’s a stretch. Listen back. Springsteen himself asked whether Reagan had heard, for instance, “Nebraska”, before launching into a blistering version of “Johnny 99” that sounded very like a musical two fingers.
Listen back. As he said himself, “The greatest challenge of adulthood is holding onto your idealism after you’ve lost your innocence”. I imagine that as he got older, Springsteen realised he couldn’t keep quiet about the things in which he believed passionately.
For me, he was always there in the background, like so many other artists, a part of my own personal aural backdrop, beloved but often overlooked as life moved on.
Then 9/11 happened. The towers fell and with them a lot of our certainties.
Afterwards, standing solid in the clouds of rage and distrust and heartbreak, was the Boss; the voice of reason and decency even as George W Bush’s neo-con cabal urged the world to war.
From the opening track, “Lonesome Day”, Springsteen leavens sorrow with hope and caution. “Hell’s brewin’ dark sun’s on the rise / This storm’ll blow through by and by / House is on fire, Viper’s in the grass / A little revenge and this too shall pass… Better ask questions before you shoot / Deceit and betrayal’s bitter fruit / It’s hard to swallow come time to pay / That taste on your tongue don’t easily slip away.”
The second Bush White House listened no more to the lyrics than the Reagan White House had two decades earlier. Our world is paying for their bitter fruit still: in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria; on the Mediterranean and in the port towns; on the streets of Paris, Brussels and wherever else the inevitable next atrocity occurs.
“You can’t kill your way to security,” warned Springsteen, “and you can’t lead by scaring people.”
The title track of “The Rising” would become Barack Obama’s campaign song when the Boss endorsed Obama in April 2008.
Springsteen’s decision to cancel his Greensboro concert has seen him acclaimed as a champion of LGBT rights, which is not news. He has long been a vocal supporter of marriage equality but his support of LGBT rights goes much further back.
It’s worth remembering the Academy Award winning ‘Streets of Philadelphia’, suggests RTE’s David McCullagh, a long-time Springsteen fan, “a song from a movie about gay rights at a time when it was neither popular nor profitable to address (the) same. And the fact that Tom Hanks and Bruce were involved gave it a mainstream reach it might not have had otherwise.”
Anyway, if you’ve ever listened to a Springsteen song, whose side did you think he’d be on?
Unsurprisingly, not everyone is a fan.
“Bruce is known to be on the radical left,” said North Carolina Republican Congressman Mark Walker. “He’s got every right to be so, but I consider this a bully tactic.”
In Ireland, we saw that same twisting of language during last year’s marriage equality referendum, when those who opposed the civil rights of a minority claimed that it was they who were oppressed, just as those same people were in the media night and day squawking endlessly that they were being silenced.
“The irony is (Springsteen is) doing exactly what (those on the religious right) argue you should be allowed to do: withhold (service) from someone based on your sincerely held beliefs,” says Fintan O’Toolbox of Donegal Dollop. “He’s giving them a dose of their own medicine and they don’t like it.”
Congressman Walker claims HB2 does not “target the LGBTQ community” but “It’s a little crazy to think sexual predators wouldn’t be devious enough to pull something off if they were free to go into any bathroom they want.”
Note that Walker does not actually call LGBT people “sexual predators”. He just dog-whistles the phrase instead. But back to the accusation that Springsteen is a bully.
Bruce Springsteen is a very powerful and influential man, a multi-millionaire beloved by literally millions across the world. When the Boss speaks, people listen.
That he uses his position to speak up for a vulnerable minority and to encourage more enlightened opinions says an awful lot for him, just as it says an awful lot about those who abuse that minority and who label Springsteen a bully for standing up to them.
In “Long Walk Home”, Springsteen lays out his own vision of America, one which reclaims the flag for all.
“Here everybody has a neighbour / Everybody has a friend / Everybody has a reason to begin again.
“My father said ‘Son, we’re lucky in this town, / It’s a beautiful place to be born. / It just wraps its arms around you, / Nobody crowds you and nobody goes it alone.
“’Your flag flyin’ over the courthouse / Means certain things are set in stone. / Who we are, what we’ll do and what we won’t’.”
As Springsteen tells his audiences, “Remember, nobody wins unless everybody wins.” To me, that doesn’t put him “on the radical left”. That just shows he’s a decent human being.
I’ve “known” the man a long time and there’s a thoughtfulness, a kindness to him which permeates his every word.
“I have spent my life judging the distance between American reality and the American dream,” says Springsteen. “You can’t have a United States if you are telling some folks that they can’t get on the train. There is a cracking point where a society collapses.”
Those are words we in Ireland might heed as a matter of urgency.