Profile: Springsteen giving voice to the spirit of giving

Raymond Beauchemin, Special to The National, Feb. 8, 2013

At a concert to support a charity founded by the late Harry Chapin, the great musical storyteller and humanitarian, Bruce Springsteen recalled how Chapin chased him around recording studios and hotels. Dedicated to eradicating world hunger, Chapin wanted to enlist Springsteen’s time and talent for the cause.

Springsteen would see Chapin coming and search for a place to hide, but there was no hiding. Not from Chapin. Not from hunger. Not from his calling.

“Harry knew that it was going to take a lot more than just love to survive – it was going to take a strong sense of purpose, of duty, and a good clear eye on the dirty ways of the world,” Springsteen told the audience in New York’s Carnegie Hall that night in 1985.

Springsteen, who was beginning to become active in charitable projects and politics, asked Chapin how he did it. “He said, ‘I play one night for me and one night for the other guy’.”
Tonight, Springsteen will be honoured for his work for “the other guy” when he is named the 2013 MusiCares Person of the Year at a ceremony and concert in Los Angeles. Proceeds from the MusicCares gala and a silent auction provide support to people in the music industry who have fallen on hard times financially. The award has been given annually for 23 years and past recipients include Bono, Don Henley, Quincy Jones, Bonnie Raitt, Barbra Streisand, James Taylor and Paul McCartney.
This year’s concert will include Jackson Browne, with whom Springsteen played on the No Nukes album in 1979; Emmylou Harris, Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks, Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello, who’s on Springsteen’s latest album, Wrecking Ball; Mumford & Sons, Patti Smith and Mavis Staples.
Chapin did succeed in getting Springsteen to participate in World Hunger Year events. Since then, Springsteen has supported charities with his concerts or with proceeds from recorded material. On his Devils & Dust tour in 2003, for example, Springsteen raised more than US$100,000 (Dh367,000) for WHY through its Artists Against Hunger and Poverty programme; the money went to food banks from Boston to Los Angeles.
“Bruce is synonymous with artistic independence and a passion for causes that are close to his heart,” said Scott Pascuci, chairman of the MusiCares foundation. “His career seamlessly combines inspiration and charity, and it’s a reminder that we can all do our part to make the world a better place.”
Most recently, Springsteen headlined the 12-12-12 concert in Madison Square Garden for the relief of Hurricane Sandy victims in New York and New Jersey. The concert is sold on iTunes and has been available since January on compact disc.
For anyone familiar with Springsteen’s career, it is no surprise he is devoted to “the other guy”. As Jim Cullen wrote in Born in the U.S.A.: Bruce Springsteen and the American Tradition: “In listening carefully to his music, one hears a series of acquired as well as inherited values – an emphasis on egalitarianism; an instinctive compassion; a pragmatic scepticism toward utopian solutions; and, especially recently, a bracing humility about human endeavour – worth emulating in sacred as well as secular life.”
It was not always so. His early days playing juke dives up and down the Atlantic coast were about Fords not food. The songs on his early albums – Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J., The Wild, The Innocentand the E Street Shuffle and Born to Run – were songs of personal liberation, getting in the car and heading out on Thunder Road, preferably with a girl named Mary in the front seat.
Between Born to Run and his next album, Darkness on the Edge of Town, however, something changed. Springsteen grew more cognisant of the world around him. The songs lost their bohemian bagginess; the lyrics told of hardships of hardworking men.
At the SXSW arts conference in Austin, Texas, last year, Springsteen explained that it was about this time that he began listening to Hank Williams and Woody Guthrie, the fathers, respectively, of American country and folk music. “Country was about the truth emanating out of your sweat, out of your local bar, your corner store.”
It was at this point that Springsteen’s intellectual life coalesced with his emotional and creative lives, David Remnick wrote in a New Yorker profile last fall. From Darkness on the Edge of Town to Nebraska and Born in the U.S.A., the album that exploded Springsteen into American public consciousness and stadium rock, Springsteen explored the lives of Vietnam veterans, migrant workers, “class, social divisions, deindustrialised cities, and forgotten American towns”.
Born in the U.S.A. was a turning-point in another way. It was the first of Springsteen’s albums to score multiple Billboard hits, beginning with Dancing in the Dark. Springsteen never saw shame in this. His heroes, he wrote in Songs, his book of lyrics, were hitmakers, Williams, Sinatra, Dylan. “There was value in trying to connect with a large audience.”
The value came at a cost. With success came a new life. He married an actor, Julianne Phillips (they honeymooned at the Versace villa in Italy), and moved to California, where he started raising horses and organic farming. It was a 3,000-kilometre stretch from Freehold, N.J., where he grew up, the son of an often-unemployed, probably bipolar WWII veteran and an Italian Catholic legal secretary.
Soon, there was marital strife for Springsteen, fully documented in what has been described as one of the great break-up albums of all time, Tunnel of Love. Strife came from within Springsteen’s group, the E Street Band, as well. His guitarist – who’d played stage left of Springsteen since their earliest days in New Jersey – Little Steven Van Zandt, was aghast, he told Remnick, at the way Springsteen’s personal life had crept into the album. They had a blow-up. ” ‘People don’t need you talking about your life,'” he recalled telling Springsteen. ” ‘They need you for their lives. That’s your thing. Giving some logic and reason and sympathy and passion to this cold, fragmented, confusing world – that’s your gift. Explaining their lives to them, not yours.'”
The next time Springsteen wrote about his own life the song was called Red-Headed Woman. This was Patti Scialfa, whom he knew from the Asbury Park music scene and hired on as an E Street band singer. This year they will have been together 29 years, 22 as man and wife.
The albums that have followed are Springsteen’s most political yet. Wrecking Ball is an indictment of capitalism set to Celtic, jazz, gospel and folk harmonies. Perhaps the best of Springsteen’s later output was his response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The Rising was typically Springsteen in its evocation of the struggle of ordinary people to comprehend the atrocities of that day and to move forward, but a departure as well. Springsteen wrote, for the first time, from a female point of view(Into the Fire, You’re Missing) and, as importantly, delved into Eastern music with Asif Ali Khan on Worlds Apart.
In September 2001, Springsteen was a featured artist in a televised concert fund-raiser for the families of firefighters and policemen who died in the 9/11 attack. He sang My City of Ruins, which is now a staple on his concert tours. The chorus is simply four words: “Come on, rise up!” No shorter phrase in the American songbook so encapsulates the can-do, will-do, must-do spirit of the country.
Yet it is the spiritual invocation in the song’s bridge that brings tears to listeners’ eyes. Here, Springsteen shows how charity – or love, for that is where charity begins – works. Charity is not only a matter of provision, someone who gives of himself or herself. For Springsteen, charity is, equally, acceptance, an acknowledgement of need, a submission. It is placing oneself in a position to take strength from another, the better to then rise up together.
“With these hands, with these hands
I pray for the faith, Lord
With these hands, with these hands
I pray for your love, Lord.With these hands, with these hands
I pray for the strength, Lord.”
Springsteen’s finest gift, his greatest act of love, has been the mirror he’s held to reflect our better selves.
Bruce Springsteen supports a number of charities around the world. Here are but a few: World Hunger Year; Give US Your Poor; Special Olympics; Nordoff-Robbins Music Therapy; The Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund; The Smithsonian Institution; Amnesty International; Rainforest Foundation; Woody Guthrie Archives.
Raymond Beauchemin is the former deputy foreign editor of The National and the author of the novel Everything I Own
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