Bruce Springsteen Returns to Southern Africa

By Richard Pithouse · 29 Oct 2013

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Picture: Bruce Springsteen courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Picture: Bruce Springsteen courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
When Bruce Springsteen steps on to the stage in Cape Town on the 28th of January next year it will be his first performance in South Africa, but it won’t be his first connection to South Africa. In 1985 he, along with an impressive collection of musicians ranging from Miles Davis to Jimmy Cliff, Bob Dylan, Peter Garrett and the exiled South African band the Malopoets, was part of the project organised by Steven van Zandt, the original guitarist in his E-Street band, to boycott Sun City. And in October 1988 Springsteen, along with artists like Tracy Chapman, Sting and Youssou N’Dour, played in Harare as part of an Amnesty International tour in support of Human Rights.

The path from the cultural strictures of apartheid South Africa to musical redemption in Harare had been opened in April 1980 when a few hundred South Africans made it to Bob Marley’s performance at the celebration of Zimbabwean independence. That concert descended into chaos when people trying to get in to the stadium were teargased. Later on some of Marley’s staff had to leave town in a rush after being accused of making Marley bigger than Mugabe. The bootleg recording, which begins with Marley shouting ‘Zimbabwe!’ while a party apparatchik counters with ‘Zanu!’, makes for bittersweet listening.

In 1988 more than 15 000 visas were processed at Beitbridge before the Amnesty International show. Springsteen was still riding the massive international success of the Born in the USA album released in June 1984. That night in Harare he introduced his version of “War”, first performed by the Temptations, but made famous by Edwin Star, by speaking about conscription. He began by speaking about the experience of his own generation in America being conscripted into the Vietnam War. In the bootleg recording he can be heard saying that:

I guess there’s a lot of young guys out there that are conscription age for the South African army….I guess there can´t be much worse than living in a society that’s at war with itself….under a government at war with its own people and being required to support that government….and I just wanna say to all young South Africans that I do not envy your position…. my prayers are with the young men here that you can use your hearts and voices in the struggle of the dignity and freedom of all the African people…..because whether it´s the systematic apartheid of South Africa or the economic apartheid of my own country, where we segregate our underclass in ghettos of all the major cities….there can´t be no peace without justice and where there is apartheid, systematic or economic, there is no justice…..and where there is no justice, there is only War!

For some of the young men in the stadium that night Springsteen’s empathy was a significant moment in their developing ability to recognise themselves as people who could choose how to respond to the difficult situation into which they had been thrust.

Part of Springsteen’s genius lies in the way in which songs, deliciously seductive songs, have rolled out of him with an enduring abundance. Springsteen was not born into an easy life. His family were poor and his father depressive and violent. But seeing Elvis Presley on television at the age of seven, and his mother’s delight at the spectacle, bought an explosion of life, colour and possibility into a grey childhood. He has never spurned the charms of a well-crafted pop song.

But a few years on television brought another decisive moment in Springsteen’s artistic awakening. This time it was John Ford’s cinematic interpretation of John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath. Seeing this film on television began an enduring connection to the history of popular American radicalism. Springsteen’s political vision has become clearer as he’s got older, but it’s always been rooted in empathy and respect for the personhood of everybody rather than some dogma and, in artistic terms, an ability to take the drama and poetry of ordinary lives seriously.

A lot of his early work is rooted in the simple desire to escape working class life and a future in the factories where “Men walk through these gates with death in their eyes /And you just better believe, boy, somebody's gonna get hurt tonight”. This is most famously captured in Born to Run, the title track of his electrifyingly brilliant 1975 breakthrough album: “We gotta get out while we’re young / `cause tramps like us, baby we were born to run”.

But just three years later in “The Promise”, a song originally recorded for his much darker, but equally brilliant 1978 album, Darkness on the Edge of Town, but only released in 2010, a character who wins some money in a drag race sings that “Inside I felt like I was carrying / The broken spirits of all the other ones who lost”. It’s clear that Springsteen has felt the same way, as he has taken his own place in the pantheon of the great rock and soul artists who illuminated his youth.

This sense of obligation to those who weren’t able to get out is not just a matter of his years of support for various causes, like striking workers or community food banks. It’s also at the heart of his artistic vision. He has not let the hard won optimism, often individualistic and masculinist, of his early work stand. In one of his early songs written for the bars on the Jersey Shore, The Seaside Bar Song, and first recorded in 1973 for his second album, The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle, he sang, in a standard trope in his early work, that “The highway is alive tonight”. But on his sublime 1995 album, The Ghost of Tom Joad, he sang that:

The highway is alive tonight
But nobody's kiddin' nobody about where it goes
I'm sittin' down here in the campfire light
Searchin' for the ghost of Tom Joad

Here the highway is not alive with young men who want to take a fast car away from the expectation that they will follow their fathers into the factory. It’s alive with people sleeping under bridges as they wonder the country in search of what work they can find. In last year’s superb Wrecking Ball, Springsteen’s response to the ongoing capture of American society by private money and power, he moves from lament to resistance.

Our society is moving towards an increasingly crass conflation of consumerism and liberation and an increasingly brutal separation between rich and poor. Our highways are alive with burning tyres and police officers trying to beat and shoot people back into submission. Springsteen’s extraordinary body of work will bring us a lot more than just a three hour jol.
Dr. Pithouse teaches politics at Rhodes University.

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morganmorris Verified user
29 Oct

Springsteen's Here

A great little article, Richard, that captures, well, how Springsteen has inspired many. As a coloured boy (I'm 48) from Cape Town, I've long had to explain my fascination with Springsteen, justify how I could relate to a man born in New Jersey, USA. Then I try and play them 'The River', which about captures my early years in a working-class neighbourhood. He, still today - 20 years after I first discovered his music - sings from my soul.

Funny thing is that 'The River' was not the first Springsteen song I had heard. There was, in 1984, the year I finished high school, 'Born in the USA' and 'Dancing in the Dark'. Alas, Rick Springfield had a few songs on the radio at the same time, and I kept confusing the two. Funny enough, the first Springsteen song I really, really listened to was 'Human Touch', and those two 'happy albums' - 'Human Touch' and 'Lucky Town' - kick-started my adoration. I know why those two albums of mostly love songs would strike such a chord. Even about love, he said everything I had wanted to say.

Two days ago I was still joking with friends that I somehow need to save up money to travel to see Springsteen, before any more members of the E-Street Band shuffle off this mortal coil. The news two days ago has made my giddy with anticipation.

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30 Oct

I Can't Wait!

And a lovely comment above!

I'm an Indian girl (well also in my 40s now...). I will never forget the first time my cousin played me the live version of 'The River'. He made us all close our eyes so we could concentrate on the music. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up.

I can't wait for the concert. I've waited 25 years for this.