Yes, he's a huge rock star and he's a millionaire. He's been filling arenas for nearly 40 years and selling records by the millions. He owns a 378-acre horse farm.
But unlike politicians who try to "connect" with us with stories about their grandfathers who long ago did real work, Bruce Springsteen really does seem to remember where he came from. The son of a bus driver from Freehold, New Jersey started out writing songs rooted in working-class life, when he sent us, in 1973, Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. – the aging Jersey Shore amusement park. His was the voice of young workers who find moments of escape from alienated labor in machines they control: "Some guys they just give up living and start dying little by little, piece by piece. Some guys come home from work and wash up, and go racing in the streets."
As Springsteen and the E Street band honed their talent as pop-oriented rockers through the '70s and '80s, their songs and albums, through Darkness on the Edge of Town, Born to Run, The River, were populated by working class characters who stories said so much about America. His bleakest portraits of working-class life came in 1982's all-acoustic Nebraska, and later in the similarly minimalist Ghost of Tom Joad (1995). Although Reagan and his aides deliberately misinterpreted it as an ode to jingoism, Born in the USA (1984) expressed the perspective of Vietnam veterans who'd been used and then discarded.
Throughout his career, Springsteen provided a voice to the dispossessed. In 2001 he recorded "American Skin (21 Shots)" about the shooting death of Amadou Diallo at the hands of the New York police. He's given us powerful antiwar songs about Iraq and Afghanistan, from a soldier's point of view – "Devils and Dust" (2005) and "Last to Die" (2007). But with the 13 songs of his new CD, Wrecking Ball, Springsteen offers his angriest and most militant protest against what's been done to our country and our people by the greed of Wall Street.
Springsteen and the E Street Band opened this year's Grammy Awards broadcast with the first song on this disc, "We Take Care of Our Own," about a country that is failing its own people. Springsteen asks where our values have gone – the eyes that see, the hearts with mercy — but also, "Where's the work that'll set my hands, my soul free?" Unemployment is on his mind in many of these songs, including "Shackled and Drawn," where he sings that freedom is "a dirty shirt, the sun on my face and my shovel in the dirt." We're living in "a world gone wrong," where the speculators and the bankers rule. "Gambling man rolls the dice, working man pays the bill, it's still fat and easy up on Banker's Hill."
"Jack of All Trades," built on a slow, repeated piano line, is an understated masterpiece expressing the mix of emotions people feel when survival becomes a daily struggle. Springsteen's voice is that of a worker calmly resigned to getting by on odd jobs – mowing lawns, cleaning gutters, fixing engines. He repeatedly assures his spouse – and himself – "we'll be all right." But within this acceptance of "learning to make do," he finds hope that "the world's gonna change", based on Jesus' call to "start caring for each other." Then we see a hint of anger at "the banker man" who thrives at the expense of the "working man." But it still hits us with a jolt when the character declares: "If I had me a gun, I'd find the bastards and shoot 'em on sight." Even that revenge fantasy is expressed with seeming calm, and followed by the song's refrain, "I'm a jack of all trades, we'll be alright." To emphasize Springsteen's rebellious intent, the song ends on a guitar solo by Tom Morello, formerly with Rage Against the Machine and still with the Industrial Workers of the World.
With some of the Irish instrumentation he picked up doing The Seeger Sessions (2006) and Live in Dublin (2007), Springsteen takes us back, 28 years later after Born to Run, to "My Hometown." Sounding like some ancient ballad of England's crimes against Ireland, "Death to My Hometown" describes a different kind of aggression, one in which "no cannon ball did fly, no rifles cut us down." But nonetheless, the "marauders raided in the night" and "destroyed our families, factories and they took our homes."
In the title song, Springsteen takes on the persona of Giants Stadium, demolished in February 2010 – but his voice is soon that of the working class. Throughout, he taunts an unnamed foe to "take your best shot, bring on your wrecking ball." The American working class has experienced more than our share of wrecking balls over the past few decades. The steel mills of Pittsburgh, auto plants of Flint, and factories across the country have fallen to the wrecking ball. For New Orleans residents who survived Katrina, the next blow came from Bush's Department of Housing and Urban Development, which in late 2008 tore down the best public housing in the country, for the sake of private developers. After the banks foreclosed and evicted the residents, they bulldozed thousands of homes in cities like Detroit and Cleveland – entire blocks of single-family houses – because they can't sell them, and they won't let people live in them if it doesn't make a profit for the banks. Economists used to write about capitalism's "creative destruction", but now it just looks destructive.
Springsteen doesn't want us to forget or forgive. "Hold tight to your anger," he sings three times, "and don't fall to your fears." Working people have been battered by economic hardship, over and over again, he reminds us in words from an 1854 song by Stephen Foster. "Hard times come, and hard times go" – Springsteen repeats that line five times – "yeah, just to come again." This is, to me, the most very powerful sequence in a great song – one that can stand alongside a handful of songs that have captured the economic pain endured by workers: Yip Harburg's "Brother Can You Spare a Dime" (1932), Woody Guthrie's Dust Bowl Ballads (1940), Bob Dylan's "North Country Blues" (1964), and Marvin Gaye's "Inner City Blues" (1971).
"Rocky Ground" calls the shepherd to "tend to your flock" – a biblical reprise of the message of "We Take Care of Our Own." And the Bible enables Springsteen to again condemn the banksters, reminding us that Jesus chased this sort of people out of the temple. If "Rocky Ground" is a sort of new gospel song, "Land of Hopes and Dreams" is based on a very old one, "This Train is Bound for Glory." But Springsteen's train accepts everyone – "saints and sinners, losers and winners" – and like the best of gospel, it lifts our spirits and restores our hopes. "Dreams will not be thwarted, faith will be rewarded."
In a review of Springsteen's European tour in early June, a writer for London's Guardian called him "the last of the protest singers." There is certainly no other big-time rock star who has been on the side of workers as consistently as Bruce Springsteen. And today he's expressing, like no other major entertainer, the fears, hope and rage that we legitimately feel. At a time when working people can use all the help and all the inspiration we can find, Wrecking Ball is a gift.