And These Badlands Start Treating Us Good

October 2, 2004
A tight spotlight focused on Bruce Springsteen after he’d entered the stage in Philadelphia on Friday night and bent over his guitar without a word. And without a word he gave new meaning to the Star Spangled Banner. And on came the E-Street Band, and the stage lit up, and they gave new meaning to “Born in the USA.” They picked the tempo and the volume up a notch as they jumped into “Badlands” and gave a new meaning to every lyric. The sold-out crowd didn’t sit down or stop moving for the two and a half hours that followed the two hours of opening acts (Bright Eyes and REM). And not a single song failed to find a new meaning for the upcoming presidential election, because this was not just a concert to raise money in the Wachovia Center (“A Comcast Venue,” one in a collection of luxury sports arenas sprawled outside a suffering city and erected at the expense of the public that must be searched for weapons when it enters them). This was the Vote for Change tour the night after the first Kerry-Bush debate, and we could taste the change coming.

When Springsteen belted out “Youngstown” it was a song about seizing control and creating new jobs. When John Fogerty joined the band these first words out of his mouth were about positive political change:

“Well, beat the drum and hold the phone – the sun came out today!
“We’re born again, there’s new grass on the field.”

And these needed no explanation:

“Some folks are born made to wave the flag,
“Ooh, they’re red, white and blue.
“And when the band plays “Hail to the chief”,
“Ooh, they point the cannon at you, Lord.”

There was no need for commentary, and there were no media commentators around to impose any on us, no commercial breaks, and no let-up in the E Street Band’s ability to amaze. The most cheerful up-beat rocking tune to come shaking off that stage was the tragic “Johnny 99.” And it was a song about life in the United States of America for those never interviewed about economic up-tics and jobless recoveries.

A strange thing happened to me during this concert. I became capable of thinking of patriotism as not just harmless, which is a major step for me in itself, but as something positive, as a celebration and development of a culture of fairness, decency, respect, peace, and art.

When Bruce paused during “Mary’s Place” and started preaching there can’t have been too many people in the house who needed saving. “The E Street Band is rising up tonight,” he shouted. “Because we’re here for a Purpose! We’re here for a Reason! So, if you’re on the line, if you’re swinging, if you’re shifting, if you just can’t decide, we’re gonna bring you over to the other side!” or words to that effect. And a man came unto the Boss and got down on his knees, and the Boss told him to say Halliburton three times real fast, and when the Boss asked him where he stood, he said “I’m switching!” and the people were amazed.

And the people have the power, according to the Patti Smith lyrics that all the acts in the show sang out together toward the close:

“The people have the power
“to redeem the work of fools
“upon the meek the graces shower
“it’s decreed the people rule
“The people have the power
“The people have the power
“The people have the power
“The people have the power”

This was a populist gathering in a corporate palace, and Bruce, the E Street Band, REM, John Fogerty, and Bright Eyes joined their various styles together to ask a question that has never passed the lips of Jim Lehrer. In the words of an Elvis Costello song written by Nick Lowe:

“As I walk through
“This wicked world
“Searchin’ for light in the darkness of insanity.
“I ask myself
“Is all hope lost?
“Is there only pain and hatred, and misery?
“And each time I feel like this inside,
“There’s one thing I wanna know:
“What’s so funny ’bout peace love and understanding?”