Stone - 22 Sept 2004: Do you see these Vote for
Change concerts reaching
undecided voters, or are they more to rally the energy of people
who have made up their minds?
I always felt that the musician's job, as I experienced it
growing up, was to provide an alternative source of information, a
spiritual and social rallying place, somewhere you went to have a
I don't know if someone is going to run to the front of the
stage and shout, "I'm saved" or "I'm switching," but I'm going to
try. I will be calling anyone in a bow tie to come to the front of
the stage, and I'll see what I can do.
In a practical sense, what are you
First of all, we have a large group of musicians -- Dave
Matthews, the Dixie Chicks, Pearl Jam, R.E.M., John Fogerty, James
Taylor and many others -- who are coming together as a rallying
point for change. I think the concerts are going to be an
energizing experience for all who come. Of course, I've met a few
people who, in a very friendly way, said they are not coming.
Basically, the concerts are raising money specifically for
America Coming Together to do very practical things: voter
education, to go out and mobilize voters, to go door-to-door, to
assist voters getting to the polls. They're the real foot soldiers
who are going to get out the progressive vote. That's probably the
concerts' most important result.
Why did you stay away from being actively involved in
partisan politics for so long?
I didn't grow up in a very political household. The only
politics I heard was from my mother. I came home from grade school,
where someone asked me if I was Republican or Democrat, and I asked
my mom, "Well, what are we?" She said, "We're Democrats, 'cause
Democrats are for the working people." I was politicized by the
Sixties, like most of the other people of that generation at that
time. I can remember doing a concert when I was probably in my very
late teens, helping to bus people down to Washington for an
But still, basically, I wanted to remain an independent voice
for the audience that came to my shows. We've tried to build up a
lot of credibility over the years, so that if we took a stand on
something, people would receive it with an open mind. Part of not
being particularly partisan was just an effort to remain a very
thoughtful voice in my fans' lives.
I always liked being involved actively more at a grass-roots
level, to act as a partisan for a set of ideals: civil rights,
economic justice, a sane foreign policy, democracy. That was the
position I felt comfortable coming from.
Did it make you more credible if you avoided endorsing
It makes people less likely to marginalize you or pigeonhole
you. Taking a definite stand on this election has probably provided
some extra definition to the work I've been doing over the years.
Our band is in pretty much what I think of as the center. So if I
wrote, say, "American Skin," which was controversial, it couldn't
easily be dismissed, because people had faith that I was a measured
voice. That's been worth something, and it's something I don't want
to lose. But we have drifted far from that center, and this is a
time to be very specific about where I stand.
Because you scrupulously avoided commercial use of
music, you built a reputation for integrity and conscience. You
must be aware of the potency of that.
I tried to build a reputation for thoughtfulness -- that was
main thing I was aiming for. I took the songs, the issues and the
people I was writing about seriously. I wanted it to be an
entertaining but thoughtful presentation. If there was a goal, it
was as simple as that.
Now you're asking your audience to think even more
and explore what else you're saying in your songs.
There are a portion of your fans who do quite a bit of
listening. That's the way that people use pop music, and that's
part of the way it rolls. The upside is that there has been an
increased definition about the things I've written about and where
I stand on certain issues. That's been a good thing.
I think that a more complicated picture of who you are as an
artist and who they are as an audience emerges. The example I've
been giving is that I've been an enormous fan of John Wayne all my
life, although not a fan of his politics. I've made a place for all
those different parts of who he was. I find deep inspiration and
soulfulness in his work.
Your audience invests a lot in you, a very personal
There is nothing more personal, in some ways, than the music people
listen to. I know from my own experience how you identify and
relate to the person singing. You have put your fingerprints on
their imagination. That is very, very intimate. When something
cracks the mirror, it can be hard for the fan who you have asked to
identify with you.
Pop musicians live in the world of symbology. You live and die
by the symbol in many ways. You serve at the behest of your
audience's imagination. It's a complicated relationship. So you're
asking people to welcome the complexity in the interest of fuller
and more honest communication.
The audience and the artist are valuable to one another as
as you can look out there and see yourself, and they look back and
see themselves. That's asking quite a bit, but that is what
happens. When that bond is broken, by your own individual beliefs,
personal thoughts or personal actions, it can make people angry. As
simple as that. You're asking for a broader, more complicated
relationship with the members of your audience than possibly you've
had in the past.
What do you stand to lose or gain from this as an
As an artist and a citizen, you're gaining a chance to take
in moving the country in the direction of its deepest ideals.
Artists are always speaking to people's freedoms. The shout for
freedom and its implications was implicit in rock & roll from
its inception. Freedom can only find its deepest meaning within a
community of purpose. So as an individual I'm getting to take a
small part in that process.
As an artist, I'd like to have a broader understanding with
the different segments of my audience and have a deeper experience
when we come out and play for people. I think that's something that
could be gained, and that's something worth doing. I tend to think
a relatively small amount of people might get turned off by it,
'cause I've tried to do this as thoughtfully as possible, and
because any relationship worth something can take some
rough-and-tumble. We'll see.
This has obviously been on your mind for a while. How
did you come to this decision?
I knew after we invaded Iraq that I was going to be involved
the election. It made me angry. We started to talk about it
onstage. I take my three minutes a night for what I call my
public-service announcement. We talked about it almost every night
on our summer tour.
I felt we had been misled. I felt they had been fundamentally
dishonest and had frightened and manipulated the American people
into war. And as the saying goes, "The first casualty of war is
truth." I felt that the Bush doctrine of pre-emption was dangerous
foreign policy. I don't think it has made America safer.
Look at what is going on now: We are quickly closing in on
looks an awful lot like the Vietnamization of the Iraq war. John
McCain is saying we could be there for ten or twenty years, and
John Kerry says four years. How many of our best young people are
going to die between now and that time, and what exactly for?
Initially I thought I was going to take my acoustic guitar and play
in some theaters, find some organizations to work for and do what I
could. I was going to lend my voice for a change in the
administration and a change in the direction of the country.
Sitting on the sidelines would be a betrayal of the ideas I'd
written about for a long time. Not getting involved, just sort of
maintaining my silence or being coy about it in some way, just
wasn't going to work this time out. I felt that it was a very clear
So there wasn't a moment of doubt in your mind about
what the right thing to do was?
It was something that gestated over a period of time, and as
events unfolded and the election got closer, it became clearer. I
don't want to watch the country devolve into an oligarchy, watch
the division of wealth increase and see another million people
beneath the poverty line this year. These are all things that have
been the subtext of so much of my music, and to see the country
move so quickly to the right, so much further to the right than
what the president campaigned on -- these are the things that
removed whatever doubt I may have had about getting involved.
Are you expecting to have your motives severely
That's just a part of what happens. You understand you're
to be attacked in different ways. That just comes with it. That
wasn't any concern.
Do you think there is a climate of trying to
artists and creative people?
People are always trying to shut up the people they don't
with -- through any means necessary, usually. There certainly was
an attempt to intimidate the Dixie Chicks. What happened to them
was a result of war fever - simple as that, war fever. They've
handled it incredibly. They are very smart, tough women, and they
did not back down. But it's one of those sad paradoxes that in
theory we're fighting for freedom, and the first thing people are
willing to throw out is freedom of speech at home and castigate
anybody who is coming from a different point of view.
A lot of people think that you have no right as an
artist to comment on this or play a role in politics.
I don't know if a lot of people think that. It is something
is said. It's sort of part of the "Punch and Judy" show that goes
on when people disagree with what you're saying.
How much do you follow this election?
I think that Senator Kerry has long played it close to the
and that's his style. However, the presidency is like the
heavyweight championship: They don't give it to you, you have to
take it. He has a slow, deliberate style that may not make for an
electrifying campaigner, but it may make for a very good president.
But, of course, you have to get there.
One of the most disturbing aspects of this election is that
machinery for taking something that is a lie and making it feel
true, or taking something that is true and making it feel like a
lie -- the selling machinery has become very powerful. Senator
Kerry has to make people pay attention to the man behind the
curtain. He has to take the risk and rip the veil off the
administration's deceptions. They are a hall of mirrors and a house
For Senator Kerry, the good news is he has the facts on his
side. The bad news is that often in the current climate it can feel
like that doesn't matter, and he has to make it matter.
What do you think of how the election is being covered
and conducted through the press?
The press has let the country down. It's taken a very amoral
stand, in that essential issues are often portrayed as simply one
side says this and the other side says that. I think that Fox News
and the Republican right have intimidated the press into an
incredible self-consciousness about appearing objective and backed
them into a corner of sorts where they have ceded some of their
responsibility and righteous power.
The Washington Post and New York Times
apologies about their initial reporting about Iraq not being
critical enough were very revealing. I am a dedicated Times
reader, and I've found enormous sustenance from
Krugman and Maureen Dowd on the op-ed page. There has been great
reporting, but there has also been some self-consciousness in some
of the reporting about the policy differences in this election.
This is going to be an issue after the election. I don't know
it began with the Iraq War, but shortly thereafter there was an
enormous amount of Fox impersonators among what you previously
thought were relatively sane media outlets across the cable
channels. It was very disheartening. The job of the press is to
tell the truth without fear or favor. We have to get back to that
The free press is supposed to be the lifeline and the blood of
democracy. That is the position of responsibility that those
institutions have. Those things are distorted by ratings and by
money to where you're getting one hour of the political
conventions. No matter how staged they are, I think they're a
little more important than people eating bugs. I think that for
those few nights, the political life of the nation should take
priority, and the fact that it so casually does not means something
is wrong. If you want to watch people eating bugs, that's fine, I
can understand that, too, but let's do it on another night.
Real news is the news we need to protect our freedoms. You get
tabloid news, you get blood-and-guts news, you get news shot
through with a self-glorifying facade of patriotism, but people
have to sift too much for the news that we need to protect our
freedoms. It should be gloriously presented to the people on a
nightly basis. The loss of some of the soberness and seriousness of
those institutions has had a devastating effect upon people's
ability to respond to the events of the day.
Do you think the press is leading us away from a fair
and objective reading of this election?
It's gotten very complicated, and I think it's blurred the
truth. Whether you like the Michael Moore film or not, a big part
of its value was that it showed how sanitized the war that we
received on television at night is. The fact that the
administration refused to allow photographs of the flag-draped
coffins of returning dead, that the president hasn't shown up at a
single military funeral for the young people who gave their lives
for his policies, is disgraceful. You have the Swift-boat guys who
have been pretty much discredited, but there is an atmosphere that
is created by so much willing media exposure that it imparts them
What do you think the responsibility of the artist is
There is a long tradition of the artist being involved in the
life of the nation. For me, it goes back to Woody Guthrie, James
Brown, Curtis Mayfield and Bob Dylan. These were all people who
were alternative sources of information. When Dylan hit in the
mid-Sixties, he brought with him as true a reading of what was
going on as was out there.
People have the choice to not listen, but you have these
business lobbyists who affect the direction of public policy. For
example, what is going on with the assault-rifle ban is disgusting.
The labor unions try to affect policy in their fashion. Artists do
it by talking and singing and addressing the life of the mind.
I don't think the audience are lemmings. They get their
points of view from a lot of places. I try to come in and be that
alternative source of information. I try to speak my case as
directly as I can. If that makes you angry, that's fine. The artist
is there to open up discourse, to get people thinking about
American identity: Who are we? What do we fight for? What do we
stand for? I view these things as a fundamental part of my job, and
they have been for the past thirty years.
You've tried to think long and hard about what it
to be an American and about our distinctive identity and position
in the world. What is that great thing about America that appeals
to you that you are fighting for?
I felt I lived the prototypical American life - the way I grew
up, the town I grew up in, my family life. Things that I cared
about, things that I aspired to, they were just something that
naturally came to me when I wrote. I think that this particular
election is, at the core, a debate about the soul of the nation. I
think we can move toward greater economic justice for all of our
citizens, or we cannot. I think we can move toward a sane,
responsible foreign policy, or we cannot. For me, these are issues
that go right to the heart of the spiritual life of the nation.
That is something I have written about. It cannot be abandoned and
is worth fighting and fighting and fighting for.
When you embark on a creative life, it has a dynamic of its
You are partially directing it, and you are partially riding the
wave. If your work is threaded into people's lives and into the
life of your town, your family, your country, then you're like
everybody else -- you're at the mercy of events, you're borne along
on the currents of time and history.
It's sort of "Gee, I came from this place, I wrote songs about
these things that mattered to me." I was serious about them. I was
serious about taking what I had written and having some practical
impact, which we started to do in the early Eighties. Nothing
fancy. I can play my guitar, I can make a few bucks, I can bring
some attention to some folks doing the real work and have some
small impact in the towns we visit. You move down the road and it
just sort of . . . happens.
Did you feel the call of your nation or the call of
I don't know. Personally, I wouldn't view myself as that kind
So you feel the call from your heart?
Yeah, I can hear the bells chiming. I've had a long life with
audience. I always tell the story about the guy with The
Rising: "Hey, Bruce, we need you!" he yelled at me through the
car window. That's about the size of it: You get a few letters that
say, "Hey, man, we need you." You bump into some people at a club
and you say, "Hey, man, what's going on?" And they go, "Hey, we
need you." Yeah, they don't really need me, but I'm proud if they
need what I do. That's what my band is. That's what we were built
For the next 10 days, million-selling musicians including Mr.
Springsteen, Dave Matthews, the Dixie Chicks, Pearl Jam, Bonnie Raitt
and John Mellencamp will be headlining concerts in closely contested
states. The tour features rock musicians, but the lineups also
encompass blues, country and hip-hop.
The tour will reach 11 states and 33 cities, winding up with
concert by 13 of the headliners on Oct. 11 at the MCI Center in
Washington. That show, to be televised live on the Sundance cable
channel, will also include John Fogerty, Jackson Browne, James Taylor,
Keb Mo', Kenneth Edmonds and the hip-hop group Jurassic 5.
The concerts are benefits for America Coming Together, a
voter-mobilization effort, and they are presented by the liberal MoveOn
political action committee. Some performers, including Pearl Jam and
Ms. Raitt, have done benefits for political candidates through the
years. But this tour is the first time in his three-decade career that
Mr. Springsteen has made a partisan stand.
"These are people who are the best experts at connecting with
American public, people who have had an emotional connection with
millions of people for years,'' said Eli Pariser, the executive
director of MoveOn PAC. "Politics is a part of that, and I think it
just extends what they do, their art.''
"It does take some courage in this climate to stand up and do
they're doing,'' he continued. "A lot of them have been galvanized by
the kind of extremist repressive response that they've seen. They're
not going to be silenced.''
The Dixie Chicks, who started their part of the tour in
faced radio-station boycotts and a talk-show furor last year after
their lead singer, Natalie Maines, disparaged President
"We have nothing to lose at this point, so any sort of fear or
inhibition is out the window,'' Ms. Maines said by telephone this week.
"We definitely want a regime change, and now that we're getting down to
the wire I'm even less afraid to speak out. I just think things are
absolutely life or death right now.''
"We sort of weeded out the people who apparently didn't know
were, though we never felt like we were trying to hide what we
thought,'' she added. "Free speech is not free: we paid dearly. But
we're more determined and stronger now. And from this point on, what
fans we have will be our true fans.''
It is a complex enough undertaking to gather rock stars for a
one-day event like Live Aid or Mr. Mellencamp's annual Farm Aid.
Arranging six simultaneous weeklong benefit tours by such popular
musicians is probably unprecedented. There is no comparable undertaking
on the Republican side. The musicians are not playing their standard
sets; they are including more political songs and collaborating with
the others on the bill. The Dixie Chicks sing backup for Mr. Taylor;
Ms. Raitt harmonizes with Mr. Browne. <> All shows on the tour go to Ohio
on Saturday, Michigan on Sunday and Florida on Friday; shows on Tuesday
and Wednesday are in Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Missouri. The tour's
first show, featuring Ms. Raitt and Mr. Browne, took place on Monday night
in Seattle. "It was a very energized, responsive audience,'' Ms. Raitt
said by telephone after that concert. "When we sang Little Steven's 'I Am
a Patriot' and the whole audience was standing up, it just brought me to
tears. It's more fun to do this than it is to do my own shows. It's just
so inspirational, and there's so much at stake.''