The Berlin Wall unexpectedly cracked open 25 years ago on Nov. 9, 1989 and the Cold War was over. And Bruce Springsteen unintentionally played a role in helping bring down that iconic symbol of the world’s division.
How? Springsteen went to East Berlin 16 months earlier in July 1988 to play the biggest, most riveting and earth-shaking rock concert in the history of East Germany – a concert that some historians agree with my theory, as published in Rocking the Wall - The Berlin Concert that Changed the World, quite probably contributed to the larger East German rebellion that eventually brought the Wall down.
Not only did Springsteen have some 300,000 ecstatic East Germans screaming their lungs out while singing “Born in the USA”, he also defiantly opened his four-hour long concert with “Badlands”, a song that East Germans might have felt referred to their country, and he later played “Chimes of Freedom” right after delivering a courageous short speech calling for the wall to be torn down. No one had ever done anything like that in East Germany. For East Germans locked up behind the Berlin Wall it was an unforgettable concert and an incredibly liberating moment – an American rock star telling 300,000 people that he came to play for them in the hope that “one day the barriers will be torn down.”
And 16 months later, the Berlin Wall was gone. Mike Spengler, who was a horn player in Springsteen’s band, got in touch with me after Rocking the Wall first came out just before the 25th anniversary of the concert last year and shared his riveting memories of that historic 1988 concert as well as the two days that the band spent behind the Iron Curtain in East Berlin. Spengler recalled the concert, helping ice skater Katherina Witt off the stage, and an awkward reception with Communist officials afterwards.
“As for the concert itself, I wouldn’t want to say that it was no different than any other - but ALL of Bruce's concerts were special in their way," wrote Spengler. "His philosophy was this: 'We're gonna work our asses off, but we're gonna have a great time doing it.' The man puts out so much energy and commitment that one, as a 'sideman', can't help but try to match it. I'm more a ‘jazz guy’ than a ‘rock and roller’, but there were plenty of nights were I physically reached what for me would be ‘wild abandon.’ And this one was no different. Just total concentration on what we were doing- so that we could follow and match whatever spontaneous direction Bruce would lead us in."
Spengler said at the reception Communist party leaders were falling all over themselves to have their pictures taken with Springsteen. At one point, a Communist official raised his glass in a toast and said:
‘We thank Bruce Springsteen for providing the Deutsche Democratic Republic to now make three great W's in rock and roll history- Voodstock, Vembley, und Veisensee!’ I had to stifle any laughter on my part."
Sixteen months later Spengler was at home in New Jersey and was watching the Berlin Wall burst open with thousands of people climbing up on top and over it. A friend of his watching couldn't understand his excitement. "I was glued to the TV- but also pacing back and forth. She couldn't quite get my excitement. ‘You don't understand,’ I said, ‘I was there! I SAW that f-n' Wall close up and personal. And there's a big part of me that wishes I were with those folks right now! And maybe... just maybe... that concert I played with Bruce in a small way helped lead to this!’”
A U.S. military officer stationed in West Berlin at the time named Bill Halpin also got in touch with after hearing about Rocking the Wall. He saw the East Berlin concert and then predicted to his superiors: "My briefing was short and to the point: The Berlin Wall will fall within 18 months without firing a shot." Halpin said some of the other officers and diplomats at the briefing snickered. "I explained what I'd witnessed at the Springsteen concert, knowing full well the genie was not going back into the bottle." He was only two months off the mark. Their observations are now part of a new, updated and expanded book just published by Berlinica in New York that includes more pictures of the concert.