Pressing Issues: Political 'Boss' Rocks the Vote

Editor & Publisher, 2004-10-26, by: Greg Mitchell
Thirty-two years ago, when I spent time in Sing Sing Prison with Bruce Springsteen, just about the last thing I expected was that Bruce would one day become a famous political activist and media critic. Then again, I couldn't imagine antiwar vet John Kerry running against a son of George H.W. Bush for president, either.

Springsteen has been a true force in the press lately: penning Op- Ed pieces, critiquing the media in Rolling Stone, revealing that he gets "sustenance" from Paul Krugman and Maureen Dowd, and leading a concert tour that sparked controversy in newsrooms when editors asked staffers to stay away from these partisan fund-raisers. That didn't stop the same newspapers from covering the shows when Bruce came to town.

Maybe Bruce should be invited to the next ASNE and NAA national conventions, even if he doesn't offer to play "The Star-Spangled Banner," as he did while stumping for Kerry in October.

Naturally, all of this activity has made Springsteen a target for those who have long disliked him, and even for some of his fans who wish he'd just shut up and strum. Last month, when we ran a piece on E&P Online quoting from his comments about the press in Rolling Stone, we got a rousing e-mail response.

Scott W. Smith wrote: "A freaking rock 'n' roller with a political bent: the two are fire and water. Tell Springsteen to stuff his political opinions up his snare drum."

Wayne Schei asked: "Who on earth made Springsteen an expert on the media? He's a musician, for crying out loud. I know a lot of them, and while very talented at what they do, they don't have time for much other than their music and recreation."

Frank Brown added: "Now that we know that Springsteen feels Mo Dowd and Krugman are the truth tellers, we really understand where Bruce's truths come from." But Karen Becker had a solution: "Springsteen says the press has let the country down? He needs to be informed ? he needs to watch Fox News. Fox Rox!"

And this from Allen O'Donnell: "Do tell the fellow with the guitar that HE is letting the nation down. Some call him the Boss ? not unlike Bossie the Cow, I suppose."

When I met the fellow with the guitar almost 32 years ago, he wasn't anyone's boss, except to members of the just-assembled E Street Band. Springsteen had recorded but not released his first album, Greetings from Asbury Park, and his manager Mike Appel (who he later sued) had a bright idea for provoking some early publicity: invite a few New York City writers to catch the band's debut, a gig at Sing Sing Prison up in Ossining, N.Y. Talk about a captive audience!

Never having stepped inside a prison, and aware that Bruce was being billed as the latest "new Dylan," I readily accepted. So did my magazine colleague Peter Knobler. We were the only suckers who did.

The following morning, we met Bruce and band in the back of van near the West Side Highway, and trucked on up to the penitentiary. It was Dec. 7, 1972. Bruce went over well with the convicts once he dropped the folk-rock and played R&B covers, such as Buddy Miles' immortal "Them Changes," with Clarence Clemons out front (for protection).

At the close, Bruce offered one of the funniest lines I've ever heard from the stage, addressing the inmates like it was the end of a high school assembly. "When this is over," Bruce said, "you can all go home."

That night, Bruce and the guys played a proper set at Kenny's Castaways in New York. About a dozen curiosity-seekers showed up. Peter and I finally got to hear Bruce's original material. A few days later we wrote the first-ever article about the singer for a national publication. It was a ridiculous 6,000 words long, with the cover line: "Who is Bruce Springsteen, and Why Are We Saying These Wonderful Things About Him?"

For years, I remained friends with Bruce and never heard a "political" word out of him. The idea of him becoming an activist was laughable. But for youngsters who think he's only turning political now: The truth is, he started sliding to the left in 1979 with the "No Nukes" concert. Throughout the 1980s he performed countless benefits for Vietnam vets, food banks, and other working-class causes.

By then, we had drifted apart, but we met again backstage during his politicized "Tom Joad" tour in 1996. He still seemed like the old Bruce, just with a bigger heart, and wallet. So there's only one thing new about this year's cash-and-Kerry tour: Bruce is now running on the backstreets of electoral politics.