What was happening to rock 'n' roll in 1984 when you could hear lines like these from candidates for the U.S. Presidency? Ronald Reagan started it, at a speech in Hammonton, N.J. in September. "America's future rests in a thousand dreams inside your hearts," he said. "It rests in the message of hope in songs of a man so many young Americans admire—New Jersey's own Bruce Springsteen. And helping you make those dreams come true is what this job of mine is all about." While campaigning in East Brunswick, N.J., Fritz Mondale rapped, "Bruce may have been 'born to run' but he wasn't born yesterday." Imagine Nixon and Kennedy scrapping over the Chubby Checker vote.
Bruce refused to endorse either candidate; he wasn't coy about where he stood on the issue. In Pittsburgh, two days after the President's comments, he said of Reagan: "I got to wondering what his favorite album must have been. I don't think he's been listening to this one." And he launched into Johnny 99, a bitter plaint on the fate of a laid-off worker:
Well they closed down the auto plant in
Mahwah late that month.
Ralph went out lookin' for a job but
he couldn't find none.
He came home too drunk from mixin'
Tanqueray and wine.
He got a gun, shot a night clerk and now
they call him Johnny 99.
Maybe nothing was happening to rock 'n' roll in this election year, but something big was most assuredly going on with Bruce Springsteen. This was the year America promoted the Boss to higher office. Until 1984 only two of his six albums had gone platinum; now Born in the U.S.A., his seventh, has sold nearly 5 million, and his tour—a hand-clapping, dance-till-you-drop, four-hour marathon—stands (even against Prince and the Jacksons) as the best rock show on the road.
Forget the numbers; Liberace has numbers. This is something else. You can hear it in Johnny 99, a flip side to rock 'n' roll, a tune that has nothing to do with the fluff and decadence of pop. With the songs on Born in the U.S.A., Bruce announces himself to be a kind of telecaster-guitar-powered alternative to the Six O'clock News, taking over the mike as spokesman for people who've been speechless all too long: Vietnam vets and blue collar workers who were just scraping by and wondering what had happened to their American dream, ordinary people who loved their rock 'n' roll and their nation and weren't quite sure where they fit in anymore, or if they fit in it at all.
No wonder a Springsteen concert is closer to the spirit of an old-time fundamentalist camp meeting than most church services today. "We're slowly getting split up into two different Americas," says Bruce. "Things are getting taken away from people who need them and given to people who don't need them. There's a promise being broken."
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