Darkness on the Edge of Town

On the evening of November 5, 1980, a 31-year-old rock ‘n’ roller in a sweaty white shirt stood at a microphone in Tempe, Arizona, and ominously intoned to a crowd of thousands, “I don’t know what you guys think about what happened last night, but I think it’s pretty frightening.”

With that, he launched into one of his signature fist-pounding anthems, whose opening lines declare:

Lights out tonight, trouble in the heartland

Got a head-on collision smashin’ in my guts, man

I’m caught in a crossfire that I don’t understand

The man on the stage was Bruce Springsteen, and the previous day’s “what happened” was the election of Ronald Reagan as the 40th president of the United States.  The song, “Badlands,” was written and recorded two years prior, but its driving rhythm section and portentous lyrics seemed to capture the national mood as no other track could—at least among the American left.  It was as though Bruce had been saving it up for just the right moment.  As it turned out, the dawn of Reaganism was it.

Indeed, the prince of the Jersey Shore would spend the balance of the ensuing decade fortifying his reputation as an apostle of blue-collar America—the embodiment of the desperate, unwashed workingmen who felt betrayed and abandoned by their country and government in favor of the upper 1 percent.  In this milieu, the Reagan administration, with its tax-cutting, “trickle-down” economics, would, in short order, become Enemy No. 1.

From that concert in Tempe onward, Springsteen’s whole musical identity assumed a more political bent, his songs coming to reflect the times as much as the dreams and inner torment of the artist himself.  Where Bruce’s earlier work breezily spoke of young love on the boardwalk and hemi-powered drones screaming down the boulevard, by 1978 he was already losing faith in the institutions that had raised him—the government, the social compact, his family—and increasingly threaded this perceived societal drift into otherwise personal tales of love, hatred, anxiety and midnight drag racing.  (A typical lyric from that time:  “You’re born with nothing / and better off that way / soon as you’ve got something they send / someone to try and take it away.”)

Because this heightened social awareness and unease coincided with the Reagan Revolution—and also because of his open advocacy for such people as John Kerry, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton—Springsteen has long (and rightly) been associated with the Democratic Party and its base.  So it came as something of a shock for me when I recently re-listened—for, say, the dozenth time—to Springsteen’s 1982 album, Nebraska, and found that, song-for-song—in some cases, like-for-line—the record seemed to speak directly to the plight of the prototypical Trump voter in 2016.  Contained in those tracks—and, by implication, in the mind of the man who wrote them—are most (if not all) of the fears, disappointments and anger that drove millions of bitter, hardworking citizens—many of whom voted for Obama twice—to turn to Donald Trump as the last best hope to save the soul of their beloved, beleaguered country.  In many ways, Springsteen’s Nebraska—35 years old in September—serves as their voice.

You could begin with the album’s title track, which recounts the (true) story of a Bonnie and Clyde-like duo who senselessly murdered their way across the Midwest in the 1950s, only to conclude, “They wanted to know why I did what I did / well, sir, I guess there’s just a meanness in this world.”  Immediately following is “Atlantic City”—a concert staple to this day—whose protagonist bemoans, “I got a job and tried to put my money away / but I got debts that no honest man can pay.”  Worse still, in “Johnny 99,” we learn, “They closed down the auto plant in Mahwah late that month / Ralph went out lookin’ for a job / but he couldn’t find none.”  And so forth.

What is most consistent, and ominous, in these tracks—today and in their original context—is how inexorably the weight of economic despair eventuates in violence.  Along with the aimless, homicidal couple in the opener (“Me and her went for a ride, sir / and ten innocent people died”), the man in “Atlantic City” is forced to join the mob to make ends meet (“Last night I met this guy / and I’m gonna do a little favor for him”), while Ralph, aka Johnny 99, knocks off a town clerk in a drunken rage, later pleading to a judge, “The bank was holdin’ my mortgage / and they were gonna take my house away / Now I ain’t sayin’ that makes me an innocent man / But it was more ‘n all this that put that gun in my hand.”

Indeed, experience teaches us that certain acts of violence spring purely from desperation, hunger and a general lack of good options in life, and the ordeal of the 2016 election did little to disabuse us of this notion.

To wit:  It is a matter of public record that the core of Donald Trump’s minions viewed themselves (rightly or wrongly) as the most economically stretched class of people in a generation—folks without jobs, prospects or any real political power—and that Trump’s campaign, in turn, was the most physically intimidating in modern times, with scores of campaign rallies descending into fist fights, the aggressors egged on by the candidate himself, who bellowed, “If you see somebody with a tomato, knock the crap out of them,” adding, “I promise you, I will pay for the legal fees.”  (He didn’t, of course.)

Certainly nothing good can come from lashing out at your own society in such an ugly way.  Yet Nebraska does not look down on its characters when they commit despicable acts.  Bleak as it is, the album is fundamentally an exercise in empathy for those whose circumstances have led them to feel that a life of crime is the only choice they have left.  In their shoes, are we so sure that we wouldn’t behave the same way?

Encouragingly, perhaps, Springsteen himself has not changed his view on this one whit.  In an interview with Rolling Stone last October—during which he couldn’t summon a single positive word for the president-to-be—he posited, “I believe there’s a price being paid for not addressing the real cost of the deindustrialization and globalization that has occurred in the United States for the past 35, 40 years, and how it’s deeply affected people’s lives and deeply hurt people to where they want someone who says they have a solution.  And Trump’s thing is simple answers to very complex problems. […] And that can be very appealing.”  Asked if he is “surprised” to learn that the man who inspired his 1995 song “Youngstown”—an elegy to the American steel industry—is now a Trump supporter, Bruce responded, “Not really.”

Trump, he seems to agree, is what David Brooks once characterized as “the wrong answer to the right question.”

Which is all to say that Springsteen understood the American electorate in 2016 better than the Democratic Party—as, in their own way, did the likes of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren—and that unless the party makes a more honest reckoning with its relationship to America’s basket of deplorables, it will be quite some time before Democrats win back the House, the Senate, the presidency and the Supreme Court.

If you’ve lost Springsteen, you’ve lost America.