Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Stephen Kiehl: The Spirit Moves the Boss

Bruce Springsteen's latest project reflects the faith-based undercurrents of American life; His fans accept his social activism

By Stephen Kiehl
Baltimore Sun Staff
Originally published April 26, 2005

There are Vietnam veterans who have never forgiven Jane Fonda for visiting with the Viet Cong and Dixie Chicks fans who stomped their CDs after lead singer Natalie Maines made an anti-Bush remark at the start of the Iraq war.

But while other artists have paid a price for speaking out politically, there is at least one who has been given wider latitude: Bruce Springsteen, who over the years has taken on causes like unemployment, AIDS and, now, with his new album, Devils & Dust, the hottest of the current buttons - religion.

The Boss will probably get away with it, just as he seems not to have suffered career damage by supporting the loser, John Kerry, in the last presidential election. It's because, observers say, he's earned it."

If all he was interested in was popularity, he could have churned out 'Born in the USA' parts 2, 3, 4 and 5, and he didn't do that," says Mike Marrone, a programming director for XM Satellite Radio. "He had a license to print money, and he didn't use it."

Instead, Springsteen has followed his conscience and called attention to segments of American society that have been forgotten or left behind - Vietnam veterans and laid-off workers, AIDS victims and immigrants.

The Boss, perhaps one of the most famous products of Catholic school, continues his role as America's conscience with his new CD. Critics are calling Devils and Dust his family values album for its themes of God, church and family.

The title song is about an American soldier with his "finger on the trigger/And tonight faith just ain't enough." And another, "Jesus Was an Only Son," imagines a conversation between Jesus and his mother before his crucifixion.

So many overt references to faith and God may be new for Springsteen, but at least since Nebraska, his 1982 album about those who didn't have a place in Reagan's prosperous America, he has been telling tales that force his multitudes of fans to think about life on the margins.

Springsteen went on to write "Streets of Philadelphia" for the 1993 Tom Hanks film about a lawyer whose firm fires him when it becomes clear he has AIDS. And after the 9/11 attacks he released an album, The Rising, about finding strength through the sorrow of that day.

"With The Rising, he felt it," said Stan Goldstein, who founded the Rock & Roll Tour of the Jersey Shore in 1999, which hits Springsteen sites. "That was his neighborhood. He lost neighbors. I'm sure his children's friends lost parents, and he felt it right in his own community, and I think he was part of the healing process."

Last year, Springsteen enthusiastically campaigned for Kerry, at the risk of alienating some fans. But Springsteen explained his motives at the kickoff of the Vote for Change tour in Philadelphia last October: "I think that if you mislead the country and take the country to war and put our sons and daughters on the line - if you do it for a false reason, you lose your job."

Even his Republican fans say they respected his honesty and had always assumed his politics tilted leftward anyway.

"I didn't really agree with everything he said, but I respected it," said Goldstein. "I've always felt that he wanted to raise up the social conscience a bit."Marrone, of XM Satellite Radio, says Springsteen succeeds in speaking his mind because he comes off as genuine.

"He grew up in a very blue-collar area, and he has never lost sight of that," Marrone said. "So therefore he writes about things that are interesting to him. I think he's always been seen as a kind of conscience because he comes across as somebody who doesn't bull----. He comes across as very, very real."

Marrone points to the speech Springsteen gave last month when U2 was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The Boss said: "They are both a step forward and direct descendants of the great bands who believed rock music could shake things up in the world, who dared to have faith in their audience, who believed if they played their best it would bring out the best in you."

He was talking about U2, but he may as well have been speaking of himself.

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