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Darkness On The Edge of The Shining City

Bruce Springsteen and the end of Reaganism.

On November 10 Bruce Springsteen fans began lining up outside record stores to buy the first copies of a boxed five-record set called "Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band Live 1975-1985." Three days later President Reagan first acknowledged reports that his administration had sold weapons to the government of the AyatoUah Khomeini in Iran.

If scandal and album are a cultural coincidence, so too are the careers of Reagan and Springsteen. Both have become cultural icons by giving the American people a reflection, a vision, of themselves. Both deftly use the mass media to define what is American, to present a seemingly natural but carefully molded persona with which their audience can identify: Reagan as genial patriarch of "traditional" middle-class values; Springsteen as exuberant yet sensitive son of the working class, Columnist George Will, recognizing their similarities as pop culture figures during the 1984 presidential campaign, suggested that Springsteen and Reagan stood for the same thing: that "America is back."

Will's attempt to conscript the rock star into the Reagan crusade, though scorned, was not entirely misguided. Springsteen is conservative, both temperamentally and musically {though not politically; he gives to left-liberal causes such as unions and food banks, and recently appeared in an anti-apartheid rock video). Will's mistake was to portray Springsteen as an ornament on Reaganism, to view Springsteen's short hair, heterosexual demeanor, and fondness for the American flag as right-wing credentials. Springsteen's rock critic friends on the left are less superficial than Will when they cast Springsteen as leftist savior, but they are also succumbing to the old temptation, of using a rock star for wish fulfillment. Such fans were impatient with Springsteen's mild response to the Reaganites' effort to co-opt him. Springsteen declined to appear in public with the president during the 1984 campaign, and, except for a few good-natured remarks in his concerts, left it at that.

Springsteen and Reagan confound sympathizers and critics alike by moving from one pop culture role to the next. The president can be the spokesman for a shimmering future or the abashed father explaining away some family embarrassment—like the killing of 241 Marines in Lebanon or the Challenger disaster—or the gruff sheriff enforcing {or breaking) international law. Springsteen moves with equal ease from greaser in a leather jacket to scraggly hippie in denim to all-American boy rocking and rolling in your average football stadium. They both stay credible regardless of what role they take up because their performances embody the values that their audiences want to believe in.

They also reverse the expected generational roles. The older man sounds young and the younger man sounds old. Reagan is the hedonist. He revels in the tumult of capitalism with little regard for its consequences; in happy dreams of consumption with little regard for their unreality; in the righteousness of "traditional" family values without ever having bothered to live them. Springsteen, while optimistic, is more cautious; this is his conservatism. He sings about failed factories and failed parents and about the difficulties of finding, as the title of one of his songs puts it, "Reason to Believe."

Nowhere is this paradox more evident than in the way each recalls the past in order to define the future. Springsteen is obsessed with confronting his own painful memories, with {in a recurring phrase in his songs) "the price you pay." Reagan, by contrast, is Utopian. He sees the past as literally priceless—valuable beyond measure, yet costing nothing today. He relies on this mythology of the past in much the way a radical relies on ideology, as the blueprint for a glorious epoch in the making. The future is the Puritans' "shining city on a hill."

The '60s are the most important period of the past for both men. Springsteen, born in 1949, is a typical member of the baby boom generation. Reagan first won office in California in 1966 on the strength of his opposition to the emerging student movement. Springsteen's music and his memories are rooted in the period between the debut of Elvis Presley and the release of the Beatles' White Album. Reagan's politics are defined in opposition to the same period. His foreign policy defines itself as the rejection of the anti-war movement. His "supply-side" economic policies are promoted as the corrective to the "tax and spend" economic policies of the Great Society. His espousal of "traditional values" is a rhetorical rejection of cultural innovation since the '60s.

Scandal and album are occasions for taking stock of the '60s. The scandal is Reagan's refusal to explain or even to acknowledge his actions in the lian-contra affair. Underlying all of Reagan's actions was the illusion that suffered most in the '60s: that America's good intentions enabled and entitled it to do anything. If we are confused and astounded by each new round of revelations, it is only an indication of how successful Reagan was at sustaining that illusion.

The live album is Springsteen's effort to make sense out of where he and his audience have come from in the last ten years. Springsteen's career is the funny and sad story of growing up after the '60s, of coming of age in what he called, in the title of his 1978 album, the "Darkness on the Edge of Town."

In September 1974 a little-known rock musician named Bruce Springsteen was featured on the cover oF Time and Newsweek in the same week. This remarkable burst of hype, long since forgotten, says less about Springsteen's mass popularity than it does about his appeal to an elite of rock critics and corporate executives at three of the country's largest media corporations. (Springsteen's first two albums, released by CBS Records, were both commercial duds.) Time Inc., Washington Post-Newsweek, CBS Records, and the critics understood that Springsteen was a figure who would help sell their products to the generation emerging out of the '60s.

Similarly, General Electric employed Reagan as a corporate spokesman from 1954 to 1962 because the affable matinee star who never outshone anyone seemed to them to be the embodiment of white middle-class conformity—what we might now call pre-'60s American values. Reagan's purpose wasn't simply to sell GE products any more than Springsteen's is simply to sell CBS records. They were hired because GE and CBS Records had identified cultural tastes and needed public figures to appeal to those tastes and shape them. The culture of capitalism discovered both Springsteen and Reagan; their status as cultural icons is not an accident.

Springsteen emerged from the heart of the post-'60s generation, from "Middle America," with the emphasis on the middle. He didn't belong to the relatively small counterculture that dominated elite college campuses and mass media coverage—though he was influenced by it. He was into cars, not acid or the Viet Cong. Yet in 1967, when he graduated from high school, he had long hair and didn't want to go to Vietnam, Nor did he belong to the "Silent Majority," that substantial but usually exaggerated part of the American public that wasn't young or black, that wasn't protesting, that wasn't rejecting traditional values, and that resented the "anything goes" attitude of many who were. Springsteen was, as he sings in one of his songs, "caught in a crossfire I don't understand."

CBS Records was similarly situated between main- stream and counterculture. Between 1964 and 1969, CBS Records went from doing 15 percent of its business in rock to 60 percent; its sales rose 15 to 20 percent annually. Perhaps foremost among record companies, CBS relied on advertising in the radical, sexually explicit, anarchistic underground press to reach its young customers. CBS had long since recognized the profits in transmitting the counterculture to the mainstream.

Mainstream culture and counterculture were feeding off of each other. As rock critic Jon Landau asked in Rolling Stone in 1971, "We say we are a counterculture, yet are we really so different from the culture against which we rebel?" Maybe not. Springsteen had signed with CBS in 1972, right at the point when, for better and worse, counterculture was becoming the new mainstream of American society. {Landau would go on to become Springsteen's manager and an important influence on his career.)

Springsteen begins his retrospective album in 1975, the year he assembled the E Street Band and figured out his rock 'n' roll ambitions. Most importantly, the '60s were unambiguously over: the Vietnam War had been lost, the oil embargo had brought a deep recession, and his own crazy-kid spirit had begun to fade.

The songs, though not organized in the order they were released, are arranged thematically to reflect the progress of Springsteen's career. In his first song Springsteen reminds his fans that the journey of the last ten years began In fear. "So you're scared and you're thinking/That maybe we ain't that young anymore," he sings plaintively in "Thunder Road," Well, Bruce tells his girl, he's not a hero and he doesn't have anything to offer, just a ride in his car out on a highway toward some lost sense of freedom. Unlike Jack Kerouac in the '50s or the easy riders of the '60s, Springsteen isn't seeking the freedom of "anything goes." Through the first third of the album he is an ordinary teenager—a silly romantic, a pseudo-poet, and all-around wise guy—who nevertheless wants something more.

By the middle third of the album, the false bravado is gone, and with it Springsteen's penchant for histrionics. These songs, drawn from all phases of his career, are fiercer and more desperate. They combine catchier melodies with harsher stories and a hard rock edge. The music is at once tougher and more lyrical, reflecting the tension within Springsteen himself. In songs like "Badlands" he is fighting off a vague sense of hopelessness with the conviction that "it ain't no sin to be giad you're alive."

Springsteen doesn't rig his emotional gambles. Sometimes he wins and sometimes he loses. What makes his downbeat songs such as "Darkness on the Edge of Town" and "Backstreets" inspiring is the faith that he musters even while imagining himself with the losers on the edge of society. But after giving a proud version of Woody Guthrie's populist national anthem "This Land is Your Land," Springsteen tests his own compassion and that of his fans by singing about "Johnny 99," a man who kills a night clerk in a stickup. He does not patronize this killer as "a victim of society." Although Johnny has been stripped of his dignity by an economy that won't give him a job, Johnny himself tells the judge that it was more than his debts that put the gun in his hand. People like Johnny, Springsteen says, are responsible for succumbing to "the meanness in this world." That weakness though is what makes him human. Johnny too was "Born in the USA"— and the ringing introductory chords of that song are the next thing you hear on the album.

Which explains another intriguing cultural coincidence. The album Born in the USA, which elevated Springsteen from rock star to cultural icon, was released in June 1984. President Reagan, in what history is sure to see as the high tide of Reaganism, ran for re-eiection that fall on the slogan "It's Morning in America." Perhaps more than anything else, the album cover, which features Springsteen thrashing his guitar in front of an immense red, white, and blue flag, has linked him in the public mind with Reagan. Yet the patriotisms of the two men could not be more different.

In Born in the USA Springsteen turned to the theme of national birth because he believed that our common identity, forged in the pain of the past, could sustain Americans in the face of the "meanness in this world." Reagan turned to the idea of national rebirth in order to celebrate the promised restoration of a glorious and pain-free past. If Springsteen seemed to embody a mood of "America is back," it was because he had captured people's desire to come to grips with the legacy of the '60s. Reagan appealed to the desire to mythologize the '60s, especially the Vietnam War.

Reagan's mythology of the past succeeded with the public, not because it was right-wing, but because it tapped the myths of the '60s shared by left and right alike. The indignant claim that theanti-war movement was the real "noble cause" only helped Reagan. Whether rejected as a period of youthful stupidity or sentimentalized as a bygone period of unmatched idealism, the '60s were painless, and painlessness was what Reagan was offering in 1984.

Reagan had outflanked liberals on both the left and the right by adapting the myths of the '60s for his own purposes. His ideal social type, the entrepreneur, resembled no one so much as the hippie of the '60s. For both, freedom and self-fulfillment were identical; for both, the credo "Do your own thing" promised a better world. Like '60s radicals, Reagan envisioned the world politics as a duel between good and evil in which a group of Americans (radicals or Reaganites) appointed themselves as the good. "Amerika" the imperialist demon in the banners of '60s radicals became "Amerika" the besieged innocent in the 1987 miniseries. Both '60s radicals and '80s Reaganites believed that the virtue of their ends justified almost any means. Both viewed the niceties of democratic procedure as a sham that slowed them on their appointed rounds of historic duty. For '60s radicals, there was the infatuation with revolutionary violence and contempt for those foolish enough to disagree. For the infinitely more powerful Reaganites it was "anything goes" in Iran, in the National Security Council, in Nicaragua, and only God (and the special prosecutor) knows where else.

The past has now caught up with both Springsteen and Reagan. Springsteen tells his audience, in two between-song monologues, what he thinks are the most important lessons of the '60s. With a churchlike organ playing softly in the background, he recounts how his father used to taunt him: "I can't wait until the army gets you, because they'll make a man out of you." He tells about getting his draft notice and how scared he was when he went to take his physical. When he got home his father asked him what happened; Bruce said he had failed the physical. His father just said, "That's good." The crowd roars at Douglas Springsteen's admission that he didn't want the army and the traditional values it stood for to capture his son after all. One lesson is that the "Silent Majority" had to acknowledge the wisdom of its children.

Springsteen brings us back to the future with "Seeds," a populist blues-rock screed about a homeless family living in their car outside Houston. He doesn't want to revive the '60s protest as much as show that it is now a part of the American mainstream. Then he plays uncle to the teenagers in the crowd, telling them about growing up in the '60s "with war on TV every night" He warns them that "the next time they're going to be coming after you," and grimly concludes that "in 1985 blind faith in your leaders or in anything will get you killed." To clinch the importance of remembering the anti-war movement, he and the band rip into "War," a Motown protest song from 1970 that opens with a mighty shout: "War/What is it good for?/Absolutely nothing." He wants to remind his fans that the rebellious ways of the '60s have been vindicated.

Springsteen, though, is bound to disappoint those who expect him to lead their political crusades. When he warns his fans against having blind Faith in their leaders, he does not exclude himself. He does not reject his own message any more than he abandons his past. In the final third of the album, devoted mostly to Springsteen's more recent songs, he returns to cruising down the highway toward "The Promised Land" or cutting up with a buddy in "Darlington County" or braving the terrors of New York City and the "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out." He has reached maturity, but that hardly means he must become a political activist and abandon what he has always loved the most.

Springsteen, in fact, sounds just like he does at the beginning, like he's scared that maybe he isn't that young anymore. In the second song on the album, "Adam Raised a Cain," Springsteen sang about his painful relationship with his father: "Daddy worked his whole life for nothing but the pain/Now he walks these empty rooms looking for something to blame/You inherit the sins, you inherit the flames." By the end of the album, Springsteen has taken up the role of the father himself. In "My Hometown" a man drives down Main Street with his young son. As he sees the whitewashed store windows on Main Street, he remembers how his father had taken him for the same ride and how the town has decHned. "Son, take a good look around," he tells his boy. "This is your hometown."

This is the end of the ride that began in 1975. Springsteen proclaims that he is still "Born to Run," but he sounds rueful about his youthful pledge of "No Surrender." He closes with "Jersey Girl," a sentimental lullaby for his true love (no doubt his wife, whom he married in 1985) and a gentle kiss-off to his huge audience. As with millions of his fans, Springsteen's new family marks the end of his coming of age.

Springsteen, though, would never pretend that we can escape inheriting the sins and the flames of the past. Reaganism is an essential part of the decade that Springsteen has covered in his retrospective album. In his melancholy ballad "The River," Springsteen asks himself the question that he says haunts him like a curse: "Is a dream a lie if it don't come true/Or is it something worse?" While Springsteen's own dreams seem to have come true, Reagan's dream has gone bad and become frightening. The homeless in Houston and the crooks on Wall Street and the Fifth Amendment patriots in Washington are proof that Reaganism has failed. Maybe it was a lie. Or maybe, Springsteen suggests, it was something worse. 

Jefferson Morley, a former staff writer at The Washington Post, is national editorial director of

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