“Lately there ain’t been much work” – economic reality in the songs of Bruce Springsteen
Writer, musician and lifelong Springsteen fan, Chris T-T, finds questions of economics at the heart of the work of one of America's most enduring songwriters
American singer-songwriter Bruce Springsteen got his nickname ‘The Boss’ long before stardom, long before his record contract, and long before making his fortune. Barely out of school, he ran his band as a professional working outfit, negotiating with promoters, keeping track of the cash, and paying his musicians.
In their early 20s, driving around the east coast of the United States in beat-up old vans, the band established a distinct work ethic from the start: play hard, put on a show, and - crucially - get paid for your labour.
These musicians were true Jersey Shore urchins too; often itinerant, with struggling blue-collar parents, getting into constant scrapes with the law. No middle-class dropouts here; no safety net to rely on. This means there's a fascinating urgency to the Springsteen of that time, his early songs populated by semi-fictional characters living in this same precarious space: carnies, scam artists, the “tramps and greasers” busted for sleeping on the beach in ‘4th Of July, Asbury Park’.
Springsteen’s protagonists scrape by and long for more. Here’s ‘Does This Bus Stop At 82nd Street?’, where exuberant wealth is shouting “keep the change!” at the bus driver:
Where dock workers’ dreams mix with panthers’ schemes
To someday own the rodeo
Meanwhile, his most mystically alluring characters might easily be funded by a loan from the narrator:
Don’t give me your money, honey, I don’t want it back
You and your pony face and your Union Jack
Even when convoluted and poetic to the point of magic realism, a basic fiscal grit underpins his tales - a theme his songwriting will explore over what will be a 45-year career. Here’s a telling moment of wry self-awareness in ‘Rosalita’:
Tell him this could be his last chance
To get his daughter in a fine romance,
The record company, Rosie
Just gave me a big advance!
By 1975, on breakthrough album Born To Run, Springsteen tames his florid visions, tidies up his language and begins to sculpt a powerful realism. ‘Meeting Across The River’ is a conversation about an attempt to get some desperately needed cash:
Well Cherry says she's gonna walk
‘Cause she found out I took her radio and hocked it
But Eddie, man, she don’t understand that two grand’s
Practically sitting here in my pocket,
And tonight’s gonna be everything that I said
And when I walk through the door
I’m just gonna throw that money on the bed,
She’ll see this time I wasn’t just talking.
The failure of the plan doesn’t need to be in the lyric itself: it’s inevitable.
“This is partly why he’s maintained a devoted fan base among US conservatives, despite his liberal views. At its heart, his songwriting is about empathy, not top-down problem-solving. Recession is his great muse.
As his translucent beach kids grow up, America’s brutal disparities smash them back down to earth. And after Born To Run makes him a star, Springsteen can’t leave the topic behind.
He turns his gaze outwards for Darkness On The Edge Of Town, which takes three torturous years to finish. Recording it, Springsteen gives away obvious hits (‘Fire’ to the Pointer Sisters, ‘Because The Night’ to Patti Smith), preferring a consistent vision tied to the economic shape of America’s heartland. The album both celebrates labour and vividly points out its human cost. Perhaps the great succinct masterpiece of this is the song ‘Factory’.
Springsteen’s father was a manual worker deeply damaged (physically and psychologically) by his job. As in ‘Factory’, Bruce’s own difficult relationship with Springsteen Sr. (both in real life and in song) is intricately linked to financial trauma. This is from the song ‘Adam Raised A Cain’:
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
Adam raised a Cain
And when he finally leaves home (connected in the lyrics to a whole town’s financial struggle) in ‘Independence Day’, it’s brutal.
The darkness of this house has got the best of us
There’s a darkness in this town that’s got us too
But they can’t touch me now
And you can’t touch me now
They ain’t gonna do to me what I watched them do to you
The title track of 1980’s The River is another beloved example, where the human cost of economic indifference to inequality is the driving force of the material.
I come from down in the valley
Where Mister when you’re young
They bring you up to do
What your Daddy done
I got a job working construction
For the Johnstown Company
But lately there ain’t been much work
On account of the economy
All those things that seemed so important
They just vanish right into the air
Later, on the albumNebraska, Springsteen emphasises one phrase - “debts no honest man can pay” - by using it in more than one song, breaking the fourth wall by repetition. He further distils financial crisis as the key cause, with each story a symptom.
Then, during the Born In The USA period and after, as he becomes one of rock’s global megastars, Springsteen’s lyrics often deal with fundamental dissatisfaction of his own riches. The disappointment of expensive cable in ’57 Channels’; that all his glitzy stuff means nothing if he can’t get the girl in ‘Ain’t Got You’.
Arguably, he addresses his own wealth with a more openly critical gaze than any other major figure in music, castigating the “rich man in a poor man’s shirt” in ‘Better Days’ on Lucky Town.
And, from ‘Local Hero’ on the same album:
Well I learned my job, I learned it well
Fit myself with religion and a story to tell
First they made me the king, then they made me pope
Then they brought the rope
The outward-looking narrative songs is still there and, to this day, remain filled with troubled characters living precarious lives. Where Springsteen is often described as a political musician, I think these economic threads are far more central to his songwriting than any party political or moral issue. He’s made whole albums firmly focused on other topics, yet the same themes of economic hardship, limited opportunities and blue-collar struggle always hover close by.
This is partly why he’s maintained a devoted fan base among US conservatives, despite his liberal views. At its heart, his songwriting is about empathy, not top-down problem-solving.
is his great muse. As the smoke cleared from the 2008 financial crash, he released the fiery Wrecking Ball, which featured some of his most searing commentary in years:
Send the robber barons straight to hell
The greedy thieves who came around
And ate the flesh of everything they've found
Whose crimes have gone unpunished now
Political artists almost always pick issues and tackle them in close-up, in individual works or series of works. But in Springsteen’s songs it's the over-arching economic reality - rather than any particular ideological stance - that fills his material and powers his stories. This has enabled him to paint a vast and consistent picture of American blue-collar life in a time of drastic change. For me, looking back through Springsteen’s whole career, reveals him to be perhaps the pre-eminent living American artist evoking (and in doing so, offering some relief from) the economic trauma of everyday experience.