The following is an excerpt from the Bruce Springsteen cover story in the March 29th, 2012 issue of Rolling Stone, on news stands now.
Springsteen arrives at The Daily Show’s Manhattan studios on foot one icy day in late January, fresh from Jersey – he fought the wind for the dozen blocks from the Lincoln Tunnel along 11th Avenue, wearing only a thin leather jacket. “There was traffic,” says Springsteen, “so Patti dropped me off.” (“The Freehold is strong in that one,” Stewart says, picturing this journey.) Back from taping that night’s Daily Show, Stewart joins Springsteen in his cluttered office – where there’s already a photo of the two men together pinned to the wall – after exchanging his suit and tie for khakis and a long-sleeved T-shirt.
In recent years, Stewart has seen his decades-long Springsteen fandom turn into a friendship. “It’s in no way surreal,” Stewart says with heavy sarcasm. “It’s the most natural thing in the world. It’s very hard to reconcile sitting and fishing in a little pond in New Jersey with a guy you spent many years hitchhiking the I-95 corridor to see in Philadelphia back in the day. The only band I think I’ve seen more than Bruce Springsteen is the Springsteen tribute band Backstreets. I try not to let him know how pathetic I truly am.”
Stewart grew up in Lawrenceville, New Jersey, 30 miles northwest of Springsteen’s Monmouth County hometown. “Every car he sang about you were like, ‘I’ve seen that up on blocks in the backyard right near where I live.’” He saw his first Springsteen show on 1978’s Darkness on the Edge of Town tour, when he was about 15. “The first time you hear Darkness, you begin to plan how to move out of New Jersey,” says Stewart. (Like Springsteen, Stewart eventually returned, and has a home in the Garden State: “You realize, hey, New Jersey’s all right, actually!”)
On Springsteen’s new album, Wrecking Ball, his characters aren’t looking for escape – they just want a job. With fiercely populist tunes like “Death to My Hometown” and “Jack of All Trades,” Springsteen paints a picture of an America where “the banker man grows fat/Working man grows thin.” Springsteen wanted the new songs to address “what happened to the social fabric of the world that we’re living in.”
“Hope and Dreams” and other songs on the album’s second half seem to move from the personal and political to a sense of the spiritual.
Well, on the first half of the record, you’re just pissed off. The first cut, “We Take Care of Our Own,” is where I set out the questions that I’m going to try to answer. The song’s chorus is posed as a challenge and a question. Do we take care of our own? What happened to that social contract? Where did that go over the past 30 years? How has it been eroded so terribly? And how is it that the outrage about that erosion is just beginning to be voiced right now? I’ve written about this stuff for those 30 years, from Darkness on the Edge of Town to The Ghost of Tom Joad through to today. It all came out of the Carter recession of the late Seventies, and when I was writing about that, my brother-in-law lost his construction job and went to work as a janitor in the local high school. It changed his life.
So these are issues and things that occur over and over again in history and land on the backs of the same people. In my music – if it has a purpose beyond dancing and fun and vacuuming your floor to it – I always try to gauge the distance between American reality and the American dream. The mantra that I go into in the last verse of “We Take Care of Our Own” – “Where are the eyes, where are the hearts?” – it’s really: “Where are those things now, what happened to those things over the past 30 years? What happened to the social fabric of the world that we’re living in? What’s the price that people pay for it on a daily basis?” Which is something that I lived with intensely as a child, and is probably the prime motivation for the subjects I’ve written about since I was very, very young.
Someone wrote in The New York Times that “We Take Care of Our Own” was “jingoistic.”
Whoever said that, they need a smarter pop writer.
[Laughs] It takes you back to the days of “Born in the U.S.A.,” which was so widely misunderstood.
Yeah. I didn’t feel that so much from this particular instance, but you write the best piece of music you can, and you put it out there, and then you see what comes back at you. Lately, it seems as if the polarization of the country has gotten so extreme that people want to force you into being either a phony “patriot” or an “apologist.” Nuanced political dialogue or creative expression seems like it’s been hamstrung by the decay of political speech and it’s infantilized our national discourse. I can’t go for that and I won’t write that way.
To read the rest of this cover story, pick up the March 29th, 2012 issue of Rolling Stone, available on stands and in Rolling Stone All Access.