Working Life: Springsteen's Tribute To Australian Workers

Image - springsteen fist.jpg
[Picture: The Boss: “I hope you’re listening, Tony Abbott!”]

It's easy to be cynical about Bruce Springsteen, the multi-millionaire jetsetting rock star performing songs about the everyday struggles of working people.

After all, this is a man whose nickname is The Boss, and whose retinue includes not only the other 17 musicians and singers on stage, but a mini-army of roadies, technicians and all sorts of support staff.

Springsteen is as much a businessman and an employer as he is a musician, and his lifestyle today, with its 154-hectare farm and houses in Beverley Hills and Florida, is as far removed from his humble New Jersey upbringing as it is possible to be.

It’s easy to be cynical, and we live in cynical times.

But when Springsteen sings of working people, their hardships and their small triumphs, about the dignity of work, and the dreams of a better life, it does feel genuine. It comes from the heart. If it can be said of any star that they have not forgotten where they came from, then surely it can be said of Bruce Springsteen.

The characters who populate Springsteen’s songs are ordinary working people, like the folk he grew up with. Often, due to factors beyond their control, life hasn’t worked out as they planned.

Social commentary in song

Neither has Springsteen veered away from incorporating powerful social comment in his music as he has become more successful. His last album before one, Wrecking Ball, can be read as a indictment of the damage done to ordinary Americans by Wall Street greed with songs about people losing their homes, their jobs and their dignity because of the economic injustice.

The closing track of Springsteen’s most commercially successful album, 1984’s Born in the USA, is one of these poignant stories.

Its closing track, ‘My Hometown’ is a vivid depiction of the impact of economic change on a small industrial town. Written during the Reagan era, when the decline in American wages and living standards began as a direct result of free market economics, it describes how within a generation the guts were ripped out of a town when its main employer, a textile factory, closes.

Transplant it to Australia, and Springsteen could be singing about Geelong post-Ford, Elizabeth post-Holden, or Shepparton post-SPC.

Springsteen sang ‘My Hometown’ in Melbourne on Saturday night. And he then followed it with a short monologue and a song that carries a subtle message that every Australian political and business leaders should heed as the nation faces structural economic change that is throwing tens of thousands of people out of work.

Among the many song request signs in the crowd on Saturday night was a handwritten one with the word “Factory” in red. Underneath it, in black text, it said: “for the thousands who have lost their working lives . . .” above the logos for Ford, Holden and Toyota. The sign was made by Melbourne nurse and photographer Nikki McCrone.

A song about the importance of work

What happened next was classic Springsteen: a strong social message wrapped up in a story from his life growing up in industrial New Jersey.

“My dad, when I was a child, five or six, maybe younger, worked on the Ford line. It was in Brunswick, New Jersey,” he began.

“There are such hard times in the States. In the past seven or eight years, so many people have lost their life savings, lost their homes, directly from the actions of a relatively small number of reckless and greedy people.

“This is a song about work. About the meaning of work, the importance of work in your life.”

The Ford factory Springsteen talks about once employed thousands and churned out 1.7 million pickups over its 56 year life, before closing in 2004.

Once the heartland of American industry, New Jersey has lost more than half a million jobs in wave after wave of manufacturing closures since the end of the Sixties, when Springsteen first entered adulthood.

As Springsteen finished his short monologue about the meaning of work and the impact of economic policies crafted by the big end of town on working people, someone in the crowd yelled out: “I hope you’re listening, Tony Abbott!”

He wasn’t. But he should have been.