Sometimes I believe I have one of the best jobs around. I mean, where else can you leave your job at 2:30 p.m. on a deadline day -- after asking other editors to cover and read your proofs for you (thanks, Brian and Kim) -- so you can drive to Ypsilanti to see Bruce Springsteen sing in support of Barack Obama? I almost didn't go; several friends, including my sister-in-law Debbie, phoned over the weekend to say they'd picked up a ticket for me at the Obama headquarters. They know I love Bruce Springsteen... have so since at least 1975. But, again, it was deadline day. And Springsteen had drawn 50,000 people to his first of three "Vote for Change" concerts last Saturday at Ben Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia. This sounded like it could be a crowded, logistical mess, and when my friend Ace suggested we should get in line shortly after noon for the Ypsilanti event (gates opened at 3 p.m.), I thought there's no way I could do that.
But my sister-in-law convinced me Monday morning that we should just get there around 4 p.m. (the event was scheduled to start at 4:30) and take our chances. Hey, she had to work, too! Well, unlike Philly, only around 1100 folks showed up for the Ypsi event (it was Monday afternoon, after all... or have I mentioned that already?). So a little after 4 p.m., we strolled into Eastern Michigan University's Oestrike baseball stadium and, with no hassle at all, found a spot less than five feet from the stage. (Ace had tried to convince me on Friday that I should demand a press pass... but I doubt a pass would've gotten us any closer to the stage ... and all those with cameras and video equipment ended up about half a field back from where Debbie and I had comfortably situated ourselves anyway. I'd have felt ridiculous, in fact, with a press pass around my neck.)
So "the show" began promptly at 4:30, with someone who failed to introduce herself welcoming us and the Obama campaign to EMU. (During her speech, we finally surmised she was EMU president Susan Martin, which led me to wonder what Repiglican, er, Republican donors must think of the university president being so partisan -- after all, a Detroit radio journalist was fired last week for wearing an Obama T-shirt on the job -- but God bless Ms. Martin for her strong principles anyway... hey, I'm supposedly a "journalist" and I wouldn't vote Republican if someone put a fucking gun to my head...)
Next up was a minister, who also didn't identify himself (sheesh! The first basic rule of public speaking!) and who led the crowd in a prayer about "change" -- the good kind, obviously -- but got me to wondering again after he invoked the name Jesus Christ several times and suggested we were all there in His name. Hey, nothing wrong with Jesus -- Jesus is just alright with me! -- but I did wonder about the Jewish people, the Buddhists (my sis-in-law is one), etc. who might have been on hand...though that was followed by the immediate thought that there are probably as many Jewish people in the entire Midwest combined as there were in the city of L.A.... which is probably why the sentiment plays OK here. Next up was a soldier dressed in camouflage gear and wearing what looked like a Middle Eastern headdress "leading" us in the Pledge of Allegiance. "Repeat after me," he instructed, and then he'd say each line which we were then supposed to repeat. Hey, I have nothing against the Pledge of Allegiance, even the "one nation under God" part (as Sarah "If I Only Had a Brain" Palin says: "If it was good enough for our founding fathers"...lol) -- but in much the same way that we recovering Catholics never forget the prayers we learned all those years ago as youngsters, most of us baby boomers will never forget the words to that pledge either, at least not until Alzheimer's kicks in... so really no need to "repeat" after anyone.
The all-black EMU gospel choir then sang a stirring version of "The Star Spangled Banner" (which led me to think about how the idea of "patriotism" must be more complicated if you were raised black in the U.S.... and how between a Jesus prayer, a pledge and the National Anthem, I could've just as easily been at a John McCain rally instead, except they'd have probably had someone like Big & Rich instead of an all-black choir and the Boss; as you can probably tell, I was in a "thinkative" mood yesterday) before the political speeches began.
First up was Debbie Dingell, who screamed (that's what the microphone is for, my dear) her support of Obama before introducing her husband, U.S. Representative John Dingell. No one obviously explained to Debbie that Springsteen fans always yell "Brooooce!" before the performer takes the stage and the poor dear mistook them for "booos," admonishing the crowd twice that there should be "no negativity today." The crowd looked equally confused. Thank God Lou Reed wasn't also on the bill! Mr. Dingell -- who was on crutches when he took the stage -- gave a fairly eloquent speech (though far less eloquesnt than anything Springsteen would later say), proving that, unlike John McCain, one can be nearly as old as the hills but still be progressive. And Judge Diane Marie Hathaway, running as a nonpartisan for Michigan's Supreme Court, at least revealed her familiarity with the artist by joking that the current court is "a death trap, a suicide rap," referring to lyrics from Springsteen's classic "Born To Run."
The two head spokespersons for the Michigan Obama campaign then introduced Springsteen, who took the stage -- dressed in jeans and a flannel shirt -- at approximately 4:50 p.m., playing an eight-song acoustic set (just guitar and harmonica) that lasted around an hour. He opened with a stark version of "Promised Land," immediately following with his bleak tribute to the struggles of the working class and John Steinbeck's literary Dust Bowl hero in The Grapes of Wrath, "The Ghost of Tom Joad." It was amazing to hear how the lyrics to all the songs he performed -- some now 33 years old -- are as relevant and poignant during this campaign as they were when he originally wrote them. The artist reflected on how he's spent the last 35 years traveling the world and writing about the conflicts and dichotomy between the American Dream and the realities faced by good American people, stating that Obama still believes in that dream, which is something that "a thousand George Bushes nor a thousand Dick Cheneys can totally destroy." The applause, as you can imagine, was thunderous.
Bruce had lots of fun with the word "Ypsilanti" throughout the performance -- "Good to be here," he quipped. "Don't know how to spell it, though!" -- later asking if we were "near Ann Arbor? I opened for Black Oak Arkansas there once! Does anybody here even remember Black Oak Arkansas?"
"Thunder Road" offered a ray of hope amidst the bleakness of modern times; "Devils & Dust" was a dark but beautiful account of the soldiers in Iraq; "May they come home soon safely," he said, a better prayer than the one delivered by the preacher earlier in the event. He did "Used Car" especially for the Michigan audience (Philly got "Does This Bus Stop at 82nd Street?"), getting a roar of approval and applause when he sang the words "Michigan Avenue" ("Can't go wrong singing a song that has the name of the state in it," he laughed. "It's a cheap applause getter") and then again when he used the word "fuck" in the same song ("Another cheap applause getter -- using profanity in a song!" he laughed), leading me to wonder how many times you'd hear "profanity" at a Republican rally. Not many, I'd guess... at least not into the microphone, you betcha! (You actually do hear a lot of "profanity" at Republican events, just not in the form of swear words...)
He prefaced "No Surrender" by reminding the crowd that he'd played the same song for John Kerry four years ago..noting the difference this time is that we're going to win. "I had the tequila all lined up on the bar back in 2004," he said, referring to the disappointment he felt after that election. "I know our opponents have said they're pulling out of Michigan for this election, but," he hesitated and gave a knowing look, "I wouldn't be so sure. It's not a time to take anything for granted." He then said that he plans to have those shots of tequila ready next month, adding that he doesn't want to "jinx" things by jumping the gun, though.
The only negative of the entire day was four young female EMU freshmen in their dorm sweatshirts who decided to locate themselves right next to me and who chatted extremely loudly throughout the whole fucking performance (when they weren't calling people on their cell phones to chat, that is), never mind that people were hushing them and giving them dagger looks the whole time. Things became clearer, though, during the gorgeous "Devils & Dust" song when one of these gals proclaimed loudly to the others: "Well, he's a blue collar singer and that's why there are so many blue collar people here!" And then I was reminded. Obviously, they were of that blogger/"everybody gets a trophy" mindset where they've been taught that every single thought -- no matter how petty, idiotic or ridiculous it is -- simply must be expressed. We finally moved forward to get away from these rude little ninnies, though I could still hear one of them talking about how she prefers to cook her dinner in a real oven as opposed to a microwave (I'm serious!) as Bruce Springsteen sang "No Surrender" almost right in front of her. Oh, well... Hopefully, they're at least voting for Obama...
Springsteen finished the excellent set with "The Rising" (its meaning now seemingly transformed to reflect needed change and rising to that challenge) before concluding with a cover of Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land," reinstating the less positive Depression-era lyrics and negating the (frequently these days!) ridiculous notion that music and politics don't mix and make strange bedfellows. Someone should've tried explaining that to, say, John Lennon and Phil Ochs, if not Mr. Guthrie himself, he of the "This Machine Kills Fascists" guitar. On the other hand (here goes that "thinking" again), I also had the thought during the rally that it must suck to be in your 20's in 2008 and to have grown up without experiencing the pre-Reagan America. Kinda sad, actually. Yesterday also convinced me that Springsteen, as eloquent as he is, could've easily been a great politician; we all know that New Jersey would elect him to the senate or even a governorship in a heartbeat. But thank God he's stuck with music instead.
So, in summary, a one-hour Bruce Springsteen show for free (just the cost of gas to drive there, though that's not an insignificant number, thanks to the last eight years of madness). Hell, I'd vote for Obama based on that alone, if my vote hadn't already been decided a long time ago.
Not "strange bedfellows" at all...
Sometimes musicians perform for Republicans, too!