There is a desire for a figure who will once again turn back the clock to full factories, high wages, and for some, the social status that comes with being white—that is a difficult elixir, prejudices and all, for folks who are in dire straits to resist. Our president didn’t deliver on the factories or the jobs returning from overseas or much else for our working class. The only thing he delivered on was resentment, division, and the talent for getting our countrymen at each other’s throats. He made good on that, and that is how he thrives.
Brooks: A kid growing up watching Elvis and the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show wasn’t automatically going to turn political. What was the influence in that part of your life?
Springsteen: It came out of an instinct I had when I reached the position of having great personal license, which I did in 1975 with the release of the album Born to Run. Something didn’t feel right to me. I didn’t feel finished. I didn’t feel at home. I felt incredibly uncomfortable.
And it took me a long time to realize that personal license is to real freedom what masturbation is to sex. It’s not bad, but it’s not the real thing. And as I started on this record, Darkness on the Edge of Town, I said, I want to turn the car around. I want to go back to my neighborhood, and I want to understand the structural issues, personal issues, social issues that are pressing down hard on the people I’m writing about and still living among. That’s where what I’m looking for resides. And so that’s kind of where my politics really began to develop, out of concern for my own moral, spiritual, emotional health, and that of my neighbors.
Brooks: That brings us to our next song, which sounds like a Trump-protest song. It’s “That’s What Makes Us Great” by Joe Grushecky.
Springsteen: Joe said to me, “Gee, I wrote this song. It’s called ‘That’s What Makes Us Great.’”
And this was right around the time of the MAGA movement. I said, “Well, that’s a great title.” And it is. And he said, “Why don’t you sing it with me?” And so we sang it together.
Brooks: You mentioned that when you made Darkness, you had to go back to your roots. You were on the cover of Newsweek and Time; your career blew up. You could’ve gone big and global. Instead, you went back home and local. And you’re still there. You’re still sort of in the neighborhood of Asbury Park.
Springsteen: Yeah, I’m still in New Jersey, 20 minutes away from Asbury, 10 minutes from Freehold.
So I’m still very comfortable here.
Brooks: How are those towns doing? What do they tell you about the wider American experience?
Springsteen: I’ve always felt everybody has this moral, spiritual geography, emotional geography, inside themselves. You may live in Barcelona, but you can feel you’re related to Asbury Park, some place you may never go. But if a songwriter is writing well and is writing about the human condition, you’ll take them there….