The East Street Shuffle

30 Years After the Springsteen Invasion

Thursday, Sep. 15, 2005 3:23 am | By Jackie Hartling Stolze

 

On Sept. 20, 1975, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band played to a packed house at Grinnell's Darby Gym, virtually rockin' the place down. A month later, Springsteen simultaneously appeared on the covers of Time andNewsweek, hailed as the future of rock and roll.

In the years since, the Grinnell concert has become nothing less than a legend. The Grinnell Magazine is marking the 30th anniversary of the concert by collecting the stories of the people who were lucky enough to be there. Our compilation of alumni reminiscencesbegins below.

But first, let's set the scene.

Administrators at Grinnell were scared. Worried, at least. It was dubbed "The Springsteen Invasion." College officials were so worried that throngs of crazed Bruce Springsteen fans would crash the concert in Darby Gym that they hired security -- Pinkerton guards, according to the S&B -- to stand guard around the gym. Only 200 tickets were available for the public ($5 apiece), and no one knew how many people might show up.

Students were advised to be particularly cautious, and to carry their IDs and lock their doors and windows. It was practically a Red Alert for this small Iowa town.

It would be wrong to say nothing happened. Something definitely happened at Darby Gym that night, but it had nothing to do with gate-crashers or rioting fans.

It had everything to do with a "flashy punk" from Asbury Park, N.J., and his music.

Eighth Avenue Freeze-Out

Grinnell College can thank Georgia Dentel, working with student concert coordinators Carlson Smith '76 and Dan Meltzer '77, for bringing Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band to campus.

Dentel, director of the performing arts program, came to the College in 1960 to ramp up the quality of the acts the College brought to Grinnell. By 1975, she says had built up a rapport with many artists and their managers, and this benefited Grinnell in getting hard-to-obtain artists -- such as Bruce Springsteen.

"We were trying to have first-rate artists," Dentel says. "There were a lot of problems." For years, she struggled with small budgets, poor sound equipment, and a lingering bias against student concerts on campus.

"By 1975, we had been giving major concerts for about 10 years," she remembers. "A booker from New York, Bob Bonis, called me in March of 1974 to do us a special favor. He said, 'Georgia, do you want to book Springsteen?'" If so, he warned, do it now, because he'll be so big soon, you'll never be able to afford him.

"So I said OK," she says. They booked the concert for the fall of 1975, more than a year in advance. "Never had I been called so early to book somebody," Dentel says. Springsteen's fee for playing Grinnell was about $3,500.

By the time students returned to campus in the fall of 1975, Springsteen's star was indeed on the ascent, after the famous Bottom Line concerts in New York and the Aug. 25 release of what would be his breakout album, Born to Run.

The band arrived at Darby first. "They walked in the Eighth Avenue door as a group," Dentel says. "Springsteen, as I recall, was not with them." Someone in the band -- she's not sure who -- made the comment, somewhat rudely, "What is this, a private party?"

"It made me a little angry," Dentel remembers. Then came a dispute over the size of the stage. It wasn't big enough, the roadies said, although it stretched the entire length of the gym. By then, the Boss had arrived, and the stage instantly became a non-problem. He told the roadies to pile up the instrument and equipment cases to extend the stage.

"Bruce Springsteen was just the nicest person," Dentel says. "None of this came from him." It seemed that the band's front man had no attitude at all about playing little Grinnell College -- or if he did, he hid it well.

Dentel and the Boss spent some time together that afternoon, and she remembers him as quite congenial. "I don't think I've had anybody in the large concerts who took such an interest. ... It was like we had known each other for years and years.

"Springsteen was very affable and very nice," Dentel remembers. "The concert was wonderful. As I stood at the back of the gym, the thing that impressed me was that people were sitting on the gym floor all looking at the stage, and the room was so full ... the floor was a perfect mosaic of heads."

Beatin' the Drum

In 1975, Max Weinberg was the drummer for the E Street Band, and he still is. He also appears on the late night television talk show, Late Night with Conan O'Brien, where he leads the house band, the Max Weinberg 7.

Every now and then, Weinberg grows out his hair and goes on the road with Bruce and the rest of the E Street Band. Like most of the band members, Weinberg seems ready to drop everything when the call comes from the Boss.

Weinberg recently visited Grinnell and took a moment to reminisce about the concert here.

"It was a helluva reception," he says, laughing.

"This was an area of the country that really responded to [Bruce's music] early and hard," Weinberg says. He calls the E Street Band an "anti-rock rock band." He believes they really struck a chord in the heartland.

"We were thankful for the support we got from our Midwest fans," Weinberg says.

Surprisingly, perhaps, he believes that Iowa is not that different from his East Coast home. "It was a lot like New Jersey," he says. The towns, the houses, the people, all bear a similarity to the small towns in New Jersey.

And the concert itself? "It was wild," he laughs. "I only spent one Saturday night in Grinnell, but it was wild."

And for anyone who wonders if Bruce Springsteen could possibly recall one night in Grinnell out of thousands of concerts performed all over the world, Max Weinberg has the answer.

"Bruce remembers," he says. "Bruce remembers Grinnell."

Still Blinded by the Light

So, what was it like to sit in Darby 30 years ago? Only the people who were there really know, so that's who we asked, and Grinnell's alumni responded enthusiastically. So now we turn the stage over to the storytellers.

A Breakfast Fit for the Big Man

My memory is of the morning of the concert. I was working at the old Silhouette Restaurant by the interstate. Bruce and several band members came in for a late breakfast. I remember he had a milkshake with oatmeal and eggs. I didn't realize who my customers were until late in the meal, when I heard them discussing an upcoming tour. I became so flustered I could hardly finish serving.

Later, Clarence, the sax player, came in by himself and had breakfast. Of course I didn't recognize him either, but by then I was able to suspect that he might be with the group. He asked if I was going to the concert that night. "Oh yes," I said. "And you?" He laughed and said that he had to, he was in the band.

I really did feel like an idiot--I was so flustered. ... Embarrassing moments in one's life, but at least I can tell everyone that I waited on Bruce Springsteen.

-- Debbie Hadas '76

A Musical Blast Furnace

I attended the Springsteen concert in Darby Gym in September 1975. I had graduated in the spring of that year and was in grad school in Chicago, but romantic attachments had drawn me back to the cornfields. I remember coming down the stairs from the KDIC studio, where I had been a regular, and seeing a band loading in, [and] helping push a few cases to the stage. Then I had a front row center seat on the gym floor for the show. I was literally arm's length from Springsteen's vocal mike. Best seat in the house.

After a lifetime spent in the entertainment industry, much of it producing concert events with legendary entertainers, this concert remains one of the top five that I have ever seen. The E Street Band was incredibly tight. They roared like thunder, they whispered like a gentle breeze over a field of wheat. The Big Man, Clarence Clemons, blew his sax like a man possessed. Springsteen leapt about the stage, climbed up on the PA stack at one point, his energy was palpable -- every person at the show could feel it. From my vantage, sitting on the floor in front of a stage that was only two or three feet tall, it was like sticking your face into a blast furnace. At the end of the show I was ecstatic, [and I] felt like my eyebrows were singed off.

A few years ago, when my daughter was visiting Grinnell (she ended up at Vassar, despite my attempt to bribe her) the student who escorted us on our tour referred to this event as a legend. Darby was scheduled for demolition. It's weird and cool to be a witness to a legend.

This concert was part of the transformative experience that was Grinnell; for me it was the parting shot, the last hurrah. If I am lucky, I will see another few concerts like this in my professional lifetime. But I am not holding my breath.

Yeah, it really was that good; it was legendary!

-- Keith Fort '75

Sick of Springsteen?

I well remember the pre-concert buzz, for which Mark Miller ['76], Dan [Meltzer '77], and Carlson [Smith '76] were largely responsible, though they were hardly alone. It got so intense that on the weekend before the concert, as we were standing talking to some people on the sidewalk by the bookstore, Mark Butterman ['76] burst out, "Bruce Springsteen! Bruce Springsteen! I'm sick of hearing about Bruce Springsteen! He's not God! He's human, like me, and he shits!"

But the next weekend, when I saw Mark in Darby at the show's close, he said, "All right, I was wrong. He is God."

-- Scott Stanfield '76

The Spaghetti Story

I remember that the excitement throughout campus was building to an almost fever pitch as the day approached when Bruce was to play Darby. There was an overwhelming feeling that something important was about to happen, that we were about to witness history. Born to Run had just been released, and few on campus were immune to its awesome and mythic power, although arguments did flare up over which of his three great albums was really the best. It was all Bruce all the time.

My senior year I was living off-campus on Reed Street with Jon Williams ['77]. We both loved to cook and had people over for dinner all the time. The morning of the Darby concert I suddenly wondered where Bruce was going to have dinner. Why not our house? Now where is Bruce staying? The motel at the Interstate? It's worth a try.

Nervously I asked the front desk for the room of ... (gulp) Bruce Springsteen.

"Sure, one minute please."

Ohmygodohmygodohmygod.

Someone picked up the phone (Miami Steve?), and I asked to speak to Bruce. "Hold on a second. Bruce, it's for you."

HELP!

"Hello," muttered a simple voice, a human voice, not the voice of a rock and roll star.

"Hi my name is Gordon Edelstein and I go to Grinnell College where you are playing tonight and we really really love your music, I mean we are so into your music and I wonder if you want to come over for dinner before the concert or something like for some spaghetti or something?"

There was a pause.

Oh no, I am such an asshole, he is going to think I am such a jerk. Well I am. What kind of jerk calls a rock star on the phone and invites him over for spaghetti?

"That's really nice of you," said Bruce. "Hold on a second ... Hey, any of you guys wanna get some spaghetti at some kid's house before the sound check?"

Sounds. Mutters. Groans. Bruce again on the phone. "Sorry man, that's really nice of you, but we got the sound check and then it's like gonna be too late, but thanks."

"That's OK," said the fan pinching himself to see if this was a dream, "Hey, just thought I would ask."

"See you at the show, come by after the show and say hi."

"Yeah ... thanks ... bye."

After the astonishing rock and roll show that evening, the thought of going backstage to visit him seemed out of the question. What can you say after something so monumental? I would just blubber.

My 45 seconds on the telephone would have to do as my encounter with greatness.

True story.

-- Gordon Edelstein '76

The Big Man

I was a high school senior at Grinnell High School when I heard that there was a possibly "a band worth listening to at Darby." Living in Grinnell, I had the great good fortune to take advantage of the experience long before I was a student. I can clearly remember standing within feet of "the Boss," but I was taken by his saxophone player Clarence Clemons. He clearly was the showman and was dressed to the nines, even in a small venue.

I was also taken how quickly [Bruce] cleaned up his appearance. I hardly recognized him on the covers of magazines later. Marketing was just as influential then.

But to this day Clarence Clemons remains whom I remember, and fondly.

-- Karin Ford '80

The Springsteen Splurge

Dan Meltzer '77 and I had been appointed concert co-chairs in May of 1975. ... It was pretty much understood from the outset that we would try to get Springsteen. Dan was a huge fan. We used to listen to him all the time in Dan's room. I liked Springsteen a lot too, but my tastes inclined toward the more experimental British bands. ... We started inquiring about Springsteen right away, but were told initially that he had lost his record contract and his band had broken up. The latter was true. It all seemed plausible since his second album hadn't sold many copies, and had even been ridiculed by some critics.

Springsteen ... was the first act we booked for the 1975-76 year, and we were fortunate to get him for a Saturday night. (The College frowned on midweek rock concerts.) The cost was $3,500, which made it seem like we were already splurging our $20,000 budget for the year. We hadn't heard anything about his new album or the new band. ...

Around mid-August our friend Bruce Carleton ['77] reported from New York that Springsteen was creating quite a sensation through a five-night series of gigs at the Bottom Line. I suppose it was early September that KDIC got copies of the Born to Run album. While it had some great songs, I remember being a little disappointed in that the E Street Band didn't seem quite as tight as the previous band, which had David Sancious on keyboards and Ernest "Boom" Carter or Vini Lopez on drums. Still, by this time there was a lot excitement about the concert.

Around this time we started having some problems. Springsteen's manager started making some demands that in retrospect were reasonable from a professional point of view. But it sounded like an ultimatum at the time. First they wanted an upgrade of the power supply to Darby. They were concerned it would be overloaded by their amps and lighting equipment. We had to negotiate with the College administration to categorize the expenditure as a long-term capital improvement (thereby not charging the cost to our concerts budget). Roy Bittan also insisted on a baby grand piano. ... For a while it looked like our first major concert could fall through.

Around then rumors started flying that Grinnell would be invaded by hordes of crazed Springsteen fans from the East. So the College insisted we hire Pinkerton guards to maintain order. I seem to recall that they carried guns, which were practically never seen on campus. As it turned out, only about 100 to 150 visitors came, and they paid $5 per ticket.

The day of the concert, Sat., Sept. 20, arrived. The band and their manager showed up by late morning. Most of the "roadies" were students we had hired. There was a lot of work, but Dave White and I still managed to hang out with Clarence Clemons and Danny Federici for a while that afternoon. Springsteen himself didn't show up until later.

Around 4 p.m., I had to go with Springsteen's manager to the College treasurer's office downtown so he could be paid the $3,500 fee in cash. It seemed like a big business deal to me at the time. By the time I got back to Darby, they had already done the sound check -- Manfred Mann's "Pretty Flamingo." I always liked that song and wish I could have heard Springsteen's version. A consequence of the sound check was the discovery of interference from KDIC upstairs. The only way around this was to simulcast the concert. KDIC had only 10 watts of radiated power back then, and only the town of Grinnell could receive it. I suppose everyone who liked Springsteen was at Darby anyway. The manager threatened to "pull the plug" on the concert if we were caught taping it. I was too intimidated to think of trying, though I hoped someone would record it from the radio. I've never heard of such a recording in existence, however.

The next morning I ran into someone whose musical taste I had always highly respected. Feeling a little smug, I asked if he had enjoyed the concert. "I thought it was really terrible," he replied. I remember this being the first time I learned that you can't please everybody.

-- Carlson Smith '76

After Bruce, It Was All a Letdown

I grew up in large college towns where rock concerts by marquee names were not uncommon.

Before attending Grinnell, I had only been in Iowa once--when I spent two days visiting the school.

Before Springsteen, college was new student days, which entailed free-flowing beer, young people with young people's intentions, and other welcome mischief.

I had never heard of Springsteen. My roommate, a New Jersey native, worshipped him, and I had heard his album no less than a half dozen times before the concert.

By the time of the concert, I was a bit fatigued with the mischief, but I made it through. I could only look forward to "next week's act."

After three days of beautiful weather, "new school days," and the Springsteen concert, I must admit that the remainder of my Grinnell experience was a bit of a letdown.

-- Robert C. Meyer '79

Groupie Wannabe

I had just arrived at Grinnell my freshman year, and the activities schedule was released. Being from the Midwest and being into the Stones and British blues, I had not heard of Bruce Springsteen yet. Students from New Jersey/New York area were going bananas over the fact that this fellow named Bruce Springsteen was coming to lil' ole Grinnell. Apparently he had become very hot that summer of '75. ... I realized this really was something big.

The security for the concert was much tighter than normal. The College was afraid (rightfully so) that outsiders would come to Grinnell and try to "crash" the concert.

So in we go to the concert. I know I was in the thick of things of the gym floor, and it was very loud. I remember Clarence Clemons doing an amazing solo, but don't ask me what song. It was a very energetic concert (as all his concerts are). After the concert I felt drained (notfrom inebriants), and my ears rang for a couple days.

On the way back to the dorm, my "date" turned to me and said, "Now I understand the attraction of being a groupie."

Although I saw him a couple times in the '80s, nothing will duplicate that concert in Darby Gym, [before an audience] of barely a thousand or so. Many times when I bring up seeing him in a college gymnasium in '75, I get a "Yeah right, and I got a bridge in Brooklyn ..." response.

-- W. Jim Silver '80

Roadies with Attitude

My recollection of the show is that a bunch of us worked stage crew, moving equipment into the gym. Springsteen's roadies were very particular, however, and wouldn't let any of us near the stage (which was unusual for most bands). They definitely had an attitude -- Springsteen was not happy about being in Grinnell. Born to Run had been released, and he had hit the big time and was playing much larger venues than Darby (not hard to do!). Many of us were already into Springsteen -- for a lot of other folks Born to Run was their first introduction.

I had seen Springsteen three times the previous summer in D.C. and a number of times before that (the first was in high school where Springsteen and the E Street Band played warm-up and backup band for Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis!). The Darby show was usual tight Springsteen, but a quick encore and they were gone. ...

Definitely a Grinnell highlight.

-- Jonathan Daen '78

Magic in the Night

Some friends of mine from high school had spoken highly of Bruce Springsteen for a few years. Even though I had been a rock and folk music fan from early in elementary school, I somehow had not managed to give Springsteen a serious listen. The Grinnell College concert in Darby Gym changed that.

... Tension remained until the moment he actually appeared on stage -- would his manager insist that he cancel? Also, would people from hundreds of miles around seek to "crash" the concert and create chaos, maybe force the show to shut down?

When the time came, the event went very much like other well-attended Darby concerts. The place was packed with people, but nothing extraordinary occurred, as far as I know. Except for the fact that the rock star leading the band had recently become a superstar. I very much liked the concert, and it was the song "Spirit in the Night" -- from his first album, Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. -- rather than anything from the newest at the time, Born To Run. ...

I've come to think of Bruce Springsteen as one of the most accomplished American songwriters. I probably would have begun to listen to his work at some point, but the legendary Grinnell concert put me on to him sooner rather than later -- and with a bang. It is also one of the unique Grinnell College memories I share with my spouse and some of our best friends.

-- David Cantor '77

A Philly Fan

Springsteen came to Grinnell early my freshman year. I was from Philadelphia, spent time on the Jersey shore, and knew all about him, but most of my newly made friends did not. I tried my best to get Grinnellians as excited about the concert as I was. So soon after starting at Grinnell, I was faced with staking my incipient reputation with my new friends on how well a single concert went.

Needless to say, it was a great success. I told my friends back east about how Springsteen played in the College gym and even came off the stage within maybe 20 feet from where I was sitting during one of the songs, and they never again doubted my decision to go out to the Midwest for college. No other event while I was at Grinnell helped ease my transition to a college hundreds of miles from anything familiar as much as this concert.

-- Drew Bergman '79

Wild and Innocent

Thinking back on that concert triggers most of all memories of how music worked my freshman year. How seemingly each room, each new friend, held some new musical treasure that I still hold dear today. ... That fall break I stayed on campus with about 10 different room keys and wandered from room to room listening to one collection of music after another. Heaven.

My memory of the Springsteen concert sits right next to my memory of a particular room on my floor ... where for what seemed a whole semester almost nothing but Springsteen was played, loud, door open. I generally have little patience for such single-purposedness, but it worked for me in this case because it drove home The Wild, The Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle, an album that still holds a special place for me. It was his next album that got him on the cover of Time, but Born to Run always seemed a disappointment. It was very good, but after all it was just a plain old rock album. "The E Street Shuffle" stands off on its own, full of space and surprise and a feel all of its own.

As is his way, Bruce played almost every song on that album. Long versions ... probably endless in the ears of the less enthused, but endlessly satisfying for me. A concert is always better when you know the songs, and I would never have been able to drift so fully into that night if it had not been for that open door on my dormitory floor. ...

It was a great night.

-- Ben Sparks '78

Seatbelts Optional

I was living in Iowa City when Springsteen played Grinnell. So were several other Grinnellians of the same early '70s vintage. ... Close to a dozen of us piled into a van (seatbelts optional in those days) and headed west on I-80 that night.

We walked into Darby and staked out some floor space not more than 30 feet from the stage. Springsteen could have just gone through the motions that night, playing for a small crowd in, let's face it, the middle of nowhere. But if he held anything back, I certainly didn't notice it. The band and the audience kept feeding each other more and more energy as the night wore on. I can't remember how many encores we coaxed out of Springsteen or how long the concert lasted.

But I do remember feeling that my friends and I were a little bit out of place. We loved the concert, but we were apart from, more than a part of, the College. Grinnell really belonged (and always belongs) to its current students. It's obvious in retrospect, but I didn't expect it back then. It was a slightly disconcerting glimpse at how things we once felt so connected to can slip away from us, little by little, over time.

Ironically, this feeling of slippage, erosion, and lost connections is a recurring theme in what I think are some of the best songs Springsteen has written since that night 30 years ago.

-- Dan Williams '71

He Didn't Book the Boss

I'm afraid I can take no credit for the Boss' fall '75 Darby performance. But I can take the blame for him not appearing at the annual Darby spring fling the prior semester.

I was student concerts chair (or whatever the title was) in my senior year, '74-75. I remain proud of the many fine campus performances that year (Ry Cooder and the Heath Brothers, to name but two). But I must confess to passing on the opportunity to book Springsteen. Another student on the committee -- Gordon Edelstein, if memory serves -- dropped by my apartment one day to play me Bruce's debut album. ... I was not overly impressed. Too derivative, I remember thinking. Sounds like a Dylan-Van Morrison rip-off. (For the record, I'm still not a huge Bruce fan, but I have become a bit less of a musical snoot.)

Instead I booked the one-hit wonders, Orleans (remember "Dance with Me"?), who almost immediately dropped off the rock radar screen. It wasn't a bad show, but compared to the Youngbloods concert my freshman year or Little Feat's in '74, it was a little, well ... flat.

So my hat goes off to my '75-76 successor for booking the Boss and saving me from Grinnell concert ignominy.

-- Bob Rosen '75

Blown Away

... A few days before the concert I remember listening to the student who booked the concert express his frustration about Bruce Springsteen's agent demanding security and other things that he saw as trying to get out of the contract. He was anxious for a few days, but felt great once the event was moving forward again. He came from the Jersey shore and had been an early Springsteen fan having seen him in local bars and nightclubs. Because of his familiarity, he was able to book Bruce just before his career began to take off. Most of the other students I knew had not heard of Springsteen. We gathered in dorm rooms to listen to the few available copies of Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J., with its postcard cover. We liked the album and were excited about the concert.

That Saturday night along with a few friends I prepared for the concert by getting pretty stoned. Darby was packed, and I stood near the front of the stage. Bruce opened with some preliminary comments about being in the middle of nowhere and then jumped right into a long uninterrupted set. I was totally blown away by his music and energy. At the end of the concert, Darby went wild with a roaring ovation. Bruce walked offstage and left without an encore. I felt insulted by this lack of respect for the audience, but wow, what a concert!

-- Randy Best '77

A Moment

I recall Mark Miller saying that the band and crew had pizza (Pagliai's?) after the show. ... The idea of collecting various memories of the event is a really cool one -- it was a Moment -- not the Grassy Knoll or the WTC, to be sure, but a Moment nonetheless -- that in this small universe deserves some sort of chronicling. We might even hear from the person in the class of '78 who would quite properly never wish to be named without permission who fell asleep during the concert -- something she rued for decades.

-- Jeffrey S. Miller '76

Wild and Free

I remember it was the first time in four full seasons of Darby Gym's rock acts and fabulous guitar men that anyone needed a ticket. ... Bruce set the stage facing east, where for years an endless string of high power bands could reliably rock the whole floor for dancing. E Street didn't leave that crowd more than sold -- they got their free ticket's worth. ... I like the poetry of "Thunder Road." It's a pleasure to recall -- so out, wild, and free, to watch as Mary dances across the porch as the radio plays. ... I'm glad the business later succeeded for Bruce; that night he went broke buying pizza.

-- Joe Wambach '78

 

Standing Up to Say "Hey"

It might be a stretch, but it seems as if there is a certain link between Bruce Springsteen and Grinnell -- as if a little bit of Grinnell rubbed off on the Boss on that September night so long ago. If Grinnellians seem to believe in making the world a better place, however they can, the same can be said for Springsteen.

But be warned, he's no hero -- that's understood.

Still, Springsteen has done more than sell millions of albums and make piles of money -- he is also a poet who tells the stories of people who have missed out on life's rewards, reminding us that "in the end, nobody wins unless everybody wins."

Springsteen's power and passion for his music have never wavered. His songs continue to speak to audiences, and, according to Nicholas Dawidoff in The New York Times Magazine, "help people put themselves for a moment into the next fellow's shoes." Dawidoff also praises Springsteen's "vividly poetic language" and "chiseled vignettes."

Springsteen has recently begun to speak out more openly for change. He led the "Vote for Change Tour" in 2004 that brought together big-name musicians to tour the nation's swing states, urging voters to support an "honest and rational government." His stand angered some, and inspired violent invective from conservative pundits.

In an op-ed published Aug. 5, 2004, in The New York Times, Springsteen wrote:

Why is it that the wealthiest nation in the world finds it so hard to keep its promise and faith with its weakest citizens? Why do we continue to find it so difficult to see beyond the veil of race? How do we conduct ourselves during difficult times without killing the things we hold dear? Why does the fulfillment of our promise as a people always seem to be just within grasp yet forever out of reach? ... It is through the truthful exercising of the best of human qualities -- respect for others, honesty about ourselves, faith in our ideals -- that we come to life in God's eyes. It is how our soul, as a nation and as individuals, is revealed.

On his 2002-03 tour in support of the Grammy-winning album The Rising, written after 9/11, he called repeatedly for audiences to hold their leaders accountable. Springsteen told a Giants Stadium crowd, "The question of whether we were misled into the war in Iraq isn't a liberal or conservative or Republican or Democratic question, it's an American one. Protecting the democracy that we ask our sons and daughters to die for is our responsibility and our trust. Demanding accountability from our leaders is our job as citizens. It's the American way."

Throughout his career, Springsteen has spoken up for the powerless, and backed up his words with actions -- even when the causes were unpopular. He has spoken out for veterans' groups, the homeless, undocumented immigrants, and homosexuals. Springsteen's Oscar-winning song, "Streets of Philadelphia," composed for the film Philadelphia, told the story of an AIDs victim. "The country is waiting for something that's going to address these questions of tolerance and of how people are going to live together in the future," Springsteen said in an interview.

In the mid-1990s, Springsteen spoke out publicly against Proposition 209 in California, which sought to reduce affirmative action programs in the state. When a little boy in San Diego asked Springsteen why he was doing it, Bruce answered, "Because it's bad. And sometimes you've just got to stand up and say, 'Hey.'"

Still and all, the man is no saint. To quote his own song, he's a rocker. Springsteen recently wrote to the New York Times Magazine in response to an article titled "The Boss Bibliography." Springsteen wrote: "The 'saintly, man of the people' thing I occasionally see attached to my name is bull - - - -. It was perhaps invented, like myself, by Jon Landau ... or maybe by that high school kid somewhere who supposedly wrote 'Blowin' in the Wind.' Life, art, and identity are, of course, much more complicated. How do I know? I heard it in a Bruce Springsteen song."

Originally published as an online web extra for The Grinnell Magazine, Fall 2005