SYDNEY 1: The Hands that Built the Country We’re Always Trying to Keep Out

Based on his recent setlists, diversity must be on Bruce’s mind at the moment, undoubtedly due to Trump’s Muslim immigrant ban. To find evidence in support of this claim, one must only consult the words he used to introduce the tour premiere of “American Land” in Adelaide during his first concert after the ban:

Since Bruce has never been the world’s clearest enunciator, here’s the text:

“Tonight we want to add our voices to the thousands of Americans who are protesting at airports around the country the Muslim Ban and the detention of foreign nationals and refugees. America is a nation of immigrants and we find this anti-democratic and fundamentally un-American.”

Since then, “American Land” – his most explicit celebration of America’s heritage as an immigrant nation – has been the nightly centerpiece of a stretch of songs all pertaining in different ways to this idea, as was the case at Bruce and the Band’s first of two nights in Sydney. Their performances of “American Land” – not to mention the rest of these shows – have been more impassioned than ever, no doubt fueled by the Band’s anger at the direction Trump seems to be taking their beloved country. To ensure everyone in the crowd recognizes the song’s connection to current events, Bruce has been cutting out the Band – minus Max, who accentuates every other word with a powerful drumbeat – for a fiery delivery of the line, “The hands that built the country we’re always trying to keep out.”[1]

On one level, lyrics like these capture the notion that America has long been idealized by the rest of the world – a role that has distinct political advantages – largely because of her global perception as a hopeful bastion for immigrants. The country began as a democratic trailblazer, and thereby became a symbol of progress for the world to emulate. The promise of the American Dream retains the capacity to inspire people everywhere on Earth, both symbolically and practically. Those in less-than-ideal circumstances feel like there’s a place that holds a better future they can work towards escaping from their present state, an idea at the core of so many of Bruce’s characters who fantasize about brighter horizons out on the road away from their static, often restrictive existences. In the final words of the chorus of “American Land:” “There’s treasure for the taking, for any hard-working man / Who will make his home in the American Land.”

Yet this virtue is the epitome of a reciprocally beneficial relationship. From its founding, America has relied on the ideas of other societies to thrive; the country is nothing if not a mash up of the best of others, both historically and culturally. As such, there is no set definition of an ‘American’ other than someone who happens to live in America – they can be any color, any religion, any gender, any age, and subscribe to any belief system whatsoever.  Diversity is not merely an abstract ideal; it is at the very heart of America in that the more differentiated views the country contains, the better off she’ll be. Through the societal contributions of diverse people come ideas that otherwise would have perhaps never been considered in – and thus strengthened – this great American experiment.

Few would disagree with this assertion, yet I suspect many believe that these immigrants must seamlessly integrate into America society, epitomized in the concept of the American melting pot. Sure, each immigrant may slightly change the overall concoction in that pot, but instead of reducing everyone into Americans, we should instead always celebrate their differences to ensure America can learn from every aspect of their respective cultures. That’s why in recent years the American melting pot as an ideal has been replaced with the American patchwork quilt. Rather than synthesizing each person’s identity into a uniform whole, America should strive to be a home to as many different types of people as possible; thus, American society can be likened to a quilt that patches together the differences of all its residents. The quilt can never become too big, for America should always provide an endless source of fabric for more and more patches. Every single person in America gives the country its character and characters.

“American Land” deftly communicates this ideal in the lines, “The McNicholas, the Posalski’s, the Smiths, Zerillis (!), too / The Blacks, the Irish, Italians, the Germans and the Jews.” Bruce has unsurprisingly been replacing “Germans” with “Muslims,”[2] but the truly profound aspect of these lyrics is how they capture the importance of America’s individual-based diversity. Firstly, Bruce knows so many of his songs are products of so many other cultures’ influences; what is “American Land” if not a rousing ode to Irish tunes? But on a more universal level, semantically noting all of these diverse identifiers as opposed to utilizing the umbrella term “Americans” honors each of their rich histories, and the vital variety they bring to the American table. Though he didn’t do so in Sydney, during other recent concerts Bruce has been sharing how many nationalities are represented by people in the Pit each night by specifically naming every country Pitizens travelled from, a similar way of honoring diversity.

Compare Bruce’s handling of such diversity with Trump’s recent statement on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, which bafflingly did not mention Jews as single time, opting instead to label all those who suffered as one large group. I do not believe he maliciously intended to slight us chosen people, but his administration’s preference to vaguely clump everyone together as opposed to specifically naming each and every group is a testament to how little they care about recognizing individual diversity, even in something as simple as this. And lest anyone believe the wording of this statement was a mere oversight and thus no conclusive trend can be gleaned from it, here’s another example of Trump basically disregarding the benefits of diversity, even in as small of a microcosm as the White House.

Unlike Trump, Bruce has always been concerned with everyone, which manifests itself in many ways over the course of a concert. Besides just the aforementioned Pit shout-outs, think about how much of a concerted effort he makes to play as much as possible to the entirety of his crowds, particularly those seated behind the stage in arenas without stadium-style rear stage screens, as was the case in Sydney’s Qudos Bank Arena. Most artists wouldn’t even think about them, preferring to focus on the main sections of the house that most probably paid much more for their tickets. But it would be highly hypocritical for Bruce to sing about America needing to take the time and resources to cherish every single person within its borders while he disregarded those sitting behind him. In the same way that America should not forget any of its own, so too does Bruce refuse to ignore anyone who clearly wants to be in his presence. Quite literally, he – and we – cannot turn our backs on those clamoring to enjoy the great American show.

My more conservative readers would probably refute that last sentence by citing the importance of keeping America safe, but luckily the next song felt like a response to this thought process. Though “The Ties That Bind” on the surface may have sounded like a Kumbaya extension of the sentiment of unity expressed in “American Land,” the intricacies of the lyrics reveal the full substance of Bruce’s decision to play it here. The first verse:

“You been hurt and you’re all cried out you say
You walk down the street pushin’ people outta your way
You packed your bags and all alone you wanna ride,
You don’t want nothin’, don’t need no one by your side
You’re walkin’ tough baby, but you’re walkin’ blind
to the ties that bind”  

“The Ties That Bind” conforms to Bruce’s career-long commitment to the notion that perseverance should always trump fear. After a devastating heartbreak, you may feel safer never entering into another relationship; the key to bliss must be avoiding anything that may endanger happiness, right? According to Bruce, if a road comes with no risk, if it doesn’t seem like hard work, if it doesn’t lead you outside of your comfort zone, then that route is probably not worth taking. Life and love are hard – often seemingly impossibly difficult – and yet the best way to face it is to do just that: face it. If you’re thrown off your horse, pick yourself back up and get back in that saddle, fear be damned.

All of this can be applied to the relationship between immigrants and safety. Even though not one immigrant from any of Trump’s banned countries have killed a single American since September 11, more open borders of course increase the likelihood of dangerous influences entering the country. And yet as “The Ties That Bind” expresses, heightened risk is never a reason not to pursue an ideal. Riding alone through life without anyone different by your side may be safer, but doing so would make America blind to all the aforementioned benefits of allowing as much diversity into the country as possible. Some of this diversity may harm us – in the same way some relationships harm us – but that hurt and that crying should not prevent us from continuing to pursue what we know can one day elevate our existence from isolated, stagnant mundanity to transcendent, progressive multiplicity. As Bruce so succinctly puts it: “I would rather feel the hurt inside…than know the emptiness your heart must hide.” Is marginally decreasing the safety of Americans worth providing better lives for the 785,000 refugees that have made America their home post-9/11, especially since those refugees contribute to the country’s aforementioned diversity-based progress? Hell. Fucking. Yes. I’d walk that line every goddamn time…

Though “The Ties That Bind” may not be as overtly sociopolitical as “American Land,” it may actually be a more effective means of persuasive activism. In these painfully partisan times, many on one side of the aisle blindly reject anything political that comes from the other side, including their cherished Bruce’s words. Yet since “The Ties That Bind” is ostensibly about relationships, the guards of more conservative listeners will be down for such fare, perhaps allowing the sociopolitical implications of these songs to subconsciously resonate with them. In Bruce’s universally interrelated world, insights gleaned from relationship studies can bridge the aforementioned political gap.

Case in point: “New York City Serenade.” One of the most consistent questions I’ve received thus far about this tour has come from those wondering why the hell this early gem is still a nightly occurrence. It may be a treat intended for those few Australian diehards waiting their whole lives to experience this rarity live in concert, but that’s a very specific bone to throw at a minuscule percentage of the audience. Or perhaps Bruce just enjoys working with various orchestras? The problem with these theories: a plethora of his catalogue would check both of those boxes.

My personal theory pertains more to the official definition of the word ‘serenade:’ “a piece of music sung or played in the open air, typically by a man at night under the window of his beloved.” This mostly describes the lead character singing, but it also relates to the song’s relationship with New York City itself. Simply put, “New York City Serenade” can be interpreted as an affectionate though realistic serenade to New York from Bruce, who no doubt viewed the Big Apple as a sort of ideal fantasy that he could escape to from the confines of New Jersey,[3] similar to how immigrants perceive America in “American Land.” In fact, New York is the only city to be specifically mentioned in the song: “I docked at Ellis Island in a city of light and spires.”

Could Bruce be starting with “New York City Serenade” every night as an ode to the Big Apple’s ‘open’ inclusiveness? In the same way that “The Ties That Bind” introduces an ideal that should be kept in mind throughout the entirety of The River, perhaps “New York City Serenade” provides a similar function in these socio-politically-minded concerts? Andrew Cuomo, New York’s governor, may have said it best:

If Bruce sees New York as an ideal microcosm of total acceptance – of the ability of all Americans to be peacefully surrounded by seemingly unlimited diversity – that the rest of the country should aspire to, then “New York City Serenade” is in fact the perfect opener for the themes of this tour.

I’m all too aware of how far-fetched this sounds, but the song actually contains ample supporting evidence. Firstly, any reference to trains (first line: “Billy he’s down by the railroad tracks;” also, the memorable repetition of: “She won’t take the train”) should remind fans of “Land of Hope and Dreams,” a quasi-nighty occurrence that best conveys Bruce’s conception of America. Secondly, lyrics like, “Hey vibes man, hey jazz man, play me your serenade” portray the sort of civil connection between the white singer (Bruce) and the black vibes/jazz man (an easy assumption based on the minority culture largely responsible for this musical form) that’s presented on the cover of Born to Run. Finally, if we were to add a comma to “Listen to your junk, man,” (for writing meant to be heard – which is the case for most lyrics – grammar can be fudged like so) this line could be interpreted to exemplify Bruce’s belief in the importance of who many deem to be junk, be it immigrants for the likes of Trump or even those sitting behind the stage for other rock stars. The only way to get this societal “junk” “singin’” is by striving to listen to their marginalized voices; these ignored multitudes of “junk” will never be forgotten in Bruce’s America.

On this tour, Bruce and the Band are bringing that America into existence, or – in the words of the song that followed “The Ties That Bind” – are cutting someplace of their own with their drums and their guitars, night after night after night. Even the likes of “No Surrender” adopts sociopolitical dimensions when played in this context. The promise America has not only sworn to always remember but vowed to defend, without retreat, without surrender – the same promise that Trump’s Muslim ban directly opposes –  is imprinted on the statue – the iconic first sight of the U.S.A. for many immigrants – looming over the mentioned-in-“American-Land” Ellis Island – the iconic first stop for many immigrants on their American journeys:

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”[4]

Lyrics like “…hear your sister’s voice calling us home across the open yards / Well maybe we could cut someplace of our own” couldn’t help but make me think of the Statue of Liberty’s figurative voice calling all immigrants to their new home of America across the open seas towards a country where they’ll be able to cut someplace of their own. Despite the forces keeping them away, Americans have already sworn to be blood brothers with them against those winds of regression. The last new image of the song sounds like Bruce’s ideal version of America: “I want to sleep beneath peaceful skies in my lover’s bed / with a wide open country in my eyes / and these romantic dreams in my head.”

An open concert is also an apt way to describe the E Street Band experience; Bruce has always opened up his concerts to be influenced by the crowd, which in Sydney was fittingly the loudest of the tour so far. “My City of Ruins” and “Mary’s Place” – the latter of which was played here– have been mainstays on this tour probably because they speak to this communal power. Yet the ultimate example of how the make-up of a crowd can quite literally change the composition of a concert comes in the form of the phenomenon that has slowly made a return Down Under: sign requests. After “Out in the Street” – we must all protest out in the streets to defend the vow inscribed on the Statue of Liberty – Bruce took three straight signs. Even though “My Love Will Not Let You Down” and “Hungry Heart” cannot be considered departures from the norm at this point, Little Richard’s “Long Tall Sally” – the second ever E Street Band performance of the song, and the only tour premiere in Sydney – was by far the highlight of the night. Without Bruce listening to the diverse desires of his diverse fans – whose sign requests are in a way an expression of themselves – such moments simply would not occur.

Could Sydney’s setlist have benefitted from a few more surprise turns like this? Of course. The sociopolitical interpretations of the songs above should support the necessity of setlist diversity, something Sydney 1 largely lacked. Even though “The Ties That Bind” and “No Surrender” were two of the songs played most on the last tour, diversifying the context in which songs are played – specifically by changing what comes before and after them – is all Bruce needs to do to let concertgoers hear them anew. If the point of a concert is to literally bring songs to life on stage in front of an audience, then the most lasting way to figuratively breathe new life into a song is achieved by inspiring people to understand it in new ways, especially since such understanding lasts far longer than just the duration of a concert. Bruce’s focus on sociopolitical commentary during this tour has fostered such perspective alterations on many of his songs, and for those who hope to understand their lives in richer ways through art, this should negate any argument that his concerts need not dabble in politics.

Every time Bruce inserts a new song into these thematic setlists, everyone following along around the world may end up thinking about the songs, their lives, and ultimately the world in more diverse, and thus more progressive ways. Yet complaining about static setlists feels far too nitpicky in the face of the patriotic duty he’s performing every night. Even if he just sticks to this same batch of songs, I will now forever think about my country when I hear them, and remember the ideals embodied in Bruce Springsteen’s America, a conception far closer to what America has always been than Trump’s America. They’re who we are, what we’ll do, and what we won’t, and this tour is reaffirming I never forget them…

FOOTNOTES

[1] Bruce’s official website – in addition to every lyrics database I checked – posits this line should actually read, “The hands that built the country were always trying to keep down.” Either they’re all wrong, or Bruce has changed the lyrics for this tour.

[2] Which I’m absolutely sure is not a slight to Germany whatsoever. In fact, Merkel may be the most progressive leader in the world right now, not to mention the country has faced the dark corners of its history in faaaaaaaaar more productive ways than America, as I wrote about here. Yet again, America should always aim to learn from the better examples of others. In truth, Bruce probably decided to replace “Germans” because he wanted “Muslims” and “Jews” to be grouped next to each other, for obvious reasons.

[3] Remember: New York City was where Bruce signed his record deal, which started him on his journey away from home.

[4] In a classic example of fact being far more unbelievable than fiction, the Statue of Liberty was in fact modeled after an Egyptian peasant, AKA a Muslim. You just can’t make this stuff up…

SETLIST

  1. New York City Serenade
  2. American Land
  3. The Ties That Bind
  4. No Surrender
  5. Out in the Street
  6. My Love Will Not Let You Down
  7. Hungry Heart
  8. Long Tall Sally – *Tour Premiere*
  9. Wrecking Ball
  10. Darkness on the Edge of Town
  11. American Skin (41 Shots)
  12. Youngstown
  13. The Promised Land
  14. Mary’s Place
  15. Candy’s Room
  16. She’s the One
  17. Downbound Train
  18. I’m on Fire
  19. Because the Night
  20. The Rising
  21. Badlands
  22. Thunder Road
  23. Jungleland
  24. Born to Run
  25. Dancing in the Dark
  26. Tenth Avenue Freeze-out
  27. Shout
  28. Bobby Jean
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4 thoughts on “SYDNEY 1: The Hands that Built the Country We’re Always Trying to Keep Out

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