Words by Steve Houk
Bruce Springsteen, to his very deepest core, is wholly American. Raised in New Jersey and brought up writing his miraculous songs nestled in the bosom of the American landscape, the majority of his musical canon is steeped in images of America, in all its glory, its suffering, its struggles, its hopes and dreams. Sure, he’s conquered the world for decades and is an adopted champion of those around the globe as well, but to many stateside, he remains largely our American hero.
But in the last month, the man who was Born In The USA has struck a stunningly intimate and genuinely touching chord in two places where suffering has been an almost daily occurrence on and off for decades: Chile and Argentina. War, torture, oppression, strife and death have been the way of the world in these countries in ways most Americans cannot even fathom. And this fact is clearly not lost on Springsteen, who deeply touched the hearts of those in these two countries, and also of those hopefully around the world, over the last week by presenting two songs that one would typically never hear in a rock concert setting, or perhaps ever, really, unless perhaps you grew up in one of these countries. But then again, Springsteen often does things most rock stars would not typically do.
In Santiago, Chile last week, Springsteen and his beloved E Street Band kicked off the final leg of their epic Wrecking Ball tour, it was his first stop in South America since his appearance on the Amnesty International tour in 1988. In returning to the stage for his encores, he paused, and then said this: “In 1988, we played for Amnesty International in Mendoza, Argentina, but Chile was in our hearts, We met many families of desaparecidos, that had pictures of their loved ones. It was a moment that stays with me forever. A political musician, Victor Jara, remains a great inspiration. It’s a gift to be here and I take it with humbleness.” Springsteen then, yes very humbly, played a stunningly beautiful version of “Manifiesto”, one of the last songs Jara, who was tortured and killed after the coup there, wrote before his death.
Two days later in Buenos Aires, Springsteen had intended to honor the political heroes of Argentina as well by playing “Solo Le Pido a Dios”, a song by Argentine folk-rocker Leon Gieco that Springsteen had learned from the late folk singer Mercedes Sosa. But being so sapped of energy after another almost three hour show, he could not, as he put it, “do it justice”, so he recorded the song the next day an posted it to his website.
“My memories of that time are still very much alive,” he said in Spanish, according to a translation posted by AP. ”We came to Argentina when the country was going through a difficult time, and fighting for its future. For a foreigner, Argentina was very much alive, promising. So it’s a huge inspiration for me to return here, and I want to leave this song to the people of Argentina.” After singing first in Spanish, he switched to English on a song that Gieco wrote in 1978 in protest of the military dictatorship that ruled Argentina from 1976-83.
The sheer profound intimacy and tragic yet hopeful beauty of these two songs would be strongly felt if sung by folk singers in either of these two countries on a street corner, balcony or cafe. But the fact that a superstar like Springsteen, who can take his pick from not only hundreds of his own songs but thousands of songs from songwriters across the world, chose these two strikingly powerful songs to honor these two countries, piercingly illustrates the kind of musician, the kind of artist, the kind of MAN that he is. That he would choose to sing these songs, thereby putting them out virally just because it’s he who sang them and thus reintroducing the world to the past plights, the current struggles, the unforgettable challenges of these two countries and their millions of people, is, well, at the very least poignant and astonishing, and at the very most, deeply profound and important.
For years, Springsteen has gotten guff for expounding his political beliefs from his bully pulpit, and along with fellow courageous mindspeakers like Natalie Maines, Eddie Vedder and others has often received the “Shut Up and Sing” chorus from even some of his die-hard fans. But no one can possibly argue, dispute or debate the genuine and deeply caring gesture that singing these two deeply important songs at this time in these country’s histories is. Maybe, just maybe, people will take another look at the struggles of the Chilean and Argentinean peoples and find even more incredibly touching expressions, perhaps in song, in poetry, in art, or in journalism, that will remind the world of their struggles, and maybe it will open new dialogs about how to avoid such catastrophic oppression for future generations. We can only hope.
Oh, and after he played Jara’s song in Chile, Springsteen and the E Street Band erupted into a stunning version of “We Are Alive”, a song from Wrecking Ball that honors Americans who have died amidst struggles of their own. Man oh man.
Yes, world, it may feel to us Americans like he’s ours, but you clearly have a very big part of him, too.