When the music quiets and Bruce Springsteen begins what he calls the "public service announcement" portion of his set at tonight's Vote for Change concert in Philadelphia, the New Jersey rocker will do something he has resisted throughout a career of more than 30 years: make an overtly partisan political statement.
"There's some reluctance, certainly, to be coming out and doing what we're doing now," Springsteen said Tuesday in a phone interview about the series of 37 benefit performances he helped organize for Americans Coming Together, the group that's mobilizing voters for Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry. For the Oct. 8 Florida concerts, Springsteen will perform in Orlando; the Tampa Bay area concert features the Dixie Chicks and James Taylor at Ruth Eckerd Hall.
The barnstorming tour of 12 swing states _ it also involves Pearl Jam, the Dave Matthews Band, R.E.M., Sheryl Crow, Keb' Mo' and others _ represents a significant change in the delicate mix of rock and politics. Though stars have often loaned their skills to causes (famine relief, nuclear disarmament, aid to farmers), there has never been such a coordinated campaign to elect a candidate.
Springsteen, 55, acknowledges that his stand probably will alienate some fans. He has accepted the risk, he says, because he believes the stakes are too high.
"This election is about a set of ideals, and truthfulness, and creating the country you want your kids to grow up in," says the father of three, who lives in Rumson, N.J. "No other election I can remember has had that kind of significance to me."
Early in the campaign, Springsteen discovered that many of his musician peers felt likewise and were looking for "some way to have a collective impact." Those conversations sealed it for him: "I realized that this is the time. I can't sit this one out if I meant the things I've been writing about these 30 years."
Springsteen's songbook includes poignant odes about deserted Rust Belt towns, police brutality and the heroic firefighters of Sept. 11. But though he has spoken eloquently on social issues at his shows for years, he says he isn't preparing a statement to deliver at the Vote for Change performances.
"There will be no intense speechifying from the stage, as far as I know," he says of the bill, which also includes John Fogerty and Bright Eyes.
Yet he knows that everything he says will resonate differently. "The same words are going to be . . . changed by the moment and the event. I actually think it will add clarity to some of my music, recast some of the things I've been saying in a clearer and more powerful light."
He rejects criticism that the Vote for Change shows preach to the converted. After all, everyone with a ticket knows that his money is going to a group bent on dumping President Bush.
"We're going to find the Republicans in the crowd, and there will be a laying on of hands. . . . We're going to convert people!" he says, sounding like a street preacher.
Then, turning more serious, Springsteen says he has encountered "a lot of people who actually haven't made their minds up" about how they will vote. "I have friends who grew up Republican, and they're unsure. One guy's an outdoorsman, so the environment is important to him. Those kinds of people we might be able to reach."
Another issue is the war in Iraq, a topic on which Springsteen is anything but ambivalent: "If you mislead your people into a war, and that costs a thousand lives and many, many more wounded and $200-billion of taxpayer money, and it turns out the grounds for going to war have been false, you lose your job. . . . There's an element of common sense to it."
Springsteen says that though he has been frustrated by the media's handling of Iraq and the apparent unwillingness of Kerry to treat the election as a "street fight," he remains convinced that the idealism that spawned Vote for Change is not misplaced.
"Sen. Kerry has to make the point that America isn't always right, but it's always true," Springsteen says. "It's as seekers of truth that our real Americanness comes to the forefront.
"That is a deeper sort of Americanism than the jingoism, the right-or-wrong dime-store version of the American myth the Republicans are so good at packaging. To me it's the essence of patriotism, being truthful."