Bruce Springsteen could run for president. Or governor. They need one in New Jersey.
He's certainly got the base. On the first night of his attempt to influence a presidential election, kicking off a Vote for Change concert tour in the key battleground state of Pennsylvania, the fans wandering the Wachovia Center parking lot Friday seemed just as likely to wear a Bruce/Clarence '04 T-shirt (a wishful ticket of the Boss and his longtime saxophonist, Clarence Clemons) as a Kerry-Edwards T-shirt.
The faithful from the fan Web sites were tailgating in their usual highly organized way, sophisticated sound systems blasting the entire Springsteen discography, laser-printed nametags affixed to their shirts. They had cold beers and wine coolers, grilled dogs and wings, and a full, long table of all-American condiments, right on the all-American plastic tablecloth.
You want politics with that Bud?
Not necessarily, said Grace Rivera, 46, of Stillwater, N.J. "We're here to hear Bruce Springsteen. He could have picked [President] Bush, and we would still have been here."
But the artist, who deliberated carefully, then made a move for the first time in his career to be a political boss, did not pick Bush.
Angered by the war in Iraq and what he sees as the president's shifting justifications for it, he endorsed John Kerry, so emphatically that the longtime chronicler of ordinary struggles tried a whole new literary form: the New York Times op-ed article.
He also helped organize a couple dozen other acts who are fanning out for the next 10 days in 11 swing states and the nation's capital. The star roster, including Bonnie Raitt, Dave Matthews, Jackson Browne, John Mellencamp, the Dixie Chicks and Pearl Jam, has donated its talent with a goal to raise $10 million for America Coming Together, which is working to register voters and get Democrats to the polls on Election Day.
On Friday night, for instance, musicians played the Pennsylvania towns of Wilkes-Barre, State College, Reading, Erie and Pittsburgh, in addition to the concert by Springsteen, R.E.M. and Bright Eyes. The tour's grand finale is Oct. 11 at Washington's MCI Center.
"I don't know if someone is going to run to the front of the stage and shout, 'I'm saved' or 'I'm switching,' but I'm going to try," Springsteen told Rolling Stone magazine. "I will be calling anyone in a bow tie to come to the front of the stage, and I'll see what I can do." Ever the showman, he had arranged for just such a ringer to bound onstage Friday night.
When he took the stage at 10 p.m. in his black T-shirt and beat-up jeans, playing a solo acoustic guitar rendition of the national anthem, the Boss turned the 18,000-seat Wachovia Center into the Mega-Church of the Die-Hard Progressive. And, like in church, when Springsteen and his E Street Band began the first bars of his best-known hymn, "Born in the U.S.A.," the audience leapt to its feet and sang every verse.
Springsteen's live concerts always have felt like passionate rallies of rock-and-roll unity. In the tour for his album "The Rising," inspired by the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, he overtly adopted the spiritual fervor of the evangelical preacher, exhorting his listeners to experience the redemptive power of rock-and-roll.
"I always felt that the musician's job, as I experienced it growing up, was to provide an alternative source of information, a spiritual and social rallying place," he told Rolling Stone, "somewhere you went to have a communal experience."
Before the concert, Andrew Coleman was holding forth outside his old school bus, which he had painted red, white and blue and retrieved from the mechanic just that morning. He and 13 other friends had put up their Kerry-Edwards signs and their pro-choice and clean-water placards and placed voter registration forms on the table by the bus. He was trying to sign up as many new voters as he could before hustling in to the concert to hear Springsteen, whose stand he called "courageous."
"I'm taking days off to drive around and spread the word," said Coleman.
Nearby, six Jersey guys were divided, 5-1, for Bush and still friendly.
Bob Morrison, who said he had voted for Bush and was happy to do so again, said Springsteen "had sold out, but I love him anyway."
Perhaps sensitive to such feelings, Springsteen waited nearly two hours into his set before making his election pitch.
"I know you all have been waiting for my public service announcement," he began. "We live in a land of great promise, but it's time to move Americans to embrace the great promises that she made to her citizens." Springsteen said he had evaluated the Democratic senators running for president and vice president, "and they understand," he said.
"America is not always right, but America is always true. . . . You have to express yourself, roll up your shirtsleeves and remember, the America we carry in our hearts is waiting."
There were no official transcripts available of his remarks, thankfully, and none was needed. He is 55, and he has been singing that credo his entire career.