Facing crowds flowing five blocks deep, rocker Bruce Springsteen offered a passionate, and often poetic, pitch Thursday for the election of John F. Kerry, a fellow guitar-playing Democrat.
As he softly strummed his acoustic guitar on a picturesque autumn day here, Springsteen brought 80,000 Wisconsinites to an emotional crescendo with a lyrical call for social fairness, altruism and a Tuesday defeat of President Bush. It was vintage Springsteen, from the heart and distinctly heartland in its simplicity and touch.
"I believe the essential ideas of American identity are what's at stake on November 2," he said, as red and yellow leaves sprinkled from the tree branches. Health care. Decent wages. Helping the homeless. "A sane and responsible foreign policy," the rocker said. "Paul Wellstone, a great Minnesota senator, said the future is for the passionate. . . . The future is now, and it's time to let your passions loose."
It was one of the most remarkable scenes of the campaign season, as college kids and old folks, disabled people and local luminaries crammed a straight stretch of West Washington Avenue ending at the steps of the state Capitol in the distance. Students hung banners from their fraternity porches, drank beer and shouted from the windows at the crowd below. There were a few hecklers, screaming "Four more years," but the setting was a famously liberal enclave in an otherwise socially conservative state. As the huge banner hanging before the steps of the Capitol proclaimed, this is "Kerry Country."
It was also democracy at work -- a spirited crowd, violence-free political discourse and, afterward, a procession of voters were led to early-voting outposts to register their preference for president.
Can the Boss turn votes? Probably not, says Mike McCurry, a top Kerry adviser. But the star sure can draw attention (several cable networks carried the rocker live) and massive crowds. The local fire marshal excitedly told reporters that never before had a crowd this large gathered for a single event in the city, perhaps the state. Springsteen drew another huge crowd in Columbus on Wednesday night and will star in an election-eve rally in Cleveland.
Democrats often turn to celebrities to stir excitement -- or, more often, raise money. In recent days, Jon Bon Jovi has traveled on the Kerry campaign plane and warmed up crowds with acoustic versions of '80s hits such as "Living on a Prayer." Bon Jovi hit the hustings with John Edwards on Thursday. But Bon Jovi's no Boss, one of the most popular musicians of our time and one with a distinct blue-collar appeal.
The Springsteen appearance was not a concert, but a double-sided 45. Alone on stage with his guitar and harmonica, Springsteen played "Promised Land," spoke, and then, after saying "This one's for you, John," broke into "No Surrender," the theme song for the Kerry campaign that is played at virtually every rally and town hall event.
Springsteen found himself in the rare position of serving as opening act -- this time for the Democratic nominee for president. When the two-song set concluded, Kerry high-fived a few supporters before bounding to the stage to bear-hug Springsteen. Still, Kerry thanked everyone from the governor to the state's two senators before praising Springsteen, who has a place in the Kerry family history. As Kerry told the crowd, the first concert he took his two daughters to was a show on Springsteen's "Born to Run" tour.
"We all know who's the real Boss," Kerry said. He then managed to turn the Boss into a political attack. "When George Bush heard that the Boss was playing with me -- was going to be with me today -- he thought they meant Dick Cheney, or the CEO of Halliburton."
Kerry went on to deliver his standard speech. Springsteen retreated to a nearby frat house, was handed a cold beer and from a second-story porch watched on.