Ever since he was pictured on the cover of both Time and Newsweek magazines in the same week in 1975, the world has known Bruce Springsteen was something special. But there’s still something awe-inspiring about a guy from Freehold being part of a project with a former President of the United States.
Yet, in early 2021, a podcast series featuring conversations between Springsteen and Barack Obama began appearing on the internet. The series covered everything from their unlikely friendship, which began during Obama's 2008 presidential campaign, to their thoughts on topics like race in the United States, music, fatherhood, and the American Dream. The conversations took place in Springsteen's Monmouth County studio where the E Street Band had recorded the “Letter to You” album a few months earlier.
Those conversations have been turned into a beautiful, coffee-table book called “RENEGADES: Born in the USA,” which was released on October 26, 2021. The book takes the original conversations and expands upon its themes with new material from the recording sessions, more than 350 photographs from throughout their lives, and a glimpse inside their crafts – Springsteen’s hand-written lyrics and Obama speeches still in the editing process. The end result is like a museum exhibit; if you heard the podcasts you’ll learn more, and, if you haven’t, you’re in for a real treat.
“Good conversations don’t follow a script,” said Obama in his introduction. “Like a good song, they’re full of surprises, improvisations, detours. They may be grounded in a specific time and place, reflecting your current state of mind and the current state of the world. But the best conversations also have a timeless quality, taking you back into the realm of memory, propelling you forward toward your hopes and dreams. Sharing stories reminds you that you’re not alone – and maybe helps you understand yourself a little bit better.”
Obama goes on to say, “The conversations Bruce and I had in 2020 feel as urgent today as they did back then. They represent our ongoing effort to figure out how it is we got here, and how we can tell a more unifying story that starts to close the gap between America’s ideals and reality.”
In his introduction, Springsteen admits to being taken by surprise when Obama suggested the podcast series, but his wife, Patti, talked him into it. While the two men grew up in very different worlds, they had several things in common: their lives were both defined by absent fathers, a love of music, and race. In between all of those areas was a love for the American Dream.
Springsteen recalled a shooting that happened while he was in high school – a memory that stayed with him throughout his life and wound up in the song, “My Hometown,” roughly 20 years later.
In ’65 tension was running high at my high school / there was a lot of fights between the black and white / there was nothing you could do / two cars at a light on a Saturday night, in the back seat there was a gun / words were passed in a shotgun blast / troubled times had come to my hometown. — “My Hometown”
In addition to Freehold, Springsteen recalled the riots in Newark and Asbury Park. As a white artist, he played to mostly white audiences, while his legendary sideman, Clarence Clemons, was the lone Black person in the band for decades. He loved Clarence like a brother and made music with him for 40 years, but Bruce always knew Clarence faced an America he would never know.
“Forty years,” said Springsteen. “And the only thing we never kidded ourselves about was that race didn’t matter. We lived together. We traveled throughout the United States and we were probably as close as two people could be. Yet, at the same time, I always had to recognize there was a part of Clarence that I wasn’t ever really going to exactly know. It was a relationship unlike any other that I’ve ever had in my life.”
“The legacy of race is buried… but it’s always there, right?” Obama asked. “Depending on the community you’re in, how far near the surface it is, is not always clear. And I think a lot of Black folks always talk about what’s hardest is not dealing with a Klansman. That, you know. That, you can figure out. You’re prepared. What cuts is people who you know aren’t bad people, and the fact that that card is still in their pocket and that at some unexpected moment it might be played is heartbreaking.”
“To talk about race, you have to talk about your differences,” Springsteen later added. “To talk about race, you have to talk about, to some degree, deconstructing the myth of the melting pot, which has never fundamentally been true.”
The idea of Springsteen forming a relationship with someone in politics isn’t that surprising to many longtime fans. From the No Nukes concerts in 1979 and songs like “Roulette” (about the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant accident) to songs like “Atlantic City,” “Born In the USA,” “Ghost of Tom Joad,” “American Skin (41 Shots),” “Last To Die” and so on, political themes are present in lyrics throughout his career. He hasn’t been shy about speaking his political views on stage either.
George Wirth, a singer-songwriter from Ocean County, thinks Springsteen’s songs were always political. “Politics is about power.... those who have it, those who don't and those who know the difference. I think that's something Springsteen intuitively understood, even as a kid. The power of Springsteen's songs derive from the fact that he's able to express big political ideas in very basic human stories. That's no small talent and it's a rare and powerful thing.
“There are other songwriters who deal with politics, including those who are very specific about it, but in their wildest dreams they could never come up with a song dealing with the class/economic power struggle contained in ‘Born to Run.’ That's a theme running through all his work that Obama clearly understood.”
Bruce Tunkel, a singer-songwriter in Somerset County, was one who listened to the entire podcast series. He found it interesting to learn about the paths they took through their lives and the experiences that shaped their own politics.
Tunkel believes “Long Walk Home” was one of Springsteen’s best political songs. “It cuts to the essence of what it means to be an American, and the heartbreak of losing that. Ahead of its time.”
Debra L. Rothenberg is a New Jersey native photographer/photojournalist who covered Springsteen in concert for decades. Rothenberg’s work was highlighted in her book, Bruce Springsteen in Focus 1980-2012. She believes artists not only have every right to be outspoken through their music and spoken word, but she wants to hear their views.
“I have always been surprised when I hear a fan complain about Bruce’s music and political views – what are they not hearing? How did they not know where he stands?” asked Rothenberg. “I want to know where a musician I like stands on everything from politics to racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. It's not just about the music to me. The tune can be great but if the words spew hate towards a group of people, I can never listen to that musician again.”
Music was definitely one of the ways both Springsteen and Obama bridged the idea of race. Both were heavily influenced by music created by people of all colors. And, while in office, Obama sought to showcase musical diversity as America itself. Concerts at the White House included nights dedicated to Motown, Broadway tunes, rock ‘n’ roll, soul, classical, Latina, gospel, country music, and more.
“Or we’d have an R&B singer singing rock to emphasize and underscore how all these traditions do, in fact, blend together once you start breaking down some of these silos and categories that we carry around in our heads,” said Obama.
The book contains wonderful photos of concerts held during his two terms. “RENEGADES” also tells the story of how Springsteen wanted to do something different when he was invited to perform at the White House. He decided to read from his autobiography and play some tunes. Afterwards, Obama suggested that he further develop it into something more. The end result became Springsteen’s Broadway show.
“RENEGADES: Born in the USA” is a great way to get inside the minds and lives of two remarkable men. They grew up thousands of miles apart in completely different worlds, but they’ve both seen the good and bad of America and remain hopeful. And, the more you learn about their friendship, the more it makes complete sense.
“I’ve never written a song that told a bigger story than Clarence and I standing next to each other on any of the 1,001 nights that we played,” said Springsteen. “He lent power to my story, to the story that we told together, which was about the distance between the American Dream and the American reality.”
Photos in header: By Pete Souza, courtesy of Barack Obama Presidential Library, and Rob DeMartin