The silence is deafening. As of today (July 26), Bruce Springsteen has still not publicly commented on the extremely high ticket prices being charged by Ticketmaster for his upcoming tour, though his manager Jon Landau has. And the only currently scheduled show in his home state — April 14, at the Prudential Center in Newark — goes on sale July 29.
I’m not going to write about the prices themselves, and speculate on the reasons for them. That’s been done ad nauseam, by both fans and journalists (and I consider myself both). But I’d like to make a point that may not be so obvious: Part of the reason his silence hurts so much, now, is because he’s talked so much about money, through his songs, throughout his career.
So here’s a close look at the way he’s written about money at various stages of his career. I really believe that of all the major themes in his work, this is the one that has been written about — and noticed by fans — the least. (Note: This is not intended as a complete study of everything he’s written about money. I realize there are other relevant songs. If you’d like to write about others that fit this theme, please do so, in the Comments section, below.)
Of course, Springsteen grew up lower middle class, and did not make a lot of money in the early years of his career. So his early songs, naturally, reflect that perspective. He even, you might say, shows a bit of an inferiority complex when it comes to cash. In “Kitty’s Back,” Kitty “left to marry some top cat.” In “Candy’s Room,” Candy has “fancy clothes and diamond rings” and “men who give her anything she wants,” but still, the singer wills himself to believe that “what she wants is me.”
In “Rosalita,” Rosalita’s father “knows that I don’t have any money” but, in the song’s climactic moment, the singer asserts that “the record company … just gave me a big advance” and so this is that father’s “last chance to get his daughter in a fine romance” with the soon-to-be-rich singer.
On a similar note, in the Born to Run (1975) mini-masterpiece “Meeting Across the River,” the singer fantasizes about making a big score in some kind of criminal enterprise, and imagines the moment when “I walk through that door” and “throw that money on the bed.” That will fix everything that is wrong in the relationship, he seems to think.
The characters on Darkness on the Edge of Town (1978) should certainly not be considered rich: in “Factory,” for instance, Springsteen practically wallows in working class drudgery. Yet Springsteen’s perspective was broadening, and he was no longer seeing the world as divided between haves and have-nots. “Poor man wanna be rich, rich man wanna be king/And a king ain’t satisfied till he rules everything,” he sang in “Badlands.” Aha! When it comes to money, everything is relative.
The River (1980) contained Springsteen first Top 10 single (“Hungry Heart”) but was, among other things, a declaration of continued solidarity with the working class, most obviously via its title track, in which a construction worker hits a dead end in his life due to unemployment (“lately there ain’t been much work on account of the economy”).
Springsteen sang about unemployment, too, on his most popular album, 1984’s Born in the USA: “They’re closing down the textile mill across the railroad tracks/Foreman says these jobs are going boys and they ain’t coming back,” goes, perhaps, the most heartbreaking line of “My Hometown.”
And then there’s the frequently dark and brooding Nebraska (1982). Springsteen sings about poor children staring longingly at the rich folks’ “Mansion on the Hill” and, in two songs (“Atlantic City,” “Johnny 99”), references men who, in almost identical lines, have debts that no honest man could pay.
In “Used Cars,” the singer looks back on his family’s poverty as a kind of humiliation. “Mister, the day the lottery I win, I ain’t ever gonna ride in no used car again,” he sings.
In 1984’s “Man at the Top” (a Born in the USA outtake included on the 1998 Tracks compilation), Springsteen returns to the “poor man wanna be rich, rich man wanna be king” idea, but also applies it to his own profession: “Here comes a banker, here comes a businessman/Here comes a kid with a guitar in his hand/Dreaming of his record in the No. 1 spot/Everybody wants to be the man at the top.”
Music is also seen as a method of economic salvation in a Tunnel of Love (1987) outtake, “The Wish” (also included on Tracks), where Springsteen sings about the life-changing moment when his mother bought him his first guitar. “Last night we all sat around laughing at the things that guitar brought us,” he sings, later in the song.
In the first lines of the first song (!) of Tunnel of Love, Springsteen sings about being rich: “Ain’t Got You” begins with “I got the fortunes of heaven in diamonds and gold/I got all the bonds, baby, that the bank could hold.” It was his way of being honest about his life, even if that meant damaging his working-man image. (Steven Van Zandt, in his “Unrequited Infatuations” memoir, remembers complaining to Springsteen about this song, telling him, “I know you’re trying to be funny. But it’s only funny if it’s not true!”)
Similarly, on the Human Touch (1992) song, “57 Channels (And Nothin’ On),” Springsteen mocked his new wealth: “I bought a bourgeois house in the Hollywood hills/With a truckload of hundred thousand dollar bills.”
And on “Better Days,” from Lucky Town (released simultaneously with Human Touch), Springsteen admitted that “a life of leisure and a pirate’s treasure/Don’t make much for tragedy” but seemed to want to let his fans know that his money didn’t solve all his problems.
“I took a piss at fortune’s sweet kiss/It’s like eatin’ caviar and dirt/It’s a sad funny ending to find yourself pretending/A rich man in a poor man’s shirt,” he sang.
That last line is worth repeating: A rich man in a poor man’s shirt. It’s amazingly honest, really, for Springsteen to have sung about himself in that way, at that time.
The Ghost of Tom Joad (1995) was, to a great extent, another statement of solidarity with the lower class. On, arguably, the album’s best song, “Youngstown,” Springsteen sings, from the point of view of a steel mill worker, to the mill owners, “The story’s always the same … you tell me the world’s changed/Once I made you rich enough, rich enough to forget my name.”
Springsteen’s 2006 album of folk covers, We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions, found him singing about the rich vs. the poor, again, on “Pay Me My Money Down” (“I wish I was Mr. Gates/They’d haul my money in, in crates,” “Forty nights at sea/Captain worked every last dollar out of me”) and lauding the Robin Hood-like “Jesse James” (“He stole from the rich and he gave to the poor”).
On Wrecking Ball (2012), The Boss drew direct inspiration from the Occupy Wall Street movement.
On that album’s “Death to My Hometown,” he lashes out at businessmen: “They destroyed our families’ factories and they took our homes/They left our bodies on the plains, the vultures picked our bones.”
“The banker man grows fat, the working man grows thin/It’s all happened before and it’ll happen again,” he sings, grimly, on “Jack of All Trades.” Later in that song, he goes even further: “If I had me a gun, I’d find the bastards and shoot ’em on sight.”
On his most recent album, Letter to You (2020), Springsteen took on con men in “Rainmaker” (“Rainmaker take everything you have/Sometimes folks need to believe in something so bad … They’ll hire a rainmaker”).
I could go on. But I think the point is made. Whether his fans realize it or not, Bruce Springsteen has had an ongoing discussion with them about money, throughout his career.
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