A spate of newly published biographies of Bruce Springsteen offer a fresh look at the artist’s remarkable career, including his role as pop social critic. Two Hearts (Routledge, 2003) by rock scribe Dave Marsh, brings together two previous biographies with a new coda that sums up his subject’s career since Springsteen’s mid-1980s commercial peak. Bruce Springsteen’s America: The People Listening, a Poet Singing (Random House, 2003) by Harvard professor Robert Coles, relates the rocker’s relevance to his audience in the first-person narratives of people from all walks of life.
Springsteen’s great appeal is based on his common touch, which fans perceive as authentic. Through a remarkable string of albums that includes Darkness on the Edge of Town, The River, Nebraska, and Born in the USA, Springsteen turned an increasingly compassionate eye on society’s downtrodden and regular folk such as Vietnam veterans and blue-collar men and women. “The Boss,” as he is known to fans, also manages to balance his albums with songs that celebrate life’s simple joys.
But while Springsteen’s artistic sympathies are well known, relatively few are aware of his significant charitable works. His acts of compassion are managed, for the most part, without fanfare, and are steered directly to those in need. And he’s been helping people for a long time. As Marsh describes in Two Hearts, Springsteen used his newfound fame and fortune during the 1984 Born in the USA tour to donate generously to food banks and pantries in the cities where he performed.
He has also performed in big charity concerts such as No Nukes, and at benefits for Amnesty International and for victims of 9/11. But lots of singers perform in these kinds of concerts. Sometimes such fundraising rubs a sheen of respectability on otherwise sullied reputations. Hip-hop impresario P. Diddy (Sean Combs) recently competed in the New York Marathon to help raise $2 million for his charity benefiting the children of New York City. That’s good public relations for a rap star seeking to find artistic legitimacy with a wider audience. But the fact remains that Combs and his music and film industry cohorts glamorize promiscuous and violent lifestyles without accepting responsibility for the inevitable outcomes of disease, unwanted pregnancies, and death.
Much of the direct help that Springsteen offers the needy is consistent with the criteria laid out by Acton Institute senior fellow Marvin Olasky. In “Effective Compassion: Seven Principles from a Century Ago,” Olasky wrote: “Before developing a foundation project or contributing to a private charity, we should ask: ‘Does it work through families, neighbors, and religious or community organizations, or does it supersede them?’”
Springsteen limited his giving in the early 1980s to communities on his itinerary that had reputable mechanisms for distributing food and necessities to individuals needing temporary assistance. Some of his charitable works have helped individuals and groups in his home state of New Jersey, the state that served as inspiration for many of his better-known songs. He financed the building of the Newark Community Food Bank in the 1980s, and donated a reported $50,000 to replace the roof when it collapsed. He donated another $80,000 to help out union workers laid off from the 3M factories in Freehold. In the late 1990s, he gave more than $350,000 to provide home improvements for the needy in Monmouth County. The Newark Star-Ledger reported that $9,500 of that sum went to repair the home of a retiree confined to a wheelchair.
Recognition of the inherent dignity of all human persons is a theme of many of Springsteen’s songs. That sympathy colors his private charitable acts. Rather than succumb totally to the impulse to donate his talents and fortune to high-profile causes run by abstract bureaucracies, Springsteen told Kurt Loder in the 1980s: “I want to try and just work more directly with people; try to find some way [to] tie into the communities we come into.” Aside from a body of pop music rivaled only by the Beatles and Bob Dylan, this may be his most worthwhile legacy.