From race relations to guitars to singing in the shower
Philip Giouras
11:06 5th March 2021

One of the most legendary white rockers in United States history - Bruce Springsteen - has joined forces with the nation's first ever African-American president Barack Obama. The pair, unlikely friends, sat down for a series of deeply personal and thought provoking discussions on new Spotify podcast Renegades: Born In The USA.

Over the course of just the first three episodes (of which there is set to be 8), the pair discuss subjects ranging from a love of protest music, racial tensions within the country across time, the early beginnings for the pair and major moments in both their careers. It’s a thoroughly interesting and captivating listen and so much ground is covered within its first few hours that this list could be trebled. Still, here are eleven things we've learned from Renegades, Born In The USA so far…

Obama inadvertadly created Springsteen's Broadway show

Bruce Springsteen’s last set of live performances was his highly-acclaimed, sold-out stint on Broadway: a unique set of stripped back acoustic performances which blended his hits with some rare cuts and a selection of stories from his biography. We learn in Episode 3 that the inspiration behind this format came from Barack Obama himself. In his last month of office, back in 2016 Obama wanted to do something special to thank his staff for the past eight years - so he put on a special small performance with Bruce at the White House for around a hundred people. Springsteen, understanding that the intimate occasion required a different approach, created what would later go on to become his Broadway premise. After the 90-minute performance at the White House, Obama whispered in his ear: “other people have to see this”. And the rest is history.

 

Springsteen's bond with the guitar

Springsteen describes his passion for music, an in-depth fixation that started with a fondness for the Top 40 pop charts: something we can probably all relate to. When it came to picking an instrument, “a guitar was cheaper than piano or drums”, so he did a series of chores and lawn work for friends, family and neighbours to save the $18 his guitar cost him. From there, following advice from his cousin Frankie, he learned 'Greensleeves', 'Honkey Tonk' and 'Twist & Shout'. What strikes us listeners most however is the way in which he describes his passion for the instrument: guitar was only thing he deeply desired to do. “It was an essential element in building an identity, as a man, as an American, as a human being. it’s a part of my body like another appendage”.


Obama loves to perform…

Barack Obama, if you’ve paid even a small amount of attention, is an avid music lover. It can be heard in the opening moments of episode 3 where he duets an old country song, freestyle and off the cuff, with Springsteen, or perhaps in he way he describes how undeterred and unembarrassed he is about singing “in or out of the shower” despite the eyerolls from his wife and daughters. Interestingly enough though, even his staff haven’t been afraid to tell him to tone it down when he breaks out the air guitar on Air Force One.



…and has a rich love of music

That love for singing and performance comes from his deep passion for music. We learn that when Obama was young he saved up to buy his first album with his own money - Stevie Wonder’s Talking Book. He would then sit with a banged up old turntable, headphones on (so the grandparents couldn’t complain) and sing along to the record for hours. We also hear of young Obama’s love for artists such Marvin Gaye, Joni Mitchell and are treated to a few bars of him singing ‘Me & Mrs. Jones’.

 

Springsteen wants to strike a chord with audiences

Springsteen’s faith isn’t addressed (yet), but he certainly touches on his belief in God and why he was put on this earth. He describes just how lucky he is out of the millions who pick up a guitar to have gone on to start a band, get a label, release a record, have a career etc. He states how, when you go to a Springsteen concert, he wants to send you home with a sense of community and shared values that will sustain you long past the finishing time. Simply put, he wants to positively impact and change your life: “if I can have an impact, that’s worth being on the planet for, that’s something worth living for”.

 

Springsteen on Race

Obama addresses early on that both Springsteen and himself have vastly different backgrounds from their hometowns to the colour of their skin. There’s a key moment late in the first episode in which Springsteen has to take a pause when discussing race, acknowledging privilege and his place in the discussion. “Why is it so hard to talk about race? Why am I pausing here? [When you] talk about race you have to talk about differences, you have to talk to some degree about...deconstructing the myth of the melting pot, which is never fundamentally been true, admitting that a big part of our history has been plunderous and violent and rigged against people of colour. We’re ashamed...of our collective guilt, we would have to admit and grieve for what’s been done, we would have to acknowledge our own daily complicity, and to acknowledged our group membership and that we are tied to the history of racism… those are all hard things for people to do”. It’s just one of many moment that sparks an uncomfortable, difficult but necessary discussion between the pair.



Clarence Clemons and The E Street Band


“He had to swim in white culture for most of his work life” Springsteen says whilst discussing much beloved and sadly departed Clarence Clemons, the legendary saxophonist for Bruce’s E Street Band. Obama is keen to enquire about him, interested in the dimensions of Clemons' being the only Black member of a very white-oriented rock group. It jogs a story for Springsteen of a time when the group went to play the Ivory Coast and came to a stadium of “entirely Black faces." Clarence walked over to Springsteen and said: “well know you know how it feels”. Springsteen recalls the utter joy he felt as the stadium exploded; his "most generous audience to this day”. It is only the start of some interesting anecdotes surrounding Clemons and the discussions he had with Springsteen surrounding his role not just within the band, but society.

 


Springsteen shocked by American Fascism


The pair had an interesting moment when discussing the state of the country, in terms of the rise in white supremacy across recent years. “I thought the marching and the polo shirts with your tiki torches, was kind of over” comments Springsteen when discovering that these extremist views were still at the beating heart of the country. “You thought we weren’t debating Nazism anymore” Obama jokingly retorts. Springsteen acknowledged the amount of work the country still has to do. 



Springsteen and Obama bond over a love of protest songs

When asked about the best protest songs Springsteen has no hesitation in naming ‘Fight The Power’ by Public Enemy, ‘Anarchy in the UK’ and ‘God Save The Queen’ by the Sex Pistols. Obama meanwhile chooses ‘Maggie's Farm’ by Bob Dylan, and ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’ by Sam Cooke, with Obama reminiscing: "that song can make me cry… there is something about when he starts singing”. Springsteen is quick to agree “the historical pain in it, yet the elegance and generousness of his voice”. Obama also paid tribute to the striking ‘Strange Fruit’ by Billie Holiday, which readers may know has come to the forefront of discussion again following the recent Billie Holiday biopic. In a final moment of discussion, Obama provides a surprising last choice "which people don’t see as a protest song"...‘RESPECT’ by Aretha Franklin - “she is saying to every man out there…get your act together!” acknowledges Obama.


The story of 'American Skin (41 Shots)'


Throughout the podcast there is a strong focus on politics, race and issues surrounding what it means to live and be Black in America. Springsteen himself covered one of the atrocious shootings of an innocent Black man, Amadou Diallo (a man who was shot by a police officer an incredulous 41 times in total) with his song 'American Skin (41 Shots)'. 

One such quote from Springsteen really has weight to it: “what a privilege it is to forget that you live in a particular body. White people can do that, Black people can’t do that… that’s at the centre of the song”. The rest of the song, he says addresses “our mutual fear of one another. It all starts with fear. Hatred comes later, but it all starts with fear, everything from our systemic racism in America comes from fear, change and a growing equality and power of the Black community”.



…and its backlash

Springsteen goes on to discuss the repercussions he faced in backlash to the track, there was booing, and “a lot of heat from the police for several years after that” which included constant flipping of “the bird”. 

Springsteen explains however that if you listen to the track “it never felt fundamentally controversial, it wasn’t a diatribe, it wasn’t a finger pointing song particularly… it tried to tally up the human cost and what we all pay for in blood, of those kind of killing and murders every day… this song is twenty years old… this is what we pay in blood for not sorting out these issues, for not coming to terms with one another, it just goes on”

The podcast then drifts off into Springsteen playing the song’s chorus, creating a really thought-provoking and powerful moment. “It ain’t no secret… you getting killed just for living in your American shot…41 shots…41 shots”

The first three episodes of Renegade: Born in the USA is available on Spotify now. 

Grab your copy of the Gigwise print magazine here.


Photo: Press