The moment when Bruce Springsteen sprinkled Americana over East Berlin
Bruce Springsteen’s influence on the world is one that is immeasurable. The Boss still remains an integral force in American culture and who has provided a voice for the voiceless for close to fifty years. However, his influence can’t just be felt in his home country and, in 1988, he made the journey to East Berlin to give the people who had been locked behind the wall a glimpse of hope in the form of a rip-roaring set packed full of rock ‘n’ roll.
On July 19th 1988, East Berlin was host to one of the most important events in its history when Springsteen, along with his E Street Band, helped play their part in healing the divided city of Berlin between the Communist East and liberal West. The effect that the concert had has been talked about as transcending music in its societal importance and has been labelled by many as being one of the vital seeds that were sown on the journey that led to the destruction of the Berlin Wall.
Springsteen’s show at Weißensee, the first in East Germany, would change lives of thousands of people who were in attendance who many had never had the opportunity to watch a concert but let alone a rockstar of this stature, at the peak of his powers.
“When we were playing our regular shows in West Germany, Bruce said to me, ‘When are we playing East Berlin?’ About a month later there we were,” Springsteen’s longtime manager, Jon Landau, said to The Big Issue when asked to explain how the landmark show came about.
“It may sound corny,” Landau went on to add, “but the feeling among us was that this place just wasn’t working. And with Gorbachev’s influence in the general European atmosphere at the time, it seemed like change was a real possibility – although none of us had any idea what the change would be and how soon it would come.”
His show came after the likes of Bob Dylan, Joe Cocker and Bryan Adams had already played East Berlin in 1988 but Springsteen’s arrival would prove bigger than anyone imagined with 160,000 tickets being officially sold—but the figure was alleged to be much larger in actuality. It’s believed that somewhere between 300,000 to 500,000 people were in attendance for that monumental night.
It wasn’t just the biggest crowd Springsteen has ever performed for but, as he maintained in his 2016 autobiography Born to Run, “The largest single crowd I’d ever seen… I couldn’t see its end”. The Boss then went on to note: “Rock ’n’ roll is a music of stakes. The higher they’re pushed, the deeper and more thrilling the moment becomes. In East Germany in 1988, the centre of the table was loaded down with a winner-takes-all bounty that would explode into the liberating destruction of the Berlin Wall by the people of Germany.”
Springsteen started the show in the most euphoric fashion, telling the country-sized crowd, “I’m not here for any government. I’ve come to play rock’n’roll for you in the hope that one day all the barriers will be torn down,” which was met by an eruption from the audience before he launched into Bob Dylan’s ‘Chimes of Freedom’.
“Tolling for the rebel, tolling for the rake/ Tolling for the luckless, the abandoned an’ forsaked/ Tolling for the outcast, burnin’ constantly at stake/ An’ we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing,” Springsteen sang.
The concert would go on to last around four hours but the legacy it left behind would be more important than any other show that Springsteen would ever play. “I think it really contributed to fuelling the sentiment in East Germany for change,” said author Erik Kirschbaum to the BBC, who wrote the book Rocking the Wall.
“A lot of reforms were going on in other Eastern European countries in ’88 but, in East Germany, it was a very stagnant situation. Springsteen came there and spoke to their hearts. He got them enthusiastic about change, and in the next 16 months, we all know what happened,” Kirschbaum went on to say.
That, right there, shows the power of music and although it is contentious whether this show by Springsteen had any actual impact on East Germany is somewhat inconsequential because it is unarguable that he provided the people with a much-needed shot of hope and optimism that day which money can’t buy.