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When Bruce Springsteen shook the foundations of the Berlin Wall

While rock ‘n’ roll might not literally be able to yield a sledgehammer or push through legislation, it can certainly land a subversive blow. When Bruce Springsteen played East Berlin in 1988, he hinted at just that, in one of the most conflicted statements ever delivered he announced in broken German, “I’m not here for any government, I’ve come to play rock ‘n’ roll for you,” before paradoxically adding, “In the hope that one day that all the barriers will be torn down.”

This was in July 1988, just over a year before the old wall was toppled, and a whopping 300,000 were in attendance at the concert in East Germany and millions more were watching on state television. With an audience like that watching on, and his profound opening statement, the set that Springsteen had in mind was never going to be a couple of hits, the latest album, quick encore, and then back to the hotel bar. Thus, the blue-collar boss rattled through a mammoth 32 songs in a four-hour epic set that certainly braced the foundations of the wall at the very least. The times were a-changing and this was the west’s cultural address. 

Like Cassius Dio with a Fender Stratocaster and an absence of sleeves, Springsteen may well have just been there to deliver a dose of rock ‘n’ roll, but there was no doubting the message behind it. This subversive uncurrent came to the fore when the Boss chose to cover one of his heroes; Bob Dylan. Of all the songs he could’ve chosen it was telling that ‘Chimes of Freedom’ got his vote. 

Far from a flimsy back-pat to rock ‘n’ roll, the concert followed on from the reverberations of David Bowie’s performance a year earlier and actually did seem to have an impact. As the Historian, Gerd Dietrich attests: “Springsteen’s concert and speech certainly contributed in a large sense to the events leading up to the fall of the wall”. The lasting impact when Springsteen departed the stage was to show “people how locked up they really were,” and with that illuminated realisation growing unrest against the regime was catalysed. 

Why, then, was it broadcast on state TV? Well, like the rest of us, governments are fallible, and mistakes can be made, as they have been affably proving to us for aeons. Their vision was to “assuage the country’s youth.” While Bowie’s concert had been so close to the wall that a chorus of union could be heard from the youth on the other side, Springsteen’s show was in the depths of Eastern Berlin, in order to promote the idea of an autonomous identity for the youth in attendance, essentially a message of ‘see, East Berlin isn’t so bad, even The Boss likes it here’.

With the air of revolution that many of Springsteen’s songs seem to be subsumed by, whether that be the personal revolt of ‘Born to Run’ or the pacifist protest of ‘Born in the USA’, that day he was a performer who had found his glass slipper stage. Thus, the concert not only had a lasting impact on the political situation but also on Springsteen. As he said years later looking back on the seismic shows, “Once in a while you play a show that ends up staying inside of you, living with you for the rest of your life. East Berlin in 1988 was certainly one of them.”

The mood had changed following his salvo of subversive rock and it may not have had rattled the wall to the ground in an instant, but it was the sort of unified rally cry that brings to mind the idealised mantra of the writer William S. Burroughs: “Artists to my mind are the real architects of change, and not the political legislators who implement change after the fact.”

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