A power station sits on the edge of my hometown, watching folk come and go through Port Augusta. It looks out toward a prison, set back from a hypersaline lake that’s as pink as a Cadillac and smells like post-mortem flatulence.
This power station was mothballed in 2012, and officially shut down in 2016. Decades before, in the 1980s, my mum was the first woman to work there in a technical role. For a few years she was a fitter and turner, until she had me.
According to CommSec, South Australia has the second-worst state economy in the country. In October this year, the last South Aussie Holden will roll off the factory floor in the low socio-economic suburb of Elizabeth. This follows the 2008 closure of the Tonsley Park Mitsubishi plant, which produced my first car (1981 Sigma) and the rancid sweatbox (1989 Magna Executive) in which my grandparents would haul us out to Whyalla – a town that today faces the rickety future of the Arrium steelworks.
But music offers solace. I learned as much lapping up AM radio as a kid. Artists like Cold Chisel, Paul Kelly and, more recently, Courtney Barnett, immortalise facets of the Australian working class (or Centrelink queue) experience. While Bruce Springsteen’s songs are synonymous with New Jersey – some 20,000 kilometres away – they contemplate the same trials, triumphs and anxieties.
Some are quick to dismiss this ‘Triple M’ fare as the domain of dudes, dads and dags. I admit to once denouncing its ‘bogan’ sensibilities and parochial posturing in order to assimilate with my new film school peers.
It’s no secret that Adelaide has a chip on its shoulder the size of an activated laneway, forever trying to impress the big kids of the eastern seaboard. When I moved to Adelaide in 2006, I felt a palpable class divide determined by which high school you went to, your parents’ postcode, and the pub at which you buy your $8 pint of pale. The first woman in my family to go to university, I worked hard to hide my working class bloodline, over-emphasising my H’s and spouting a newfound love of the French new wave.
This sentiment is not unique to Adelaide, of course. Travelling through the US in 2013, I sensed it on myriad American main streets, every time a stranger asked me not what, but why I was reading. On that trip I learned that you can take the cultural inferiority complex out of the girl, but – for better or worse – you can’t take sanctimony away from small towns and their constituents.
A cultural landscape is a natural space changed by human pursuits. It’s a place infused with the political, economic, artistic, religious and social stances of its inhabitants. In a cultural landscape each element is deemed uniformly important, irrespective of its historical, aesthetic or monetary value (real or perceived). So a factory is equal to a forest; a house is equal to a horse; a ’69 Chevy is equal to a rising storm, because each aspect shapes the narrative, memory and mythology of the place.
When Bruce Springsteen sings of urban eyesores like cars, factories and his father’s house, it’s with equal fear and nostalgia. The objects are ever-present upon the cultural landscape of his New Jersey, Nebraska, Asbury Park, Atlantic City, Darlington County and others. But in reality, factories fold, mills become disused and power stations are switched off every week in America, Australia and elsewhere, tossed aside on account of the economy.
Is it tall poppy syndrome that compels intellectuals to discredit art made by and about the working class?
Springsteen and Chisel are best known for hits ‘Born in the USA’ and ‘Khe Sanh’ respectively. Both songs are frequently mistaken for patriotic anthems, devoid of cultural capital when taken at face value – in reality, they address war-induced trauma, toxic masculinity and disillusionment with the heartland. Dig deeper into the back catalogues of both acts to discover nuanced, evocative and eloquent portraits of this working life, for instance Springsteen’s ‘Factory’ and Cold Chisel’s ‘One Long Day’.
The classist myths and judgements that shroud Springsteen, Chisel and their ilk confound me. Is it tall poppy syndrome that compels intellectuals to discredit art made by and about the working class? If so, why do contemporaries like Paul Kelly and Courtney Barnett go comparatively unscathed? In fact, they’re revered (rightly so), and far less divisive.
Perhaps Springsteen and Jimmy Barnes’ tendency to holler and bawl is unbecoming, improper? The melodiously chatty tones of Kelly and Barnett are less confrontational. Barnett requests a cup and spoon to eat her mi goreng, while Springsteen screams for a knife to cut the pain from his heart, and won’t let you turn him down.
Coarse as he may seem, the pain in Springsteen’s music stems not only from personal anguish, but also from the suffering of working men and women, people of colour, migrants, veterans, and other vulnerable souls too often condemned by the flag-toting crowd he’s regularly – and wrongly – assumed to represent. While he’s commonly known as ‘The Boss,’ Springsteen actually shies from that epithet and its authoritarian implications.
To put it another way: the only wall Bruce would ever build is one of sound.
A few weeks ago, on the opening night of his third Australian tour in four years, Springsteen addressed the pulpit in Perth. ‘We’re a long way from home,’ he said, ‘and our hearts and spirits are with the hundreds of thousands of women and men that marched yesterday in every city in America…in support of tolerance, inclusion, reproductive rights, civil rights, racial justice, LGBTQI rights, the environment, wage equality, gender equality, healthcare, and immigrants’ rights.
‘We stand with you,’ he said, in his call-to-arms for ‘the new American resistance.’
This was the first of several heartfelt speeches Springsteen’s made to Australian audiences so far this tour. His politicised discourse in Adelaide and Melbourne sparked cheers from punters (and some jeers online), and made international headlines.
At the time of Springsteen’s Perth sermon, Western Australia nursed the worst performing state economy in the country. Yet Bruce went on to play three shows at Perth Arena. Each one sold out, despite the hefty ticket price. A capacity crowd followed in Adelaide, a notoriously difficult city in which to move units. Artists doing the ‘national’ rounds often skip it completely. In the City of Churches, Springsteen’s soul-preacher presence compels those who dread the growing chasm between the haves and have-nots (his own rumoured net worth of $460 million notwithstanding).
The only wall Springsteen would ever build is one of sound.
On his previous Australian tour in 2014, Springsteen packed the Adelaide Entertainment Centre on two consecutive nights. When he pulled me on stage during ‘Dancing in the Dark’, I found myself immersed in Springsteen’s cultural landscape, the classless frontier. Wearing my $8 K-Mart flannie, playing his $1700 Takamine guitar, his music was our almighty leveller.
Of his Australian fanbase, Springsteen recently told the Perth press, ‘About three tours ago we seemed to hit something down here. We’ve always had a good time, but we got something that felt like a deeper relationship… a deeper connection with our audience.’
His Antipodean devotees find release in his discourse, maybe now more than ever. I cling to his rallying choruses, vindicated by glimpses of my stubborn, angry, anxious, exultant selves that populate his runaway American dream. As lonely as a freeway, and as comforting as your own car, it helps to hear songs that hear you: ashamed of where you came from, but mustering the guts to sing about it.
I have a row of little houses tattooed just above my waist. They’re sunlit at one end, in darkness down the other. These five little houses look like my hometown, weatherboard boxes plonked in the South Australian desert. They look like Lakewood, Waco, Hot Springs, Royse City, Crittenden County and the American ghost towns I road-tripped through. My little hamlet looks like community and ruin, a low-rent oasis on Highway 1, the badlands of my childhood and the Bruce Springsteen songbook. Like growing up and busting out of a land where dreams are found and lost, as soon as you possibly can. Beneath the five houses rests a reminder, etched in a font based on Bruce’s handwriting; ‘It ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive’.