Chris Christie's Love for Bruce Springsteen Goes Unrequited
Chris Christie is, even in moments of tranquility—of which, in his life, there seem to be none—a torqued-up, joyously belligerent, easily baited, and preternaturally exuberant son of New Jersey, so bringing him to a Bruce Springsteen concert is an exercise in volcano management. Christie, in the presence of Springsteen—whom he would marry if he were gay and if gay people were allowed to marry in the state he governs—loses himself. He is, as is well known, a very large man—twice the width of Mitt Romney—but he is a very large man who dances at Springsteen concerts in front of many thousands of people without giving a damn what they think.
We are in a luxury suite at the Prudential Center—the Rock—in downtown Newark, the sort of suite accessible only to the American plutocracy, from which Springsteen seems to draw a surprisingly large proportion of his most devoted fans. (I know of three separate groups of one-percenters who recently flew in private jets to see Springsteen perform at Madison Square Garden.) Certainly not many residents of Newark could afford such a box, and the shrimp and steak that come with it. Christie’s bodyguards from the New Jersey State Police—he will sometimes play aloud on his iPhone Springsteen’s haunting and paranoid “State Trooper” while being driven by state troopers—keep the governor out of the cheap seats, where he says he’d rather be. Of course, he’s not opposed to upmarket seating and grilled shrimp—he’s a vociferous free-marketeer, who, for good reason, is a hero to the hedge-fund grandees across the river. He just likes mixing it up with his constituents, several of whom, by the smell of it, are enjoying high-quality New Jersey marijuana right below us.
People see him out at the edge of the box, and they cheer his dancing and call him vice president (for what it’s worth, he told me he’s not really interested in the job: “I’d rather be here in New Jersey and be governor, but obviously if Governor Romney calls and wants to talk about it, I owe it to him to listen”), and they rain down curses on his political enemies. Many fans also give Christie grief for an incident that took place three weeks earlier, when a photograph of the governor apparently sleeping through a Springsteen song—an affecting, elegiac song called “Rocky Ground,” from his new, fuming-mad anti–Wall Street album, Wrecking Ball—at the Garden pinged around the Internet.
“Hey, Governor, where’s your pillow?” someone from an upper deck screams. It is the sort of taunt he should obviously ignore, but Christie is incapable of being anything other than his obstreperous self. He screams back, “I didn’t fall asleep! How could you even believe that?” He turns to me. “How could they believe that? I was meditating. It’s a very spiritual song.” I believe him. I’ve spent much of my life as a pro-Springsteen extremist (defined here as someone who has spent an unconscionable amount of money on Springsteen tickets and also refuses to contemplate the notion that Bob Dylan might be the better writer), and I have met very few people who love Springsteen the way Christie loves Springsteen.
This concert is the 129th the governor has attended. His four children all went to Springsteen shows in utero. He knows every word to every Springsteen song. He dreams of playing drums in the E Street Band. People like Chris Christie don’t fall asleep at Springsteen shows.
The depth of Christie’s love is noteworthy in part because most politicians—certainly most politicians of national stature—are either too dull or too monomaniacally careerist to maintain fervent emotional relationships with artists. And when they do, the objects of their affection resemble them ideologically or dispositionally—think of the loyalty that Patrick Leahy, the liberal senator from Vermont, has for the Grateful Dead. Christie’s passionate attachment to Bruce Springsteen is something different, and much more complicated.
The E Street Band blasts into “Badlands,” the opening song from the great Born to Run follow-up album, Darkness on the Edge of Town. Christie plays the air drums as 18,000 people—three generations of Jersey Springsteen cultists—dance with no inhibition and not too much skill. (It would be correct for the reader to assume, by the way, that I also jump around like a jackass while Springsteen sings—I’m just another of the many tristate ethnics who are, in Christie’s words, “desperately trying to cling to their 40s.”)
“Badlands” contains many of Springsteen’s great themes—desire, desperation, defiance in the face of cruel fate, the gulf between the American dream and the American reality. But, like many of Springsteen’s most sweeping anthems—“Born in the U.S.A.” being the most obvious—it is a propulsive and stirring song, and the fist-pumping governor seems uncontainable.
Behind us, Christie’s communications director, Maria Comella, whose job it is to contain him, watches with alarm as the governor grabs his community-affairs commissioner, Rich Constable, and his human-services commissioner, Jennifer Velez, and simultaneously bear-hugs and headlocks them. Christie turns from one to the other—his face is maybe three inches from theirs—as he shouts along with Springsteen: “Workin’ in the fields / Till you get your back burned / Workin’ ’neath the wheel / Till you get your facts learned / Baby, I got my facts / Learned real good right now.” He screams the song’s immortal lines: “Poor man wanna be rich / Rich man wanna be king / And a king ain’t satisfied till he rules everything / I wanna go out tonight / I wanna find out what I got.”
He is flushed and beaming. The song ends, and he releases his commissioners, who seem happy to bask in their governor’s attention and also happy that he did not crack their windpipes. We’re all feeling elation—if the E Street Band at full throttle doesn’t fill you with joy, you’re probably dead—and it strikes me that this is the moment to ask the governor a trick question: “Do you think Mitt Romney could relate to this? To a Bruce Springsteen show?”
He looks at me like I’m from France. “No one is beyond the reach of Bruce!” he screams over the noise of the crowd, and then screams it again, to make sure I understand: “No one is beyond the reach of Bruce!”
What about Newt?
“He’s been married three times!,” Christie answers. “He’d get this. You know what I mean?”
Not really, but I accept the point: something about longing and sin and betrayal and the possibility of redemption.
Springsteen turns to a song from the new album. Christie wanders back into the crowded suite, stopping to dance with his wife. I think about what he said: No one is beyond the reach of Bruce. There is something odd about this assertion, beyond the obvious, which is that there are, in fact, people who don’t like Springsteen, who find his singing akin to hog-calling; others find his Tribune of the Downtrodden persona a bit of a pose. But what is strange about this statement is that it is an inversion of a central, dispiriting truth of Christie’s life: Bruce Springsteen is beyond his reach.
Despite heroic efforts by Christie, Springsteen, who is still a New Jersey resident, will not talk to him. They’ve met twice—once on an airplane in 1999, and then at the 2010 ceremony inducting Danny DeVito into the New Jersey Hall of Fame, where they exchanged only formal pleasantries. (Christie does say that Springsteen was very kind to his children.) At concerts, even concerts in club-size venues—the Stone Pony, in Asbury Park, most recently—Springsteen won’t acknowledge the governor. When Christie leaves a Springsteen concert in a large arena, his state troopers move him to his motorcade through loading docks. He walks within feet of the stage, and of the dressing rooms. He’s never been invited to say hello. On occasion, he’ll make a public plea to Springsteen, as he did earlier this spring, when Christie asked him to play at a new casino in Atlantic City. “He says he’s for the revitalization of the Jersey Shore, so this seems obvious,” Christie told me. I asked him if he’s received a response to his request. “No, we got nothing back from them,” he said unhappily, “not even a ‘Fuck you.’”
Though he doesn’t like the cold shoulder, Christie takes comfort in something that, I imagine, leaves his idol unhappy and confused: the people who grew up with Springsteen in Freehold, the people who first came to listen to Springsteen, the people whose lives Springsteen explores in his songs—they voted for Christie. Sixty-three percent of white voters with only high-school diplomas went for Christie in his 2009 race against the incumbent Democrat, Jon Corzine.
Christie isn’t surprised by Springsteen’s snub. He is, after all, a Republican, and Bruce Springsteen is known as an enemy of Republicans. Christie has cut taxes, demonized the teachers unions, and slashed spending on social services. Springsteen makes it clear he believes that the wealthy should pay to fix the tears in the social safety net. He doesn’t seem to care that Christie is the sort of Republican many Democrats find appealing, or that Christie breaks left on such issues as Islamophobia (he stood up for a Muslim judicial appointee under specious attack for attempting, his critics said, to turn New Jersey into a Sharia state—if you can imagine such a thing) and drug-law enforcement (he is campaigning for a new law that would divert nonviolent drug offenders away from prison and toward treatment). But Springsteen seems actively uninterested in engaging with Christie. When I asked to interview Springsteen about Christie, his people gave me the brush-off.
Springsteen soon wheels into “Bishop Danced,” one of his more obscure songs—Christie knows the words—and then “It’s Hard to Be a Saint in the City,” the first song he played for his now-legendary audition at Columbia Records, 40 years old but miraculously new-seeming and not at all preposterous for the 62-year-old onstage to be singing. And then comes that moment in every Springsteen concert when he brings everything to a halt in order to provide his diagnosis of exactly what ails the country. It’s a tradition, like playing “Born to Run” with the house lights up. The band quiets, and Springsteen steps to the mic. I’m curious to see how Christie handles the homily. Springsteen has become an angry man over the past 10 years, angry at the sort of people—billionaires, to be precise—who gathered last summer in New York to try to persuade Christie to run for president.
Christie calls over to his brother, Todd—who made his money as a Wall Street trader—and says, “Attention please, it’s a lecture. Lecture time.” Springsteen begins to mumble in what the music critic Jody Rosen calls his “flat Dust Bowl Okie accent,” and I can’t make out a word he’s saying. I ask Christie if he understands him.
“You want to know what he’s saying?” Christie asks. “He’s telling us that rich people like him are fucking over poor people like us in the audience, except that us in the audience aren’t poor, because we can afford to pay 98 bucks to him to see his show. That’s what he’s saying.”
Wait a second, this is Bruce Springsteen we’re talking about, the guy you adore?
“I compartmentalize,” Christie says.
He told me once that he accepts Springsteen’s “limousine liberal” politics the way a spouse accepts an annoying tic in her partner. “There is some of his work that is dour and down,” he says, “but the thing that attracted me to his music is how aspirational it is—aspirational to success, to fun, to being a better person, to figuring out how to make your life better—and you can’t say that about most people’s music. They become successful and then they become self-consumed and then boring and narcissistic.”
He turns to Velez, who runs New Jersey’s hard-pressed social-services agencies. “Hey, you, you’re the commissioner of human services, this is for you, pay attention.” Velez, who grew up in a trailer park in the Meadowlands (and who is a holdover from the Corzine administration), says of Springsteen’s preoccupation with the poor: “I always find this part very inauthentic.”
From the indifferent reaction of the crowd, not too many people understand, or care, what Springsteen is saying. Christie takes solace in this. Springsteen moves into “Jack of All Trades,” from the new album, a song that seemed to me, when I first heard it, to be the angriest song Springsteen has ever written. It is the story of a man who works with his hands in a country that assigns no value to such men anymore. “I’ll hammer the nails / I’ll set the stone / I’ll harvest your crops when they’re ripe and grown,” he sings, and then complains that “the banker man grows fat” while “the working man grows thin / It’s all happened before and it’ll happen again.” He concludes with one of the coldest lines he’s ever written: “If I had me a gun / I’d find the bastards and shoot ’em on sight.”
Christie rolls his eyes. “He feels guilty,” he says. “He feels guilty that he has so much money, and he thinks it’s all a zero-sum game: in order to get poor people more money, it has to be taken away from the rich. I don’t mean to get all serious, but this is what I was trying to say at the Reagan Library”—a reference to the speech, delivered last year at Nancy Reagan’s invitation, that thrilled Republicans looking for an electoral savior. In the speech, Christie criticized President Obama for “telling those who are scared and struggling that the only way their lives can get better is to diminish the success of others” and “insisting that we must tax and take and demonize those who have already achieved the American dream.”
He wants to talk more—but then Springsteen rips into “Candy’s Room.” Christie grabs an imaginary mic and begins shouting.
Though Springsteen studiously ignores Christie at shows, he has, on one occasion, let his feelings about the governor be known. In a letter to the Asbury Park Press published a year ago, Springsteen complained of state budget cuts that “are eating away at the lower edges of the middle class, not just those already classified as in poverty, and are likely to continue to get worse over the next few years.” He didn’t mention Christie by name, but the governor was the person doing the cutting.
“Why would I be shocked that Bruce would be unhappy with budget cuts?” Christie asks. “I’m not shocked that he would be unhappy with certain programs cut that are not fully funded.” He goes on to suggest that Springsteen should have a better understanding of what it means to balance a budget. “If you talk to folks who have associated with him, he is, from a business perspective, a no-nonsense capitalist. He runs his business like a capitalist, he’s the boss, he’s in charge, he’s the one who makes the most money, he determines how much money everybody else makes. He knows about budgets.”
Christie thinks hard about what he would say to Springsteen, how he would explain himself, if he ever had the chance. I passed an afternoon with the governor in his office in the Capitol, in Trenton, not long before the concert, listening to Springsteen—we spent half an hour dissecting “Thunder Road,” Christie’s favorite song—and trying to untangle his complex feelings about his idol. Christie believes fiercely that Springsteen would understand him if he only made the effort. “My view on it is that I’m not a priority of his right now,” he said. “At some point maybe I will be. If Bruce and I sat down and talked, he would reluctantly come to the conclusion that we disagree on a lot less than he thinks.”
He would certainly disagree with you on unions, I said.
“There’s a split in the union movement, between the private sector and the public sector,” he answered. “The private sector is where they’re having huge unemployment. You think they want to pay higher property taxes and bloated benefits for their public-sector union brothers who don’t want to make any sacrifices? Those are not the guys Bruce is writing about. He’s writing about the carpenter and the pipe fitter, the bricklayer.” He pauses for effect. “And let me tell you something. Those guys voted for me.”
I asked him if he thought Springsteen was a hypocrite. This suspicion has scratched at me ever since my discovery, a dozen years ago, while visiting Boston to interview one of his guitarists, Steven Van Zandt, that Springsteen and his band had parked themselves at the Four Seasons.
“I don’t think the fact that he’s successful and that he uses his wealth as he sees fit is a proof point of the fact that he’s lost touch with who he is,” Christie said. “I think the exact opposite. I think his success is proof that what he writes about in ‘Born to Run’ is absolutely achievable. He did it. He got out. I disagree with the people who say ‘Look at Bruce now, he doesn’t drive a beat-up car.’”
He went on, “Your Four Seasons thing isn’t fair. Why wouldn’t you stay in a Four Seasons if you could afford to? Who would rather stay in a Residence Inn by Marriott if you could afford to be more comfortable in a Four Seasons? I think he’s the personification of the American dream: the kid from Freehold whose father had nothing but a bunch of very difficult and seemingly unsatisfying jobs, and a mother who was a working-class office worker, and now he’s one of the wealthiest people in music. He should enjoy it. What’s funny is that his progression is what Republicans believe can happen. That’s what Republicans believe—hard work, talent, ambition. We all know he’s the hardest-working man in show business. It’s a meritocracy.
“This is where he’s inconsistent,” he continued. “I’d love to have that conversation with him. How does he square this? Maybe he’ll have a way to square it that would make some sense to me, but from the outside, it doesn’t make sense to me.” Christie argues that the only thing separating his philosophy from Springsteen’s is a single word. At concerts, Springsteen has often told his fans: “Nobody wins unless everybody wins.”
“I think I would agree with that statement if he added a word,” Christie told me. “‘Nobody wins unless everybody has the opportunity to win.’ If he said that, I’d be 100 percent on board.”
But here’s what I told him I imagine Springsteen might ask: “Governor, do you really believe it’s a level playing field? Do you really believe that marginalized people even have access to opportunity?”
“Look,” Christie said to the imaginary Springsteen. “I’m attempting to level the playing field. We just disagree about how to level it. I think we level it by improving an urban education system that is dominated by union interests that are not working for the best interests of kids, but working in the interest of their next contract. You do it by bringing more private-sector business to the state.”
And I asked one more question: What would happen if Springsteen did speak to you, but only to say “You absolutely don’t understand me.”
“Just because we disagree doesn’t mean I don’t get him,” Christie said. “I get what he’s trying to express and advocate for, I just don’t agree that those are the most-effective policies for our government.” I asked him if Springsteen’s rejection would trigger a freak-out. “If this was 10 years ago, maybe it would have. But I have much thicker skin now. I’m more mature, I’m more prepared to have that kind of conversation with a guy I’ve idolized since I was 13 years old.”
At the concert, Christie’s younger children are fading. So is his Cabinet. Velez tells him she has to leave early so she can testify the next morning at the state Senate’s budget-committee hearing. “Come on, you can’t leave,” Christie implores. Velez is making what Christie calls the Corzine move. The Corzine move is to leave a Springsteen show before it’s completely over.
“There was this moment early on when I realized that Corzine just didn’t understand New Jersey,” Christie explains. “It was a benefit show at the Count Basie Theatre, in Red Bank—it was the first time that Bruce did whole albums through. It was the best show I’ve ever seen. It’s a small venue, maybe 600 or 700 people. I’m U.S. attorney then, I’m thinking about running for governor, and I’m in the front row of the balcony. Corzine is governor and he’s in the front row. And he left during the encores. He just left. You could see him look at his watch. He left during ‘Raise Your Hand’—Bruce is on top of the piano screaming—and it just struck me that unless there’s an emergency, which I found out later there wasn’t, you don’t leave. You just don’t leave.”
Just after the Count Basie Theatre concert, Christie was introduced to Steven Van Zandt’s mother, who asked him whether he was going to run for governor. He told her he hadn’t yet decided. “She said, ‘Did you see the governor here tonight? Did you see that he left early?’ I said I did, and told her that this was because he’s not from Jersey. And she said, ‘That’s right!’”
Springsteen, onstage in Newark, turns to “Rocky Ground,” the song to which Christie allegedly fell asleep at the Garden. “Rise up, shepherd, rise up,” Springsteen sings. Christie’s response: “Rise up and stay awake! I’m fully awake!”
Then Springsteen rips through “Born to Run,” “Dancing in the Dark,” and, to our delight, the riotous “Rosalita.” And then he launches into “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out,” a song that tells the story of Scooter and the Big Man—Springsteen and his saxophonist Clarence Clemons, the central figure of the E Street Band, who died less than a year ago.
“You think it’s too soon?” Christie asks me.
“Yes,” I say.
“Just watch what he does with this,” he says.
Clemons’s death, Christie says, crushed him. “I felt like all the energy was drained out of my body. I just lay there silent on the bed, and [my wife] said to me, ‘I just want to understand what you’re feeling,’ and I said, ‘My youth is over. He’s dead and anything that is left of me being young is over.’”
Springsteen reaches the crucial moment of the song: “The change was made uptown / And the Big Man joined the band” and suddenly everything stops. A video tribute appears on huge screens above the stage, and an immense, sustained roar fills the arena. Christie has seen this before, at the Garden. “It’s just … Bruce,” he says. “He’s a genius.” He looks out at Springsteen in wonder.
The show ends on this transcendent note. Christie says his goodbyes and makes his way out of the suite. He is mobbed. Everyone wants a handshake, a hug, or a picture. We make our way down to the loading dock. Springsteen is somewhere nearby. Christie looks in the direction of the stage, turns around, and makes his way out. State troopers have his motorcade ready. He gets into the car and drives away.