Article 2004-10-13 East Rutherford, NJ

For Fans at Springsteen Concert, the Music Seems to Matter More Than the Message

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J., Oct. 13 - Bruce Springsteen returned to his home state on Wednesday night for a concert that aimed to raise money for social causes and press the ouster of President Bush.

For an artist who had steered clear of outright partisanship despite songs that focus on the downtrodden, the show represented a homecoming that held the threat of a hostile backlash from conservative fans.

And yet, despite New Jersey's flirtation with being a swing state, fans in the parking lot of Continental Airlines Arena before the show — part of the national Vote for Change Tour sponsored by Moveon.org, which opposes Mr. Bush — hardly seemed to mind their hero's sudden conversion into a Democratic Party activist.

Most started appearing in the lot soon after it opened at 1 p.m. Driving from as far away as Boston, bringing beer and hot dogs, they came — as they have since the 1970's — to see and hear "Badlands," "Born to Run" and other songs they had grown to love.

Many said the music mattered more than the message. "We support Bush, and we support Bruce," said Dan George, a law enforcement officer from Netcong, N.J., wearing a T-shirt that said, "Bruce fan. Bush fan." "We're going to have a great time tonight," he said.

Other Republicans in the crowd reacted with a similar level of what psychologists would call compartmentalization.

Mark Szymczak, 28, a physical therapist from Garfield, N.J., came to the show with Bush-Cheney bumper stickers plastered all over his shirt, hat and pants. He said that when he first heard that Mr. Springsteen was stumping for Senator John Kerry, "I wanted to punch him in the face."

But he got over it. "My father is Democrat, and I still love him," he said. "You have to keep the personal separate from the political."

Brett Gash, 46, of East Windsor, N.J., who set up a D.J. system and brought 1,000 Bruce CD's to play in the parking lot, said that Mr. Springsteen has helped matters by making sure that the shows stay largely nonpartisan. At a recent Vote for Change show in Philadelphia, which Mr. Gash attended, Mr. Kerry was mentioned only once.

"It's not being shoved down my throat," Mr. Gash said. "They've made their points before the show. And at the concert, it's about the music."

Plus, he added, "if you don't like what you hear, you can always go the bathroom or get a beer."

And yet, would most undecided voters stay, and perhaps vote for Mr. Kerry because of Mr. Springsteen's effort? Even avid fans and Democrats were not so sure. Mike Grenier, 55, for example, a Kerry supporter who drove from Salem, Mass., to the show — his 135th Springsteen concert — said the "no nukes" shows that Mr. Springsteen played in the late 1970's seemed to have more of an impact. "There was more passion then," he said.

Trying to make the connection between music and a candidate can be especially difficult, he added. "When Bruce plays 'Badlands,' they're not going to decide to vote for Kerry rather than Bush," he said. "They just want to hear 'Badlands."'

A pair of undecided voters from Hoboken — Cathy Clark, 24, and Sarah Bryant, 24 — agreed. They said the only way Mr. Springsteen could win their votes would be if he ran for office himself.

"He could definitely carry New Jersey," said their friend, Mike Kravitz, 27, standing nearby with a beer.

Not that such skepticism kept partisans from working the crowd. Fans donning Bush apparel were matched by cars with signs declaring, "regime change begins at home," and a number of fans wore Kerry-Edwards pins. Volunteers passed out fliers for various liberal Web sites like www.regimechangeguide.com.

In one area, there was even a "bus for change" — an old school bus, painted in the colors of the American flag, with Christmas lights and signs supporting "affordable health care" and other causes. Driven by about 15 Kerry supporters from Monmouth County, it was an attempt "to stir up conversation," said Dustin Tingley, 25, a teacher from Colts Neck, N.J., who was one of the bus passengers.

And for some, the mix of politics and music seemed to be working. "I'm into it," said Brian Dunne, 15, from Monroe, N.Y. "Anytime Bruce plays, I'm into it. But I believe in the cause, too."

By Damien Cave via The New York Times.
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