The song that connects Bruce Springsteen and Bob Marley

Legendary roots rocker Bruce Springsteen once declared that Bob Marley belonged in “the pantheon alongside Dylan, Elvis Presley, James Brown and Wood Guthrie”. Although the genres they spearheaded massively differed, the two were both hugely politically conscious musicians who used their sound as a way to explore class, racism and religion.

To them, music was never about hitmaking. Still, it came with the territory because their singular voices could spark conversations about inequality in a way that resonated across the globe. Springsteen considered Marley “one of the few musicians who can truly be described as revolutionary”.

While the two had brief moments of collaboration, their enduring parallels resulted in a permanent shoutout of Springsteen’s ‘Johnny 99’. On the face of it, the track from 1982’s Nebraska had no connection to the reggae legend at all, barring its ironically jaunty beat. It was as atypical a Springsteen song as you could get – an autoworker from New Jersey gets fired and kills a clerk while drunk and desolate. There are flashes of harmonica between the general bleakness provided by the narrative about poverty and murder.

It was an unlikely political anthem, given there was no redemptive message of hope in hard times. But in the time-honoured tradition of Presidents seizing on vaguely patriotic-sounding rock songs, Ronald Reagan used the popularity of Born in the U.S.A. to pander to voters. “America’s future,” he declared, “rests in the message of hope in the songs of a man so many young Americans admire – New Jersey’s own Bruce Springsteen.”

That declaration incensed Springsteen, who addressed Reagan’s comments at a 1984 Pittsburgh show. “The president was mentioning my name the other day, and I kinda got to wondering what his favourite album musta been,” he said. “I don’t think it was the Nebraska album. I don’t think he’s been listening to this one.” He then proceeded to play ‘Johnny 99’ at full pelt, pointedly picking the track so miserable its murderous, jobless protagonist begs a judge for an execution verdict.

Picking ‘Johnny 99’ to illustrate his point was made more impactful by Marley’s small inclusion. The judge who sentences Johnny is named “John Brown”, also the sheriff’s name in Bob Marley’s ‘I Shot The Sheriff’. Given Springsteen considered Marley a musical revolutionary, sending a pointed message to Reagan with a track inspired by him was a double-whammy – an ode to an artist he admired and a declaration to anyone else looking to willfully misinterpret his songs that he wouldn’t stand for it.

Springsteen once clarified that while there was a real patriotism hidden underneath the best of his music, it was a “critical, questioning and often angry patriotism,” and he continued the trend of holding politicians to account long after Marley’s passing in the countercultural spirit the two shared.

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