FORTY-FIVE MINUTES INTO THE FIRST presidential debate, Bruce Springsteen wandered into the craft services room of the Wachovia Center in Philadelphia where two dozen roadies and a few members of his E Street Band were silently gathered around a TV. "How we doin'?," he asked, pointing to the screen. There was no response. Next he tried a few inquisitive gestures. Thumbs up? Way up? Down? No one shifted his or her gaze. Finally, smiling wryly in recognition of his relative unimportance, Springsteen pulled up a chair and watched with the others.
He may be the Boss, but even Springsteen cannot compete with the current contest for Commander in Chief. "I'm a mild-mannered rock musician of a certain age," he says, laughing. "My powers are limited. All I ask is for the right to have an opinion and the right to share it, same as anybody else." Of course, being a rock star, he's doing it in a big way. After 30 years of not taking a side in electoral politics, Springsteen announced in August his support for John Kerry, that he would headline the 11-state Vote for Change tour (that launched last Friday night in six cities across Pennsylvania) and that he hoped his fans might come out and consider voting his way. Several of them have since approached him and voiced their disapproval of his position. "They say, 'Bruce, I'm a fan! But I'm not coming,'" he says. Far more have attacked his right to have a political opinion at all. The mail, he says, has been rough, and even Nightline's Ted Koppel asked Springsteen on his show, "Who the hell is Bruce Springsteen to tell anybody how to vote?"
It's a legitimate question, but it presumes that the players on the Vote for Change tour--Springsteen, R.E.M., Pearl Jam, Dixie Chicks, Dave Matthews Band and 11 more--are planning to become stump speakers. "You don't stand up at a rock show and lecture people unless your name is Gandhi," says R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck. "We're musicians, not politicians. We get that." MoveOn.org the liberal political-action committee that is presenting Vote for Change, has tried to get the performers on message with a series of talking points, but there's little evidence to suggest that the briefings stuck or that the artists--who were advised early on by Springsteen to "do no harm" in their public comments--were interested in saying much a cappella. "I'm getting sheets with information on things like grain subsidies," says an amused Buck. "I don't think about this stuff on that level. I approach this whole thing as a guy who plays guitar and feels a particular way."