IN June 1984, Bruce Springsteen kicked off his nationwide concert tour in St. Paul, Minn. The 15,000-seat hall was sold out, and Mr. Springsteen's ``Born in the U.S.A.'' album was high on the charts. A major rock star when the tour started, Springsteen became a phenomenon while on the road. On Wednesday, when the tour came to a close, the setting was the 85,000-seat Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. And ``Born in the U.S.A.'' was still in the Top 10.
That song, the tale of a downtrodden Vietnam vet, has been seen as a patriotic anthem. ``Clearly, the key to the enormous explosion of Bruce's popularity is the misunderstanding of that song,'' critic Greil Marcus says.
If anyone ever went to a Springsteen show expecting an arch-patriot -- ``The Rambo of Rock,'' some T-shirts suggested -- they probably left with a better idea of where he stands. In many ways his increased political outspokenness is the most remarkable change in Springsteen, and one that was foreshadowed when he introduced the ballad ``My Hometown'' that first night in St. Paul.
``When I started playing guitar, I had a couple of ideas,'' he said that night. ``One was to avoid as much responsibility as possible for the rest of my life. The others were to get girls and to get filthy rich.'' He added quietly, ``Only one idea didn't work out -- the responsibility idea. It seems like when you get older, you realize that you can't get out of the way.''
As the tour progressed -- and especially after Ronald Reagan praised Springsteen's ``message of hope'' in a New Jersey campaign speech -- the singer became more and more pointed about his responsibility. He contributed more than $1 million to local charities, mostly food banks helping feed people who he said ``fall through the cracks caused by the injustices in our social system.''
At the same time, he indirectly agreed with the commentators who said it was wrong to turn a rock musician into a national icon. He asked the crowd to support local food banks by saying, ``They're putting some of the ideas I'm singing about into action. Without them, what I do up here doesn't amount to much more than just words.''
Toward the end of the tour, he became even more outspoken. ``This song gets right to the heart of the promise of what our country is supposed to be about,'' he said, introducing Woody Guthrie's ``This Land Is Your Land.''
``But if you talk to some of the unemployed steelworkers in east L.A., or Pittsburgh, or Gary, Ind., or a lot of people out there whose jobs are disappearing, I don't know if they'd think this song is true anymore. I'm not sure that it is, but I know that it ought to be. . . . With countries, just like with people, it's easy to let the best of yourself slip away.''
And at the Los Angeles shows came the most startlingly political statement he's yet made. He dedicated a song to the young folks in the audience, spoke briefly about growing up in the shadow of Vietnam, and then said: ``Blind faith in your leaders, in 1985, will get you killed.'' Then he ripped into an angry version of Edwin Starr's antiwar soul song ``War,'' reading the lyrics off a sheet of paper he had taped to his arm. (A live version of that song may be the flip side of his next single.)
If the tour made Springsteen more political, it also made him bigger, richer, and happier: In between St. Paul and Los Angeles were 15 months, 11 countries, 3 continents, 156 concerts, 5 million concertgoers, sales of more than 10 million records, and concert revenues that reportedly grossed more than $100 million.
One measure of this tour's scope came during the first of the four L.A. shows, when Springsteen stopped midway through the first set, grinned, and told the crowd of his recent birthday. ``I'm 36,'' he laughed. ``I was 34 when this tour started!''
But the tour and Springsteen's ``Born in the U.S.A.'' album have done more than simply age him. ``This has been the greatest year of my life,'' he said after the last show, thanking the audience for making him ``the happiest man in the world.'' But it has also left questions about what's next for a performer who usually takes three years off between tours and two between albums.
Many now expect Springsteen -- recently married at age 36 -- to stay out of the public eye for even longer than usual. At the end of his last show he gave few clues: After four hours of music he left the stage with a simple ``We'll miss ya, but we'll be seein' ya. Thanks. Bye-bye.''
``I'm sure he'll take the rest of the year off, but after that I have no idea what he'll do -- and I don't think Bruce does, either,'' says Springsteen's associate manager, Barbara Carr.
As to his widely discussed move into movies, she says, ``I definitely don't think that'll happen.''
At least one writer, however, has reported seeing a notebook full of new, explicitly political songs along the lines of ``Seeds,'' a song he performed late in the tour. It was inspired by laid-off factory workers from the Northeast who came to Houston to work in the oil fields and found conditions no friendlier.
``I'll bet he starts recording songs again by Jan. 1,'' says a friend of Springsteen.
Newly politicized and fervent, Springsteen may find a greater sense of urgency to speak out quickly. But it's hard to dismiss a comment he made in his dressing room after the first concert on the ``Born in the U.S.A.'' tour.
``I never plan to be away so long,'' he said 15 months and 156 concerts ago. ``But when we go on the road, we stay there for so long that when the tour finally ends, I gotta take a lot of time off.''