Bruce Springsteen and the Promise of Rock 'n' Roll by Marc Dolan
Our Poet of Work
Disclaimer: I’m biased on this subject. Bruce Springsteen and I are the same age, and we’ve known each other for a long time. We met in the mid-‘70s at his first West Coast gig. I interviewed him, then watched him and the Davey Sancious-era E Streeters play the holy living snot out of a four-hour set to a packed house in Phoenix—where they had gotten early airplay from the unformatted FM rock radio station I worked for—and then, the next night, play the same insane set to 200 astonished neophytes in a half-full high school gym. I’d been covering music for a while by then, and had never seen anything like it. All the power of early rock and blues and the storytelling genius of country and roots music harnessed to a fine poetic sensibility along with unbridled, inexhaustible energy came explosively and operatically together in every Springsteen show, and made it a revelatory, no, a transcendental experience. Bruce worked so hard you thought he’d stroke out, and the frenzy, pandemonium and earned sense of devotion he and the band inspired in those early audiences just got stronger every night.
On top of that, unlike some of the musicians I’d met and interviewed, I learned that Bruce had a searching mind and a kind heart. Despite the stardom, he genuinely cared about other people. The legendary stories about Bruce meeting fans and going home with them to have dinner with their families aren’t fables, I found out. Ran into him in Stockholm once, when I was there with a friend who had won the Nobel, and Bruce’s first question, after howyadoin, was “Can I meet him?” Bruce’s generosity and altruism helped build his reputation as a truly caring human being, that rarest of qualities among his peers. I saw many shows before and after that first one, several from backstage, on just about every tour, and came to believe that Bruce and the band were and are the greatest live rock ‘n’ rollers who ever graced a stage.
Bruce Springsteen has slowly become our national bard, America’s, and the world’s, poetic knight-errant. Sadly his band members are beginning to leave us now—Danny Federici and Clarence Clemons are gone—but Bruce is still inaugurating Presidents, recording seminal songs and touring, sweating like a hard-rock miner and singing his heart out for the folks in the cheap seats. The legendary John Hammond signed Bruce with Columbia Records exactly 40 years ago this week, and for four decades this remarkable songwriter, poet and performer has chronicled our life and times more penetratingly, more powerfully and more accessibly every succeeding year.
Truth be told, if the 1972 Who tour, James Brown and the Famous Flames, the ‘90s-era Van Morrison stadium gigs, Jackie Wilson at his peak, The Doors circa 1967 and the early Stones shows were all playing in town on the same night as Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band—it’d have to be Bruce for me. He is that good, maybe the best that ever lived. And I wouldn’t just go for the passion, the power or the communal party, either—I’d go for the poetry.
It takes guts or great naiveté to write a rock bio, especially about one of the most exalted figures of the genre. Elvis, the Beatles, Mick and Keith, Dylan and Springsteen—that short list probably accounts for at least half of the literally thousands of rock biographies written since the genre got going in the late 1960s.
Here’s the primary problem: unearthing some new fact about one of these over-exposed icons of mass media, finding a crucial, defining life event that no one else has discovered, assembling a breakthrough theory that explains the entire trajectory of their work—good luck with that, aspiring biographer guys. It’s one of the toughest, most daunting writing tasks imaginable. In fact, because it’s so hard, lately the autobiographies have taken over that function—compelling, thoughtful and well-written books like Dylan’s and Keith’s especially.
Despite the inherent difficulty of the rock bio, it seems like the growth trend lately, maybe because Elvis, Bob and the Beatles have been covered ad nauseum, is books about Bruce.
The ever-expanding catalog of Springsteen bios has truly covered the territory. Key “springsteen” into the Amazon biographies search box and it’ll show you 360 results—that’s up there with a few American presidents, and rapidly approaching Presley and Dylan bio-turf. So when hundreds of biographers have already read everyone else’s books, interviewed friends, exes and foes, combed through archives, mined the stories and written about the well-trod territory of Bruce’s life and music, the question becomes “What can I say that hasn’t already been said?”
Let’s review. In the world of Bruce bios, Dave Marsh got there first with Glory Days—okay, not a true biography but really a bright fan’s admiring hagiography. Then the pendulum swung the other way with a handful of warts-and-all books by people like Marc Eliot, Fred Goodman and Christopher Sanford. More recently Robert Santelli’s bio Greetings from E Street: The Story of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band generated some critical respect; and the Clarence Clemons/Don Rio book Big Man, Real Life and Tall Tales added a whole passel of fabulist fun to the mix before the passing of the stalwart E Street sax-man. Political philosopher and professor Eric Alterman wrote one of the most incisive of the Bruce bios in 1999 (It Ain’t No Sin to Be Glad You’re Alive: The Promise of Bruce Springsteen, updated once in 2001), exploring Bruce’s political and social messages. Now Marc Dolan, an academic who teaches English, American Studies and film at John Jay College and City University of New York and writes on mass media, weighs in with his exhaustive 592-page Life of Bruce.
You have to admire the dedication, the enormous amount of research, the immersion in another person’s reality, that it takes to write a bio like this one. It’s the old Al-Anon joke: How do you know you’re co-dependent? When you die, someone else’s life flashes before your eyes.
So Marc Dolan’s book explains Springsteen, in substantial, accretively convincing and sometimes agonizing detail. Executive summary: Bruce Springsteen transcends rock ‘n’ roll because his poetry centers on who we are as human beings. Like Dylan, like Joni Mitchell and Paul Simon and Patti Smith and Curtis Mayfield, and e.e.cummings and William Shakespeare, Bruce’s songs work hard to make meaning. Three chords, a Bo Diddley beat and some soul, and all of a sudden our teenage romances and first cars and quest for coolness become profound, deeply meaningful symbolic anthems.
You know—I wanna die with you Wendy on the streets tonight in an everlasting kiss
But Dolan’s story goes far beyond the teen trauma songs and traces Bruce’s development as a songwriter, a bandleader, a husband, a humanitarian. Those developmental stories, specifically the book’s focus on how Springsteen continued to grow and mature as a man and as an artist, make up the most interesting and instructive parts of the book. Here’s Bruce on his intensive dive into therapy after the end of his first marriage and the break-up of the band: “I questioned all my motivations. Why am I writing what I’m writing? Why am I saying what I’m saying? Do I mean it? Am I bullshitting? Am I just trying to be the most popular guy in town? Do I need to be liked that much?”
The book maps Bruce Springsteen’s spiritual path, his growth and development as an artist, the choices he makes and the approach he takes—and does so in more depth than any of the other Springsteen bios. You’re definitely going to want to read it if you care about Bruce—but it’s also the larger and more instructive tale of a regular guy with a killer work ethic who decides what he wants to say and busts his butt to get there.
This is by its nature a somewhat academic book—it’s not your typical celeb bio, with a surfeit of salacious stories. It doesn’t revel in personal details for their own sake, but tries instead to paint a complete picture of the intellectual, psychological and spiritual development of one of our most influential artists. Dolan, to his credit, mostly sticks to the big ideas, emphasizing social trends and musical influences and personal turning points in Springsteen’s artistic life, then elevating them into a biography, not just of Bruce himself, but of the past 40 years of our culture here in the Western world.
Dolan’s focus is more the art than the artist, and he tells the tale in a way that emphasizes the impact of Springsteen’s art on the culture. This is what our troubadours do for us, and why we lionize the best of them. They transmute our inchoate longings; our unspoken emotions; our deepest, most unspoken inner yearnings into song. They’re our true poets, the ones who can tell us how we feel, touch our dark hearts, show us the way in darker times and lead us hobbling toward joy. The best of them can shape our worldviews, expose hypocrisy and injustice, lead great cultural crusades and literally change our societies.
No biography is ever perfect, and this one has a few flaws. Dolan’s book starts out by saying: “Bruce Springsteen is the first to admit that what he does is a job ” And then he doesn’t deal directly with the issues of class and work in Bruce’s writing. That’s the only thematic focus missing in this otherwise massive, well-researched new book. Dolan plots out the arc of Springsteen’s life—his beginnings in working-class Jersey, his family’s struggles with joblessness and poverty, his father’s deepening depression and Bruce’s rebellion against him and it. It’s a town fulla losers, and we’re pullin’ outa here to win. But he doesn’t sufficiently explore Bruce’s evocative take on Woody Guthrie’s American dream, where everyone is able to express their human dignity through productive, ennobling work.
Dolan does tell a little bit of the most seminal story—Doug Springsteen, Bruce’s father, losing a steady factory job and slumping into the exhausted remains of that American dream, sitting in a darkened kitchen drinking beer night after night. This loss of dignity and purpose suffuses Springsteen’s lyrics, and the concept of devoted work—its nobility, its essential nature, its redemptive power—begins to make itself clear in so much of Bruce’s music.
At night we ride through mansions of glory in suicide machines.
Out of this focus on the nobility of work comes Springsteen’s emerging class consciousness and his dawning awareness in his 30s and 40s of the raw deal America often gives its poor, its homeless and its immigrants. Just look for these two key words—Mister and Sir—in a Springsteen song, especially starting with his first country album Nebraska. As in: Struck me kinda funny, sir, how at the end of every hard-earned day, people find some reason to believe.
These two words, so simple and clear and perfectly chosen, delineate Bruce’s characters and their positions at the bottom of the economic and social ladder. Both Sir and Mister get used with enormous impact in his later songs. In those two words you hear a hard respect, an awful awareness of class division, the yearning of the marginalized. And you hear where Bruce Springsteen came from and what he cares about most.
This provocative, powerful focus in Springsteen’s later work makes his art even more lasting and true. His emphasis on work, on craftsmanship, on the good you can do when you make something beautiful or useful or strong—is so rare, so remarkable, that very few other artists have ever gotten there. Who else in our culture, what popular artist, has this work-as-worship perspective? And, on top of that, what other artist—I dare you, try and name one—so consistently and conscientiously stands up for the powerless, and has maintained that commitment for so long?
Bruce’s newest album Wrecking Ball has his most intense focus yet on these ideas and issues. If you listen to it from this socially conscious perspective, you’ll feel his indelible anger and outrage at the injustices of capitalism and the class system. How much easier would it be for someone like Springsteen to sit at home, a rich man in a poor man’s shirt? Instead, he sticks to his job, sweating buckets every night on the road and inspiring an entire new generation of acolytes. In one of Bruce’s political rally speeches during the 2008 presidential campaign, he said it this way: “I’ve spent most of my creative life measuring the distance between the American promise and the American reality.”
If you want to know the real deal about the measure of that distance in Bruce’s work, you’ll probably want to read two books—Marc Dolan’s new biography and Alterman’s Ain’t No Sin to Be Glad You’re Alive. Together, and from different but complimentary perspectives, they lay out the life so far of a truly towering artistic talent, one of the majestic masters of their medium, like Dylan and Elvis, who will not fade away.
Anyway, while you’re reading, I’d recommend you blast some Bruce, headphones in and cranked or speakers wailing. Turn it up, loud. If you start with one of the first albums and end with the new one as you make your way through these terrific books, you’ll get the full, all-access pass to the life and times of one of the greats.
David Langness is a writer, literary critic and frequent Paste contributor who lives in Northern California.