Bruce Springsteen | Shutterstock ¬© Anthony Correia
Review of "Bruce Springsteen and the Promise of Rock 'n' Roll" by Marc Dolan (W. W. Norton & Co.)¬†
Spoiler alert: The promise of all art -- highbrow, lowbrow and everything in between -- is to offer a reflection of the real world that in some way helps us to better understand ourselves or the people around us. Novelists and poets generally spend their lifetimes working at it; filmmakers, photographers and other visual artists routinely work at a highly effective level for decades. But rock ‚Äėn‚Äô roll, primarily because of its original and largely sustained association with youth, tends to be more fickle, yielding to its artists only fleeting moments of real relevance.
Elvis gave a voice to a segment of the population that had grown weary of institutional and cultural segregation. The Ramones took us to the streets of New York City, where the bearded, drippy singer-songwriters of the first half of the 70s just didn‚Äôt make sense. U2 shined a light on injustices the world over, right when the United States was in the middle of a period of apparent prosperity in the 80s. Radiohead deftly grappled with distinctively late 90s concerns over our relationship with technology.
Rock ‚Äėn‚Äô roll is a conversation, a reaction to the thing that happened just a few minutes earlier. To be heard, you have to say something bold and you have to say it loudly. The inherent problem with this is that in doing so, you‚Äôre necessarily dating yourself -- in a sense putting an expiration date on your career. Unless, of course, you‚Äôre Bruce Springsteen.
In a new biography,¬†‚ÄúBruce Springsteen and the Promise of Rock ‚Äėn‚Äô Roll,‚ÄĚ¬†City University of New York professor and cultural critic Marc Dolan¬†chronicles the life of New Jersey‚Äôs favorite son, from his earliest days trying to duplicate the raw energy of The Beatles‚Äô ‚ÄúTwist and Shout‚ÄĚ on a $60 secondhand guitar to the end of his 2009 world tour in support of his equally uneven and underrated¬†Working on a Dream¬†album. In the process, he explains in exhaustive detail how Springsteen has managed to build a career that has spanned five decades without ever coming across as merely a legacy act.
Throughout the book, Dolan focuses on Springsteen‚Äôs keen understanding of the distinctions between timelessness and timeliness when it comes to rock ‚Äė n‚Äô roll. He‚Äôs written songs about things like poverty, war and social injustice -- wide-reaching themes connected to real world events and political context -- but he‚Äôs done it while telling stories about individuals in such exquisite detail that they can seem small and isolated even when they‚Äôre bordering on universal. This remarkable ability is Springsteen‚Äôs greatest quality as an artist, but the truth is, it‚Äôs an ability lots of people (Harry Chapin, for instance) have had. What‚Äôs set Springsteen apart and kept him relevant decade after decade is his willingness to explore the ever-changing vocabulary of rock music. From the funk-tinged guitar parts of his early work to the synth-assisted sound of his world-beating 80s output and his back-to-basics folk and blues he‚Äôs returned to at various points in his career, he‚Äôs proven extremely adept making the minor surface adjustments that keep him current while still allowing the deeper meaning to take center stage.
Though there‚Äôs some revealing exploration of Springsteen‚Äôs relationships with Julianne Phillips ¬†and Patti Scialfa, as well as a stint in therapy between marriages, Dolan‚Äôs book is refreshingly free of sordid, celebrity tell-all personal details. Instead it focuses largely on the way the music fits into the larger context of rock ‚Äėn‚Äô roll, as well the things that were going on in the world around Springsteen, helping to shape the art that would in turn help shape the world.¬†There‚Äôs great attention paid to his formative years -- the towns full of losers and class issues that link¬†Darkness on the Edge of Town¬†to the simultaneous punk rock movement, and the veritable pandemonium that followed the release of Born in the U.S.A. Of particular note here, though, are the sections that cover Springsteen and the role he played, first by accident and then on purpose, in helping us process the attacks of 9/11.
‚ÄúIn the days after 9/11,‚ÄĚ writes Dolan, ‚Äúthose who cared about music weren‚Äôt looking to familiar songs for their already established, literal meanings. They were instead turning to them as vessels into which they could pour their own as yet inarticulable meanings.‚ÄĚ Which is, of course, what so many of us did with My City of Ruins, the Springsteen song that seemed to speak directly to what had happened, despite being about Asbury Park, not New York.
Perhaps even more so than the seventeen full-length albums he‚Äôs released since 1973, Springsteen‚Äôs legendary live performances have been an integral part of the intense bond that‚Äôs developed between him and his fans, and so it makes sense that those performances are a similarly integral part of¬†‚ÄúThe Promise of Rock ‚Äėn‚Äô Roll.‚ÄĚ Dolan is as aware of what transpires between a dedicated audience and a skilled performer as Springsteen is, and he goes to great lengths documenting recounting how he prepares for it, and how he‚Äôs allowed even his biggest songs to change forms over time.
There‚Äôs a passage toward the end of the book about Springsteen‚Äôs insistence on performing Born in the U.S.A. acoustically in the early 00s, so that no one could mistake the song for an expression of exuberant patriotism. It was important for him¬†to cast aside any doubt about the song‚Äôs meaning at a time when it seemed more crucial than ever. This version, writes Dolan, was born of ‚ÄúSpringsteen‚Äôs troubled concern for a country that was now led by members of his own generation, whose service in or protest of the Vietnam War frequently shaped their responses to contemporary problems.‚ÄĚ He recognized what we needed, as an audience and as a nation, and he gave it to us. This is what being The Boss is all about, and Dolan understands it as well as anyone.