Bruce Springsteen and the Promise of Rock ’n’ Roll

  • Marc Dolan
  • Norton
  • 512 pp.

Through constant reinvention, the rocker with a blue-collar sensibility found his way in songs with messages hard for people to ignore.

Reviewed by Randy Cepuch

People who haven’t listened closely to Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” (Ronald Reagan famously among them) often misunderstand its lyrics. The song’s not a flag-waving anthem but a depressing tale of a guy who gets in “a little hometown jam” and is sent off to Vietnam “to go and kill the yellow man.” When he gets home, he has “nowhere to go.”

Marc Dolan is hardly an inattentive listener. Researching Bruce Springsteen and the Promise of Rock ’n’ Roll, he studied countless bootleg recordings of Springsteen songs, comparing how they evolved over time and what they revealed about the New Jersey singer. In some cases, Dolan’s observations are little more than trivia — the Mary that Springsteen invited to skip town with him in “Thunder Road,” for example, was first named Angelina, then Chrissie — but in other instances they help illustrate Springsteen’s magic touch and deep connection with audiences.

The book stumbles early with a lofty muse on the history of rock music; Dolan’s a college professor and sometimes reaches for words like “quotidian when “everyday” would do. While Dolan’s book may not be a definitive biography, it’s an entertaining, educational and reasonably complete study of Springsteen’s life, and it explores how becoming a wealthy rock star can challenge the credibility of someone whose songs tend to be about the working man.

Springsteen has told various stories about his early influences, and Dolan includes several, suggesting that crucial seeds included Richie Valens’ version of “La Bomba” (originally a Mexican folk song and ultimately the prototype for the classic “Twist and Shout”), Elvis Presley’s appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show” in 1957 and, perhaps most influential of all, The Animals’ rebellious “We Gotta Get Out of This Place, ” which Springsteen identified at the 2012 South by Southwest Music Festival as the source of “every song I’ve ever written.”

Springsteen’s relationship with his father — a blue-collar type “who never really had a career,” according to Dolan — was uneasy at best. His mother, on the other hand, liked the music her son liked and encouraged his interest in playing guitar. As a young man living near the Jersey Shore, Springsteen began spending time with other musicians in Asbury Park, a once-thriving beach town then in decline.

Springsteen’s first few bands emphasized cover songs and weren’t especially noteworthy. After an early recording deal on the West Coast didn’t work out, Springsteen focused on making a name for himself in Manhattan — the mythical promised land for a Jersey boy-― playing clubs in Greenwich Village and developing songs shaped by his appreciation of Bob Dylan, who wrote material that seemed infinitely adaptable. In 1972, one of Springsteen’s originals, “It’s Hard to Be a Saint in the City,” attracted agent Mike Appel, who loved the descriptiveness of the line “like a Harley in heat.”

Appel arranged a successful audition with Columbia Records. Springsteen’s first two albums generally received warm welcomes from the rock press but weren’t huge hits. Both included talented musicians from the Asbury Park area who would eventually become members of Springsteen’s legendary “E Street Band” — a multi-racial group when such things were not common. Clarence “The Big Man” Clemons, a large and charismatic black sax player, proved an especially good visual and musical foil for the then-scrawny and hirsute Springsteen.

The breakthrough came in 1974 with “Born to Run” and its stunning opening track, “Thunder Road,” in which Springsteen announced, “I got this guitar and I learned how to make it talk.” The world listened and liked what it heard. “Born to Run” put Springsteen on the map.

An unfortunate series of management-related lawsuits prevented Springsteen from going back into the studio while the fire was hot, tying up royalty payments and essentially forcing him to tour incessantly — and, in the process, perfect his live shows. Dolan spends less time than one might like exploring how or why Springsteen’s concerts became the legendary, sweat-drenched, three- to four-hour affairs he is known for,  though it seems clear that Springsteen was transformed by his new fame and determined to give fans their money’s worth.

It was at this point, according to Dolan, that Springsteen (a college dropout who was, by his own admission, never much of a student) decided his songs should be about subjects more substantial than cars and guitars. Subsequent albums reflected an increased political awareness and liberal bent, and Springsteen became a frequent participant in charity projects, such as the “We Are the World” record to combat famine and the “Light of Day” concerts to fight Parkinson’s disease. At concerts he encouraged attendees to support local food kitchens and clinics, slightly altering lyrics in his “My Hometown” to remind fans that “This is your hometown.” And in response to the misinterpretation of  “Born in the U.S.A.” by Reagan and others, Springsteen added Edwin Starr’s powerful and outraged “War ” to his live shows, clearly invoking Reagan in his solemn introduction: “In 1985, blind faith in your leaders or in anything will get you killed.”

Dolan observes that Springsteen reinvented himself for his album “Born in the U.S.A.,” sporting a new haircut, fixed teeth and ripped biceps — all showcased to great effect on MTV.  Off screen, Springsteen met and married his first wife, an unhappy union that lasted a few years before he took up with Patty Scialfa, a member of his E Street Band. Those experiences and moving to Los Angeles in time to be there for the 1992 riots gave Springsteen plenty of material for the next few albums.

The relationship with Scialfa thrived; they were married in 1991 and have three children. Raising a family and growing older (he’s now a youthful 62) have slowed Springsteen’s pace somewhat, but he continues to record and tour, sometimes with a version of the E Street Band. In the wake of 9/11, his album “The Rising” helped soothe the nation’s wounds. Yet the album also unintentionally gave cover to those who used it to beat the drum for a war in Iraq, which played no role in the terrorist attacks. Once again Springsteen felt misunderstood and responded by adding “War” to his set list. He also chose to open shows with an acoustic version of “Born in the U.S.A.,” making it harder for people to ignore the words and the message.

Springsteen occasionally turns up at Asbury Park venues these days and joins the featured performer for a few (or quite a few) songs. Sometimes he ends the show with a slow, acoustic solo version of “Thunder Road,” and there isn’t a dry eye in the house — even though the lyrics could easily be seen as insulting by the residents of the “town full of losers” he vowed, all those years ago, to leave.

Dolan’s book, tracing Springsteen’s route from the “dusty beach roads” of old to the Asbury Park of today (making a strong comeback), will delight the rock elder’s long-time fans and well create some new ones.

Randy Cepuch has written several pieces for Backstreets magazine based on interviews  with Richmond singer-songwriter Robbin Thompson, who shared vocal responsibilities with Springsteen in Steel Mill (a pre-E Street band) for four months. Thompson, who later had several regional hits, including “Sweet Virginia Breeze” and “Candy Apple Red,” isn’t mentioned in Dolan’s book but probably should have been.

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