Talk about overload! In the flood tide of books by and about graying rock legends are two hefty new biographies of Bruce Springsteen, to add to the dozens of others published over the years.
All Springsteen bios tell the story of his working-class background in New Jersey and his rebellion against a distant father. Starting as a teenager, Springsteen said no to drugs, but he mainlined rock and roll while serving a long apprenticeship as a front man in bar bands until being “discovered” by John Hammond of Columbia Records in 1972.
After witnessing a Boston gig, critic Jon Landau pronounced Springsteen the future of rock and roll. The singer-songwriter wisely hired Landau, first as producer, then as manager. With the album Born to Run, Springsteen became a star and a darling of the media, appearing simultaneously on the cover of Time and Newsweek.
The myth of rock and roll savior took hold with his next release, the masterful Darkness on the Edge of Town, and Springsteen began his long run as the Good Guy of Rock, the troubadour of unshakable integrity who refused at first to play huge arenas or even designate a hit single from albums. He forged a pact with his fans so strong that they stood behind him and through his carefully engineered breakthrough to superstardom in the 1980s with Born in the USA, his gradual embrace of progressive politics, and his brief marriage to a model.
After his divorce, a second marriage to guitarist and backup singer Patti Scialfa, and the birth of three kids, there seems not a whole lot of drama left untold. One strength of Peter Ames Carlin’s book is that it shows how bossy Springsteen is – a stern taskmaster who threatened to fire E Street band members when he caught them once snorting coke and who made his drummer take lessons to improve his timekeeping.
Carlin also makes clear that there never was a Saint Bruce, especially when it came to relationships with women. One past girlfriend described his attitude as, “When I want to see you, you need to be here, and when I don’t, you need to be gone.”
Every Springsteen album and tour has been the product of days, months, even years of rehearsals, rewrites, retakes. The trouble is, both Carlin’s overfull recounting of this work ethic in his book and the close reading of every Springsteen song in Marc Dolan’s grow monotonous.
Revelations are sparse. Springsteen’s years in psychotherapy are mentioned in both books. Carlin had access to Bruce as well as his longtime collaborators and family members, and their interpretations of events give his book fresh quotes, but not necessarily greater insight. Among the unsung heroes who emerge are various producers and engineers, who have molded Springsteen’s torrent of material into albums of admirable pacing and diversity.
I did enjoy Carlin’s anecdote about Bruce’s return to his Catholic elementary school in 1996; he gleefully told the audience that his next song (“Red-Headed Woman”) was about “cunny-lingus,” but it was okay because he had cleared it with the head priest. Dolan is better at locating Springsteen in the larger context of rock music evolution, although some may quarrel with his statement that by 1984, “he had out Dylaned Dylan. Now it was time to out-Elvis Elvis.”
Neither book offers much about daily life with middle-aged Bruce. What is his relationship with his kids, given his own torturous relationship with his father? We might have to wait for a memoir from one of those offspring to find out.
For completists, both these books are thorough and valuable additions to the Springsteen saga. Readers seeking an abridged version might be just as happy reading David Remnick’s article in the July 30, 2012 New Yorker.
Bruce by Peter Ames Carlin. 2012. 494 pages. ISBN: 978-1439191828. Touchstone.
Bruce Springsteen and the Promise of Rock ‘n’ Roll by Marc Dolan 2012. 512 pages. ISBN: 978-0393081350 W. W. Norton.
The rewards of brevity are apparent in this addition to a remarkable series that touches every subject under the sun. Holoman is an academic who lassoes his unwieldy subject with precision and panache.
He explains how orchestras evolved from the bands of Monteverdi’s days to Michael Tilson Thomas’s You Tube Symphony Orchestra. He introduces the players, the conductors, the changing repertory and the venues that have become centers of civic pride. Astonishingly, in less than 200 pages, he also covers issues such as endowments, dealing with unions, the advent of digital recordings and even the role of orchestras in international politics.
Somehow, Holoman finds room for one chart of notable concert halls and another describing the signature sounds of seven world-class ensembles. He even devotes part of a chapter on “Commentary” to the disquieting decline of critics in big-city newspapers and the rise of blogs. Included, too, are references, a reading list and an index.
This is not an Idiot’s Guide or Dummies type of summary; the author’s voice is strong throughout. In the “Peace” chapter, for example, Holoman writes that he senses a “current of cultural imperialism when it comes to sending orchestras on missions abroad at phenomenal expense. But the motives are generally honorable….Touring instruments of peace are in any event far less expensive than the cheapest acts of war.”
A professor at the University of California, Davis, Holoman also has written a scholarly work on Berlioz and a textbook, Masterworks, for music appreciation courses. I hope he produces more titles like The Orchestra for this nifty minimalist series.
The Orchestra: A Very Short Introduction by D. Kern Holoman. 2012. 158 pages. Paperback ISBN: 978-0199760282. Oxford University Press.
– Grace Lichtenstein