Nonfiction Review: “Bruce Springsteen and the Promise of Rock ‘n’ Roll” by Marc Dolan

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For almost forty years now, Bruce Springsteen has been the voice of blue-collar America, the poet laureate of the working class. Starting in 1973 with his debut, “Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J.,” Bruce Springsteen and his band have captured the sound and feel of Factory Town, USA.  The Pabst bars and cheap smokes. Blue jeans and leather jackets. Train tracks, highways and hometowns. Nostalgia. Hope. Glory. Grease and grit and fast cars. “Broken heroes” whose real glory is not in escaping the towns that “rip the bones from your back,” but in remaining, enduring, “[living] with the sadness.” Iconic American imagery that transcended the hardscrabble New Jersey Springsteen knew so well to speak to the work-worn citizens of Asbury Parks all over the country.

In subsequent albums, particularly “Born to Run” (1975) and “Born in the U.S.A.” (1984), Springsteen’s lyrics have focused on the gap between that America and the one history has promised, the negative space between the American Dream and the American Reality. Those albums’ title tracks—one the basically official anthem of Jersey, the other a staple of Fourth of July firework shows everywhere—describe those left behind by a “runaway American dream” and a Vietnam vet abandoned by the very country he served, respectively. The records riff on disappearing jobs and unfulfilling jobs, domestic isolation and racism. Even tracks that don’t directly comment on American ailments are backlit by disillusionment. The lovesick narrator of “Dancing in the Dark,” for instance, works a dead-end overnight shift. The Updikean has-beens of “Glory Days” appease their nostalgia in roadside bars and Legion Halls. The petty crooks of “Meeting Across the River” bum rides and small change, pawn radios and put their faith in Hail Mary passes.

Bruce Springsteen is, for many, not just a musician, but a sociopolitical figure.

Which makes Marc Dolan, author of the new bio “Bruce Springsteen and the Promise of Rock ‘n’ Roll,” uniquely qualified to write about the man. He’s clearly a fan—a Jersey native whose love for the Boss comes through in his diligent reporting—but he’s not a music journalist. He’s an English and American Studies professor that wants to talk not just about killer tunes, but what those tunes might have to say about bigger issues.

Dolan follows the sociopolitical thread from beginning to end, opening his book with a Barack Obama quote and concluding with an impassioned address of rock music as a chronicler of and vehicle for social change. In between, he gives us Springsteen as an awkward teenager buying a used six-string and joining a band, Springsteen trying to remain an artist—a “soul with an individual message,” Dolan writes—after achieving stardom and Springsteen reacting to post-9/11 American life in the finger-wagging anthems of his last couple records.

It’s an ambitious biography, and Dolan pulls it off, delivering on the many—pardon the pun—promises he makes to the reader. He has done the research—more than fifty pages of sources and notes—and writes sympathetically about his subject without resorting to sentimentality.

He gives a significant attention to authenticity in the Springsteen legend.

An extraordinarily earnest songwriter, Springsteen is depicted here sorta-constructing his image. After the success of “Born to Run” graduates him to bigger venues, for instance, “He had taken to wearing suits onstage—never with ties, sometimes with jackets, and always perfectly planned.” Rock ‘n’ roll, Dolan writes, was big business by the late seventies, and Springsteen—like many musicians of the era—struggled with his rock-star identity.

“Once you started playing 5,000-seat halls on an extended tour,” Dolan writes, “you’d have to be a fool not to notice that you were a product, packaged if not necessarily made by a multinational corporation, and very much pre-identified by your audience before they ever heard a note of your music.”

It’s a prescient and brutally honest insight—one that most of us, particularly fans, don’t really like to think about. Springsteen has based an entire career off being above all things earnest. Even now, rich off that image and playing stadiums with exorbitant ticket prices and singing about dreams in advertisements for the MLB postseason, we want to believe that a skinny sixteen-year-old from a gray New Jersey town is somewhere inside.

And that’s what Dolan, in the end, hopes to do: to ultimately convince us, in an age of deep mistrust and entrenched corporatization and genius marketing, that Springsteen is for real. That the politics and imagery and themes are deeply felt by the Boss, not just sold by him. That he “might not be to your taste,” as Dolan writes, “but anyone who heard or saw him knew that his performances were sincere, passionate, and committed.” That his lyrics, his music, his performances, are windows into the Springsteen none of us will get to see. That we’re all running, chasing an elusive dream, and that as we do, Bruce Springsteen is right there running with us. (Eric Lutz)

“Bruce Springsteen and the Promise of Rock ‘n’ Roll”
By Marc Dolan
W.W. Norton & Company, 528 pages, $29.95

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