I tend to avoid biographies of my favorite artists, on the grounds that I’m (in theory) generally more interested in their work than in the details of their romantic partners or the substances they may have ingested along the way. Bruce Springsteen is no exception, even if he seems to have had far fewer of either of those than your typical rock superstar.
But City University of New York professor Marc Dolan’s Bruce Springsteen and the Promise of Rock ’N’ Roll manages to avoid the traps of many rock biographies, offering up just enough personal history to put the phases of Springsteen’s career in context, but focusing primarily on its overarching themes, its influences and its impact. It may not be titillating, but if you’re even a casual admirer of Springsteen’s music you’re likely to find it both fascinating and insightful.
The book doesn’t have all that much to add to the most documented segments of Springsteen’s career, and if you’re going to pick a section to skim through it should probably be the chapters tracing the difficult birth of “Born to Run” through the worldwide superstardom that came from “Born in the USA.” More compelling is Dolan’s tracing of Springsteen’s earliest work in band after Jersey Shore band, and his struggles with songwriting in the fallow ’90s.
But through each segment it’s Dolan’s analysis of Springsteen’s work, its origins and its place in the rock ’n’ roll canon that really shines. His accounting of Dylan’s influence on Springsteen’s early writing is particularly perceptive, focusing on Dylan’s own assertions that his “Highway 61 Revisited” era songs are about “nothing – only as seen inside a bigger thing, perhaps called nowhere.”
Similarly, Dolan argues, “at this early stage of his career, in his lyrics Springsteen neither analyzed society’s current ills … nor excavated its cultural past for greater understanding of the present … nor even revealed deep truths about his most private relationships,” he writes. “Instead, what the reborn Springsteen of 1972 did was sing about a shared nothing in the context of a highly personal nowhere.” Darn it if that doesn’t make complete sense.
Dolan does a fine job overall of tracing the personal and professional and how they connect in Springsteen’s life and work. Of the stark Nebraska, for instance, Dolan writes that Springsteen “finally processed (his) childhood years artistically … conveying his general feeling of that time, during which optimism had seemed an unimaginable luxury.”
At the same time, Dolan follows closely the roots of Springsteen’s political awakenings. “His politics were virtually nonexistent,” Dolan says of Springsteen’s songwriting at the time of The River, “but his ideology … was all over his songs.”
He also draws some convincing parallels between Springsteen’s popularity and Ronald Reagan’s: “Like Springsteen, Reagan spoke to the heart, not the head,” Dolan argues, and Springsteen’s attempt to get out from under an umbrella of mindless patriotism – where Reagan placed him when he praised the song “Born in the USA” – is presented as a key moment in his political progression.
If there’s another overarching theme to Promise of Rock ’N’ Roll, it’s what separates Springsteen from other artists whose primary concern might have been their own success, as driven as he was. “Springsteen was by all accounts seldom focused on promoting his own work,” Dolan writes of young Bruce. “Rather, he was learning, from anyone who could teach him anything about popular music and how it became popular in the first place.”
But Dolan far from ignores the dichotomy between Springsteen’s interest in his message and his quest for stardom. “Both impulses … were parts of Springsteen’s character,” Dolan explains, noting that after spending years having “out-Dylaned Dylan” he was, with “Born in the USA,” ready to “out-Elvis Elvis.”
There are a few personal revelations in the book, including a timeline of Springsteen’s relationship with Patti Scialfa – it began after his marriage with Julianne Phillips had already dissolved, Dolan claims – and the author’s particularly effective at examining the directions in which Springsteen’s second marriage took his work, notably with a newfound self-awareness that led to “Human Touch.”
The insights you can find on that album are admirable, Dolan argues, “but that doesn’t mean they’re good songwriting … Nonetheless, ‘Human Touch’ represented a quantum leap forward for Springsteen as a human being.”
Based mostly on existing accounts rather than new interviews – unlike, reportedly, Peter Ames Carlin’s biography “Bruce,” due later this year – Dolan still manages to capture a sense of who Springsteen is and where he came from. And perhaps even more so, where he is now: Dolan argues that after deliberately “winnowing down” his fan base to the ones who were willing to accept departures like his solo and folk forays, Springsteen “had finally found a way to get out from under the weight of being Bruce Springsteen.”
Dolan’s book, even if it’s not especially revelatory, does a fine job of showing you what carrying that weight must feel like.