It’s one of those great “Why didn’t I think of that?” ideas — collecting and compiling feature stories, interviews and first-person writings that span Bruce Springsteen’s entire career. But it’s one thing to think of it; it’s another to find, curate and cultivate 40 years worth of material into a single, cogent volume. Springsteen on Springsteen is that volume, and apparently Jeff Burger was the man to do it.
A chronicler in his own right — his 1974 Zoo World feature on Springsteen makes an early appearance — Burger clearly has an ear for stories that capture Springsteen’s attitude and outlook. It’s not exactly comprehensive, and given how much has been written about the man, how could it be? But it’s certainly representative of Springsteen’s long career, and by pairing lower profile interviews with excerpted “Bruce Bits” from more mainstream publications like Rolling Stone and the Los Angeles Times, Burger more than covers his Bruce bases.
In general, the verbatim Q&A’s are the most interesting chapters, mainly because they do such a good job of capturing Springsteen’s unique voice. They range from an unpublished 1974 sit-down with Paul Williams — in which a plainspoken Springsteen laments making less than his newspaper reporter girlfriend, despite having released two albums — to his 2010 interviews with Ed Norton and Brian Williams, where he’s more polished and confident, but just as thoughtful. And the artist’s own writings, most notably his SXSW keynote address from 2012, fit right in, expanding and elaborating upon the Springsteen worldview.
The prose pieces are sometimes less illuminating — the older ones, Burger’s excepted, sometimes seem to be more about the writer than about the as-yet-untested Springsteen. (Burger does a fine job of tracking down writers to reflect briefly on their interviews, although I’d love to know if Andrew Tyler, who in 1975 predicted Bruce would become “another averagely regarded also-ran,” ever regretted coming off as such an @&$hole.)
Still, they all do their part to show the progression of Springsteen from searching, striving young buck to seasoned elder statesman. (One who doesn’t listen to his own work, incidentally — he tells Gavin Martin of New Musical Express that “I’d be insane if I did.”) Many of the pieces make references to Springsteen’s lack of pretension — showing up to interviews alone, making no preconditions, and taking the time to formulate long, serious answers to incisive questions.
Springsteen’s candor is especially evident in interviews like The Advocate’s 1996 piece on gay rights, where his comments on same-sex marriage are amazingly progressive, not to mention prescient:
“It does matter. It’s very different than just living together. First of all, stepping up publicly — which is what you do; you get your license, you do all the social rituals — is part of your place in society and in some way part of society’s acceptance of you … Those are the threads of society; that’s how we all live together in some fashion. There is no reason I can see why gays and lesbians shouldn’t get married. It is important because those are the things that bring you in and make you feel a part of the social fabric.”
The nature of the collection makes it unavoidably repetitive, since so many interviewers tend to ask Springsteen the same questions — yes, he really DID jump over the gate at Graceland, etc. But even the segments that are overly familiar are useful in this more comprehensive context: They reinforce Springsteen as a serious artist, one who understands the delicate balance between resonant work and the listener’s desire to have a good time. They also cement the fact that Springsteen’s relationship with the audience, from day one, has been not only his paramount professional concern, but his reason for getting up in the morning and on stage each night.
In fact, the book does such a good job of capturing the ticking inner workings of both the man and the artist that, at the end of the day, Springsteen on Springsteen cements itself as the one Boss book you’d have to take with you to a desert island. Along with your copies of Darkness and Born to Run, of course.