Eric Alterman is a Bruce guy. And, perhaps all music biographers are inherently fans, but Alterman is a…F-A-N!
He’s also a pretty heavy-duty journalist, with stints as the political and cultural columnist for The Nation and IntellectualCapital.com, as well as a former contributing editor for Rolling Stone. So the guy has chops.
Which is a long way of saying he’s a really good storyteller. This is one of the most enjoyable music-reads I’ve read in long time. It’s not a biography, per se, but Alterman hits all of the key moments so that fans and diehards alike will learn something about Bruce’s background.
There’s good stuff, albeit well-documented by others, about his affection for his mother, his equal disaffection for his father, and the difficult dynamic that created growing up, and about the famously disenfranchised young Springsteen, whose life was, almost literally, saved by rock’n’roll. “Music gave me something,” Springsteen has said, “it was a reason to live.”
We get a quick run through the down and out years of the hotshot guitarist and bandleader who lived above the surf shop on the Jersey shore, his critical union with Mike Appel, and the metamorphosis afterwards as a singer/songwriter auditioning for the legendary John Hammond at Columbia Records. Alterman offers some insight and critique into those first two albums, but, as always, the Bruce story really takes shape with then-journalist/future-manager’s Jon Landau’s “I have seen rock ’n’ roll’s future” prediction, the mammoth undertaking of Born to Run, and the subsequent hype, pressure and lawsuits that came with the mantle of savior.
Alterman’s strength throughout the book is to provide a context —musically, culturally, politically, personally — to each of Springsteen’s albums and/or songs. It provides a jumping off point for him to fill in some of the story, the lyrics and what they “mean” to him, as well as within the arc of Springsteen’s career as a whole. It also gives him a mirror to reflect back onto the media, Bruce’s fans and critics alike, and provide some of Springsteen’s own thoughts at these junctures.
I’ve never read a book where I’m nodding my head while reading, thinking — or, sometimes, saying aloud — “Yup….that’s exactly how I feel about that record, or what I got out of that song.” That Alterman is able to succinctly channel that passion as a fan, into the clarity of thought as a writer is a thing to behold.
Two of my favorites are:
On Darkness On The Edge of Town: “(the album’s) central pivot is (Springsteen’s) rage at the matrix of arbitrary authority that destroys our youthful hopes and dreams as we enter adulthood.” That’s heavy stuff. It’s also 100% dead-on, in my opinion, and a neat summation of the characters “left behind’ from the previous album’s hope, optimism and romance. Talk about dead man walking.
And, on Tunnel of Love (way, way underappreciated, for my money), a record that initially left the author “cold,” but upon reflection, with the benefit of life experience, now finds it “an extraordinary journey into the netherworld of intimate conflict — internal conflict, marital conflict, the conflict between faith and flesh, between love and desire, between the desire to love and the ability to do so.”
That’s a whole lot more poetic than my take, but pretty much the same view: it’s that stop in the road, 20 years after Mary has “climbed in;” you’ve hit the road and are out of money, gas and time, only to realize you don’t really like that tramp Mary after all. Now what?
Another area Alterman breaks down really well is the bond —“The Promise” — between performer and audience, and he explores this so well over different vantage points throughout Springsteen’s career. To probably no one’s surprise, that sacred trust has remained remarkably consistent on both sides of the aisle and, in fact, has probably guaranteed Bruce longevity, regardless of his recorded output.
There are additionally excellent takes on the album, Nebraska, the song, “Born In The USA,” in fact, the whole of his catalogue, including glimpses into Bruce’s thought process on “greatest hits” and unreleased tracks, his relationships, both within and without his band, all underscored with Alterman’s voice and perspective as, simply, a fan. It’s imbued with a sense of wonder, awe and delight….about the music that’s moved him deeply, the man who has made it, and the significant part that soundtrack has played in his life.
And, in the end, rock ’n ’roll has always been about that fleeting feeling of youth, that ”rush” you feel as a fan, that first intoxicating whiff of breaking free, and the thrills that lie ahead.
What comes after is anybody’s guess….
The “greatest challenge of adulthood,” Springsteen is quoted as saying toward the end of the book, “ is holding on to your idealism, after your innocence has been lost."
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