Marc Dolan’s “Bruce Springsteen and the Promise of Rock ’N’ Roll” puts Springsteen’s career in context while focusing primarily on its influences and its impact.
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” (W.W. Norton & Company) 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, and he does a fine job of tracing the personal and professional and how they connect in Springsteen’s life and work.
Of 1982’s “Nebraska,” for instance, Dolan nails its stark mood when he 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, and 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.”
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 those 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.
Peter Chianca writes about Bruce Springsteen and other rock music topics for Blogness on the Edge of Town. Email him at email@example.com.