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Bruce Springsteen and the Promise of Rock ‘n’ Roll

This intelligent examination of the career of Bruce Springsteen traces the rock icon's ability to balance two disparate identities.

By Darryl Lorenzo Wellington / June 4, 2012

Bruce Springsteen and the Promise of Rock ‘n’ Roll By Marc Dolan W.W. Norton & Co. 528 pp.

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A long, long time ago, Bruce Springsteen'’s iconic rock ‘n’ roll career was an open question. Looking back, through lenses provided by Bruce Springsteen and the Promise of Rock ‘n’ Roll, the early 70’s seems stranger still. Springsteen’s career leading up to his moderately selling first album in 1973 was hindered by a conflict  between his publicists. One camp wanted to unveil Springsteen as the solo guitar playing philosopher-balladeer – “the new Bob Dylan” – while the other hoped to model Springsteen into a hard rocker backed up by a power chord band. Marc Dolan’s interpretive biography tells the story of how pop music changed, and America culture changed to make way for both visions of Bruce Springsteen.

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Pop music is about both music and image, singing and symbolism. Springsteen, born and raised in working class Freehold, N.J., was initially a misfit in the wake of the '60’s cultural revolution. The legendary music executive John Hammond believed a sensitive, white recording artist should make music which appealed to a coffee house and folk music crowd. Springsteen, argues Dolan, was less a folkie than a working-class product of '50’s and early '60’s radio culture. He was a throwback to the days when Elvis was featured on the same stations as Little Richard – a time before the industry became strategically targeted and rock music became much whiter.

No wonder Springsteen’s subsequent two albums exuded multi-cultural influences. His energetic concerts were accompanied by stage shows which harked back to soul style show bands of the 60’s.

Springsteen was less literary than Dylan, but there was poetry in his rhythmically driven evocations of the pleasure, wildness, poverty, and desperation  experienced in American factory towns. Springsteen’s "Born to Run" album, recorded with an ethnically diverse back up group eventually known as the E Street band, proved that “song writers didn’t have to go it alone" and that a lyricist  “could still be highly personal with five other musicians backing [him].”

Consider representative Springsteen imagery. A man with a strong sense of family and place faces the loss of dignity and family unity when a factory which used to provide a path for local boys to become men closes down. A kid in a dusty small town realizes that his world is closing in, and comes to a Rubicon he might fail to cross unless he is able to come to terms with his stifling community, his wary girlfriend, and his defeated elders. It’s Elvis and James Dean material, but in Springsteen rebellion isn’t entirely individual, or limited to the anxieties of youth. Springsteen’s narrators know that they are peons in a greater social, economic picture, which has stacked the odds against them. It’s a class-conscious longing for a better community.

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