The concept of songwriter as poet has been around for some time. And ever since a youngster named Robert Zimmerman decided to leave his home in Minnesota to seek fame under a new moniker, Bob Dylan, people have been calling pop stars "poets."
Robert Coles, the Pulitzer Prize- winning psychiatrist at Harvard University, has no problem with this trend. Poetry, he suggests, didn't go underground in the late '50s and early '60s - it went overground, to jukeboxes and concert halls, and anywhere young people congregated to share their passions and pain.
To be a poet in Coles's eyes, you don't necessarily need sophisticated meter or turns of phrase. No, to be a poet in the tradition of Walt Whitman or Langston Hughes - a people's poet - you need to do but one thing: reach people.
It should be noted that Bruce Springsteen, the man at the center of this new book, is a friend of Coles. The two reportedly share a love for the deceased novelist Walker Percy and get together from time to time for a talk here, a walk there. Earlier this year, Springsteen staged two benefit concerts for DoubleTake, the gorgeous literary magazine that Coles founded in 1995. (DoubleTake is currently in hiatus, but promises to resume bimonthly publication in 2004. See www.doubletakemagazine.org for more information.)
Evidently Percy was also a fan of Springsteen, once calling him a True American Artist. "His songs are about America," Coles quotes the Mississippi writer as saying, "without hyping the country up (becoming patriotic self- congratulation) and without knocking the country down (becoming mean-spirited nation bashing)."
Mentions of Percy and William Carlos Williams and other such poet/documentarians are everywhere in "Bruce Springsteen's America," and Coles attempts mightily to trace this common thread throughout the rock star's work.
But what enables an artist to occupy the rare air of a Springsteen or Percy, to speak to people while speaking of the people and for the people?
To get the answer, Coles looks to the streets - particularly, those of Everytown, USA. He tells the backstories of Springsteen's music by interviewing a schoolteacher, a lawyer, a truck driver, a factory worker, a policeman, a businessman's wife, a student, and a grandmother. Their remarks appear in the natural rhythms of conversation, occasionally peppered with comments from Coles.
Listening and recording is a narrative method as connected to Coles's work as to Springsteen's. In fact, Coles suggests that the concept of author is a nebulous thing. Sure, folks like Springsteen have an undeniable talent to synthesize our zeitgeist and hand it back to the masses in chewable form, but we're all paints on that canvas, the author tells us. A careful artist like Springsteen uses all the colors available to him, using one to counter the other and so on. It's a balance of stories and tastes - the same balance that allows a dropout troubadour and a Harvard professor to form an intellectual bond.
Despite all the glittering images around us - television, movies, rock 'n' roll videos - much of our "art" is rather black and white. Springsteen? In song after song, he's blood red and layoff blue, and all the other colors that run through our lives.
As Coles intimates, Springsteen was lucky to have broken in at a time when he could amass his audience slowly - slowly enough to interact with them and grow with them and hear their stories. His music wasn't concerned with the visual, although he did make a couple of hit videos. No, Springsteen had to put it all in his songs and hope they were true enough to connect with the sort of people who inspired them.
Being a Harvard professor doesn't make Coles any more qualified to write this book, or any less. Being a psychiatrist? Perhaps. Both these men make a living from their ears, after all. Coles presents himself in the most modest light, just another one of us, a listener to those Springsteen songs. One imagines that even The Boss - after the lights have gone down and the last grateful patron has gone home - jumps back in queue and rejoins his rightful place among ordinary folks. After all, we only listen to Springsteen for record- or concert-length chunks of time. He's been listening to us for years.
• Timothy C. Davis is a music writer for the Creative Loafing newspaper in Charlotte, N.C.