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.
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.
Dolan’s book turns Springsteen’s career into a parable for the search for community. Springsteen’s search began with the idealized, biracial world of late '50’s radio. The adult Springsteen became a both popular artist who wants to make classless, open community with his fans and audience by having fun, and a populist with a sense of social obligation.
For the sake of his career in the market-driven world of pop, he has had to balance both identities. The conservative '80’s, when Springsteen achieved his greatest success, also starkly revealed the schisms in his fan base – the way that an “of the people” working class identity can appropriated by both the left and the right. Springsteen's signature hit single “Born in the USA” was originally an acoustic song entitled “Vietnam.” It’s an anthem for veterans who survived the war, though broken and battered. The anti-war sentiment is lost in the up-tempo, radio version which obscures the lyrics. The publicity campaign behind the single downplayed any hint of irony, and the refrain “born in the USA” seemed a jingle pitched to '80’s conformism. Springsteen was praised by President Reagan.
Springsteen made it clear he couldn’t support Reagan, but he was unwilling to be drawn into partisan politics; in the “Morning in America” '80’s, Springsteen championed working class issues by singing songs like “Factory,” not by becoming a voice of subversion.
While in his early years he struggled to popularize his working-class vision to a public blinded by the hippie movement, in the '80’s he had to pitch his Woody Guthrie style populism to a country in the middle of a conservative swing. The Reagan '80’s made Springsteen a millionaire, regardless of the gulf between the President’s and the songwriter’s vision of a working-class ethos.
Springsteen became radicalized in the '90’s and went on to record a song protesting the killing of Amadou Diallo, perform concerts for post-Katrina New Orleans, and campaign for Kerry and Obama. His latest release, "Wrecking Ball," is an attack on corporate America straight out of the Occupy Wall Street playbook.
"Bruce Springsteen and the Promise of Rock ‘n’ Roll" is an intelligent fan book written by a sophisticated admirer. Dolan argues that Springsteen’s preoccupation with deindustrialization, poverty, and underemployment – even in times when America enjoyed prosperity – documents “a problem that never went away."
Springsteen has been the prophet in the wilderness all along.
Darryl Lorenzo Wellington is a poet and journalist living in Santa Fe, N.M.