Thursday, November 29, 2012

Bruce by Peter Ames Carlin, Bruce Springsteen and the Promise of Rock 'n' Roll by Marc Dolan – review

For many fans, the Boss is not simply a recording artist, he's a way of life. Giles Harvey considers his background, his great theme, and how the man escaped into myth

Bruce Springsteen and Clarence Clemons on a rooftop in New York City during the 'Darkness on the Edge of Town' tour, 1978. Photograph: Lynn Goldsmith/Rex Features

In America, home of the bacon milkshake and the $5m bra, there is a radio station that plays nothing but Bruce Springsteen. It makes sense when you think about it. E Street Radio caters to a longstanding American addiction ("Everybody's got a hunger, a hunger they can't resist," as the Boss himself says), and it does so with this nation's characteristic thoroughness in matters of appetite. Besides wall-to-wall Springsteen hits, the station offers the commentary of Springsteen experts, guest appearances by Springsteen insiders, and what can only be described as testimonials from Springsteen fans who call in to share the manifold ways in which, through joblessness and bankruptcy, illness and bereavement, they have felt Springsteen's spirit at work in their lives. For such people, and many like them, "Bruce" is less a recording artist than an avatar, a creed, a whole way of life.

Peter Ames Carlin, BruceIn one sense, two new biographies – Peter Ames Carlin's Bruce (Simon & Schuster) and Marc Dolan's Bruce Springsteen and the Promise of Rock 'n' Roll (Norton) – are caller testimonials, stretched out to a combined total of more than a thousand pages. Both are the work of fans, and both bring home, with an occasionally numbing force, the etymology of that word: "abbr of fanatic" as my OED has it.
Your interest in them will likely depend on how you feel about sentences such as: "In Wisconsin, however, in one of only two known live airings of the song, 'Man at the Top' started out with Bruce on unaccompanied acoustic guitar but then added answering harmony vocals on the later choruses, with the 'all rights' and 'oh yeahs' providing a gentle comfort for which the song's narrator may not even be looking." This is from Dolan (who has no time for the other known airing of "Man at the Top", a forgettable outtake from the Born in the U.S.A. sessions), but the tone of torrid pedantry is representative of both books. Nevertheless, for those who can summon the patience, or – like this reader – simply can't help themselves, Carlin and Dolan will usefully complicate your understanding of Saint Bruce.

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