in the Street: The Bruce Springsteen Reader
The Boss is on the front page again. A few weeks after his resounding decision to organize next October a series of concerts in swing states with a busload of fellow musicians, the Vote for Change Band (including the Dave Matthews Band, Pearl Jam, R.E.M., the Dixie Chicks, Jurassic 5, James Taylor, and Jackson Browne) to help defeat George W. Bush, comes this excellent compilation of articles on Bruce Springsteen edited by June Skinner Sawyers, a Chicago-based Scottish journalist. Compendiums used to be reserved to novelists or poets, occasionally the serious, classical musician. But for a trial shot, Sawyers's edition is a master stroke and could serve as a model for similar future endeavors. The book compiles fifty or so of the most insightful or historically important articles, interviews, albums and concerts reviews, organized in chronological order under three headings: “Growin' Up,” “Glory Days,” and “Rebirth,” from 1973 to 2004. Sawyers has had the honesty to include not only eulogies but also scathing or off-the-mark commentaries. Originally published in the press or academic journals (Crawdaddy!, Time, Newsweek, Creem, The New York Times, The Christian Science Monitor, Popular Music and Society, The New Yorker, Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair, or local papers) or as chapters of novels, short stories, or essays, the texts are signed T C Boyle, Greil Marcus, Dave Marsh, Simon Frith, Lester Bangs, Nick Hornby, Paul Williams, or Robert Santelli and the like. The publication, in 1996, of Bruce Springsteen: The Rolling Stone Files explains why there are so few articles from this magazine. Besides the quality of the selection, what makes Racing in the Street so precious is that the different sources (both the authors and the publications) are carefully introduced (with occasional new introductions by the authors themselves) and benefit from numerous additional notes by the editor.
The paratext is particularly interesting, even for the casual reader. Besides a foreword and afterword by Martin Scorsese and Robert Santelli, and a substantial introduction by the editor, the collection features a very complete and up-to-date list of the different bands or line-ups Springsteen has played with, a detailed chronology, maps of Freehold and Asbury Park which will help the reader locate the whereabouts of Springsteen's youth and songs, an annotated discography (including singles, compilations featuring other artists, and tribute albums), a film/videography, a list of related websites, and a 17-page long bibliography, on the Boss himself or on subjects tackled in his songs. The book concludes on two rather subjective but illuminating lists of musicians, poets, novelists or essayists that have influenced Bruce Springsteen.
What the book reveals is the amazing range of articles written on Springsteen. The artist has appealed both to the local and national press for his all-American (or so it seemed to Ronald Reagan) rugged honesty and his iconic dimension, but very early, he was subjected to intense academic scrutiny as one of the most fascinating spokesmen of the working class. As well, the sheer number of novelists who have included Springsteen in their fiction is as such extremely telling of his impact on popular imagination. But Springsteen is also one of the artists most consistently praised by his peers. In the words of Bono, he has created an alternative mythology, "one where ordinary lives became extraordinary and heroic." For Springsteen has managed the feat of being critical and angry, sometimes sarcastic, without turning into cynicism and departing from his hopeful conviction that rock ‘n’ roll could save lives, starting with his own. And even if he has at times identified with "the unbearable sadness of the darkest of the blues" [p. 11], ultimately, his best songs exude a sense of community and place, and a form of social realism that has appealed to the "forgotten heroes" of his deeply loved and strongly criticized America.
The chronological order of the book allows the reader to follow the evolution both of the articles written on the Boss and of the man himself, from the impassioned New Jersey rocker to the mature, reflective chronicler of 9/11. Interestingly, the first serious piece written about the Jersey rocker, as early as March 1973 in Crawdaddy!, already ran for ten pages. Though it dealt with a concert attended by 30 spectators only, it was a forerunner of what was to come, from lengthy interviews (of particular interest are his first one with Crawdaddy!'s founder Paul Williams, with Judy Wieder—for his surprisingly progressive views on homosexuality—or with Nicholas Dawidoff for the insights it offers on the family man) to cover stories by Time and Newsweek in the same week of 1975, when Springsteen embarked on his first national tour, Newsweek offering an in-depth analysis of the issue of hype. Along the pages, one will find reflections on the overriding notion of authenticity and how it was constructed and/or perceived by the public, introspective articles about the increasingly religious fervor associated to Springsteen, the remnants of Catholicism in his music, or the impact of his Italian-Irish identity, serious studies of the "special relationship" that exists between Springsteen and his fans, or, precisely, pure fan ravings. Several articles also explore the central position Springsteen has come to occupy in American popular culture, not as an innovator but as heir to the tradition of Walt Whitman, Abraham Lincoln, and John Steinbeck, or for a more musical lineage, Hank William, Roy Acuff, and Johnny Cash.
Unfortunately, Ms Sawyers has been unable to get permission to reprint "Growing Young with Rock and Roll,” written by the then-critic and soon-to-become manager of Springsteen, Jon Landau. I cannot therefore resist the temptation to quote for the frustrated reader, by way of a conclusion, the first paragraph of Landau's review of that May 1974 Cambridge, Massachusetts concert, which has become the most quoted line on Springsteen:
Note from the editor
Jon Landau's review can be read at http://home.theboots.net/theboots/articles/future.html