The Bard of Asbury Park

Reviewed by Bob Ivry
Sunday, July 17, 2005

RUNAWAY AMERICAN DREAM

Listening to Bruce Springsteen

By Jimmy Guterman

Da Capo. 246 pp. Paperback, $15.95

MEETING ACROSS THE RIVER

Stories Inspired by the Haunting

Bruce Springsteen Song

Edited by Jessica Kaye and Richard J. Brewer

Bloomsbury. 206 pp. Paperback, $14.95

Is there a gloomier landscape in pop music than the one painted by Bruce Springsteen? The poet laureate of the New Jersey swamps has got to be the biggest buzzkill of the rock era. No one else with his rarefied credentials comes close. While things get better all the time for the Beatles, and the Rolling Stones are having their noses blown, Springsteen's protagonists regularly undergo thrashings that border on the sadistic. You can't imagine Highway Patrolman Joe Roberts wearing diamonds on the soles of his shoes or Johnny 99 exhorting everybody to get stoned. And it's not just folky flagellations like "Nebraska" that wallow in the darkness on the edge of town. Springsteen's most popular collection, "Born in the U.S.A.," is a Xanax-defying litany of failing marriage, racial violence, joblessness, statutory rape and postwar meltdown. "Born down in a dead man's town/The first kick I took was when I hit the ground" is how the album says hello. You don't know whether to dance or slit your wrists.

The danger is that songs like "Downbound Train" devolve into self-parody because all it ever does is rain -- unless, to truly shatter our hearts, Springsteen gives us a glimpse of sunshine before he snatches it away. "The River" packs a wallop not because of unwanted pregnancy or construction-crew layoffs -- standard Springsteen yada yada, after all -- but because the narrator remembers a time when he pulled his lover close, just to feel her breathing.

Curdled dreams, it turns out, are also a staple of hard-boiled crime fiction. Film noir even offers the visual equivalent of hope dashed -- sunlight pouring through window blinds, the shadows resembling the bars of a prison cell. Meeting Across the River formalizes the link between Springsteen and Raymond Chandler. Editors Jessica Kaye and Richard J. Brewer commissioned 19 crime authors to riff on the song from Springsteen's 1975 "Born to Run" album. The underworld losers who populate these stories wouldn't be very interesting without hope -- for one last score, for the dame's approval, for the boss's respect. Their dreams are their undoing.

Springsteen's "Meeting Across the River" tells the story of a striver who enlists the help of his pal Eddie in a deal that will net him $2,000 -- enough scratch to make things right with his girl, Cherry. Springsteen left enough unsaid for a fun game of fill-in-the-blanks. Eric Garcia takes the bait by creating an eerily mechanistic world based on Monopoly, with the characters toiling at the waterworks, robbing boxcars from the four railroads and going to and from jail without collecting their payoffs. Cara Black shifts the scenario to Japan; William Kent Krueger sets the drama in St. Paul, Minn., with the Mississippi, not the Hudson implied by Springsteen, as the backdrop; and Peter David imagines the river as the Styx. Gregg Hurwitz gets topical, with Eddie morphing into a terrorist named Ebi, while David Corbett plops us into the shady milieu of a California card room.

Meeting Across the River is a good beach read for folks with an affinity for crime yarns or Springsteen. There are even winks of humor. "I've seen the future of organized crime in Ireland, and it's Rory Sullivan," Paul Charles writes of his main character in "In the Midnight Hour." Those who get that in-joke (Springsteen was once famously described as "rock-and-roll's future") will appreciate Jimmy Guterman's Runaway American Dream . Guterman, whose previous books concerned Jerry Lee Lewis and the worst rock albums of all time, examines just about every song Springsteen ever performed. The author's grasp of minutiae is mind-blowing. He knows, for instance, that Springsteen kicked off a 1980 show in Ann Arbor by forgetting the words to "Born to Run" and that drummer Max Weinberg has never played a solo in his three decades with Bruce's E Street Band.

Despite the obvious frothing fandom, Guterman is able to keep his head from spinning off. He credits Springsteen's longevity to conservative musical impulses -- "he hasn't changed much in the more than 30 years since he started recording" -- and takes a jab at the Boss's post-9/11 album, "The Rising," by warning that "the problem with being called the savior of rock-and-roll for almost your entire adult life is that eventually you believe it, at least partly."

Ultimately, however, Guterman can't keep himself from going over the top. He extols Springsteen as the hardest-working man in showbiz who sets "an almost impossible standard to meet" and lionizes the eight-piece E Streeters as America's greatest rock-and-roll band. Guterman is good-natured about dishing up such hyperbole: "Well, what's the point in writing a book about a band if you don't believe something superlative about them?" To counter the inevitable backlash, he lines up other likely contestants: the Allman Brothers Band, the Band, Booker T. and the MGs, the Byrds, Crazy Horse, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Elvis when he was with Scotty Moore and Bill Black, the Pretenders, the Ramones and X. All are found lacking by comparison.

But wait. Where are the Grateful Dead and Nirvana, two bands that ought to make anybody's list of finalists? Guterman leaves them out, which is scandal enough, but in the final analysis a forgotten band or two may not matter. Notice how Guterman avoids anointing any Americans as the best rock band in the world. That's because stacking the Yanks up against the best of the Brits -- the Stones, the Who, Led Zeppelin, the Sex Pistols, the Clash and, oh yeah, the Beatles -- would result in a massacre. Maybe there's something in the English water. Maybe Americans' vaunted rugged individualism compels stateside combos to implode. But Springsteen's greatest triumph -- and Guterman fails to describe it with the eloquence it deserves -- could only be the work of an American. He was able to use faith in the redeeming power of the music to build a community that included both performers and fans. He stepped out of the darkness and somehow turned a dead man's town into a land of hope and dreams. ยท

Bob Ivry, who grew up and now lives in New Jersey, writes frequently on popular culture.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company