GLORY DAYS Bruce Springsteen in the 1980s By Dave Marsh Pantheon. 478 pp. $18.95
Hey don't get me wrong. I like Bruce Springsteen as much as the next man. Unless the next man is Dave Marsh.
I mean I may have the albums, the tapes, the T-shirts and the memories, I may even have stood in a line or two to get tickets to Springsteen concerts, but compared with Marsh, a veteran rock journalist and editor of the newsletter Rock & Roll Confidential, I'm the merest beginner. After reading "Glory Days," Marsh's tribute to the man they call the Boss, one is tempted to say he likes Springsteen even better than Springsteen likes himself. Marsh's book is, not surprisingly, a fan's notes. And even though this particular fan is literate and even occasionally insightful, Marsh is still just a fan, and that is finally and irrevocably his undoing.
Marsh's credentials as the chronicler of Bossmania are impeccable. He first saw Springsteen in a Boston bar in 1974, a full year before Springsteen burst onto the mainstream scene with matching Time and Newsweek cover stories. Marsh's companion then was Jon Landau, a fellow journalist whose quote ("I saw rock and roll's future and its name is Bruce Springsteen") helped launch the career of the artist Landau would end up managing.
Marsh wrote the first of what is now an even dozen Springsteen books to hit the marketplace, 1979's "Born to Run: The Bruce Springsteen Story," and in the years since he has assiduously dogged his hero's footsteps, seemingly attending every concert and writing down every word of Springsteen's on- and offstage musings. It's a tough job, but somebody's got to do it.
"Glory Days," though it makes reference to Springsteen's hard-scrabble early times in working class New Jersey, is, as its subtitle indicates, essentially about Bruce in the 1980s. Starting with his 1981 European tour and ending with the 1986 release of his mammoth live album, it chronicles the how and why of Springsteen's rise from high-grade cult figure to unquestioned king of rock, "the first white American to approach the mystique and popularity of Elvis Presley," the man even Ronald Reagan wanted metaphorically to embrace.
What is especially intriguing about this rise is how suspicious Springsteen himself was about the process that led to megastardom and what he perceived as its possibly destructive results. The most interesting sections of "Glory Days" deal with the consternation he caused among his intimates when he insisted on making the harshly eloquent, uncompromisingly noncommercial "Nebraska," his first album after his return from Europe. And, as Marsh tellingly points out, the irony of his acceptance by mainstream audiences and politicians is that it came at a time when his message was hardly as relentlessly upbeat as his sound, when he was delineating "the ways in which hard work was not enough, the ways in which the game was rigged to make honest effort and good intentions inadequate."
But while it is clear that there is definitely a story in Springsteen's rise to fame, whether it is a tale that needs or even wants 478 pages (including bibliography and index) to tell is another question. If nothing else, the length has led Marsh to multiple repetitions, and it has also made him overly dependent on two things that would have been better used in moderation.
The first is extensive use of quotes from Springsteen himself. While the singer is candid enough, he tends, as Marsh himself finally admits, "to express himself verbally only in roundabout ways," and a little of that goes a long way. And though Marsh would probably be the first to admit that the experience of a Springsteen concert does not translate well to the printed page, he spends endless numbers of them in a fruitless attempt to recreate those glorious sounds.
"Glory Days' " most debilitating characteristic, however, is the absence of even the hint of a discouraging word. It's not that Springsteen is a closet devil, or that his work with various Vietnam veteran and food-bank groups isn't genuinely laudable. It's just that Marsh's relentless blend of hyperbole and hagiography is so unyieldingly cheerful that the book often grinds to a boring halt. Peeks at Springsteen's more recognizably human qualities -- his temper, need for control, problems with communication -- are allowed but never followed up, so that when we do see Springsteen getting angry, the effect is just as if we'd watched Mother Teresa ask for seconds in a food line. Greil Marcus' "Mystery Train" proved you could be passionate about rock without losing your sense of perspective, but that combination proves beyond Marsh's grasp. He is a fan and proud of it, and those of us who wade through his book must suffer the consequences. Not only do the man's admirers deserve better, but ultimately, so does Springsteen himself.
Kenneth Turan is film critic for Gentlemen's Quarterly and coauthor of the forthcoming "Call Me Anna: The Autobiography of Patty Duke."