Bruce Springsteen was overvalued for so long that a reaction set in, and he is now on the verge of becoming undervalued.
His concerts still sell out — even those who never liked his records concede that he puts on an exhilarating live show — but he seems passe to younger listeners, an essential test of musical longevity. The indie bands that have fashioned their styles from the works of Bob Dylan, Brian Wilson, Lou Reed, Fleetwood Mac — even the small catalogue of Nick Drake — show little sign of adding Springsteen to their pantheon.
Which is a shame, for there is much to admire in the Springsteen canon, if one knows where to look. Even the over-produced, pseudo-operatic behemoths from his most popular years — the albums between “Born to Run” (1975) and “Born in the USA” (1984) have generally not worn well — contain music cut from the heart. What song has captured the aching desperation of an inability to rescue a beloved, dissolute old friend so well as “Point Blank”? And “Racing in the Street” is a tender and enduring epitaph for the one-time local big shot who knows that his era is over but who will never quite cross the city line.
Marc Dolan’s smart new critical biography, “Bruce Springsteen and the Promise of Rock ’n’ Roll,” comes along at a propitious time. The author, a professor at City University of New York, knows the music, the milieu and enough about the man to present a balanced portrait of a brash, gifted kid from Freehold, N.J., who went from making $750 for three weekend shows at a Dupont Circle bar in 1973 to the covers of Time and Newsweek — simultaneously — two years later.
That was a very big deal back in the heyday of the weekly magazines, and it wasn’t the first time that detractors detected music-biz hype in the Springsteen phenomenon. But there were good, pure reasons for the excitement — the surprise, freeform digressions over the course of an album such as “The Wild, The Innocent and the E Street Shuffle” and those Olympian, three-hour live performances that combined original songs with covers of the (then) neglected pre-Beatles rock ’n’ roll/rhythm and blues, all in a seamless rush. Moreover, the E Street Band was racially integrated, both physically and spiritually, and it sounded that way, this at a time when record companies considered black and white listeners as different markets. Finally, at his best, Springsteen offered an eloquent, intelligent expression of American working-class concerns during an era when much of the best pop music was self-consciously arty and more than a little effete.
Strangely, it was about the time Springsteen produced what may be his best all-around album that the excitement began to wane. “Tunnel of Love” (1987) was a harrowingly honest work — as painful and explicit a study of a break-up as any pop record this side of Richard and Linda Thompson’s “Shoot Out the Lights” — but after that there was little new work before the two patchy albums released on the same day in 1992, “Lucky Town” and “Human Touch.” Since then, there have been honors galore, an earnest public commitment to humanitarian causes and a raft of fresh material (including a bombastic 9/11 album called “The Rising” that proved Springsteen had no more cogent a response to the attacks than the rest of us). And then, of course, there is the occasional mega-tour, where fans come to hear the oldies, and antiquated but no less passionate cries of “BROOOCE!” may be heard once more throughout the land.
Dolan recognizes the deep bond that Springsteen shares with his audience: “A remarkable performer can shape the audience’s perception, a remarkable audience can shape the performer’s perception, and together they can be shaped by and even shape the moment itself,” he writes. Those who are interested in the shaping of an American icon — and, more significantly, the creation of some lasting American music — may be directed safely to this book.
Page is a professor of music and journalism at the University of Southern California.
‘Bruce Springsteen and the Promise of Rock ‘n’ Roll’
By Marc Dolan
Norton. 512 pp. $29.95