A contrarian's take on Bruce Springsteen's life thus far
Author Marc Dolan's "Bruce Springsteen and the Promise of Rock 'N' Roll" takes an entertaining and argumentative look at the life and words of the Boss.
Special to The Seattle Times
'Bruce Springsteen and the Promise of Rock 'N' Roll'
by Marc Dolan
Norton, 528 pp., $29.95
Any biographer who dives into an already well-documented life is faced with the challenge of what angle to take. Most biographers only undertake this task when they have reams of new research to offer up. A few writers, however, decide they will simply write a better book than the previous entries, sometimes with a slightly different angle, or a more personal narrative.
When it comes to Bruce Springsteen, there are a dozen biographies already on the shelf — including an encyclopedia-type offering of mine, "Backstreets," from 1989. Marc Dolan decided to craft his biography, "Bruce Springsteen and the Promise of Rock 'N' Roll," by culling research from all the other books already out there but putting a more contrarian narrative into his prose. And while the end result fails to deliver much new ground, Dolan has written a largely entertaining overview.
The two best-selling Springsteen books yet have been authored by Dave Marsh, who virtually made his career out of chronicling the Boss, but who also happens to be married to Bruce's co-manager.
Dolan, in contrast, is beholden to no one, and as a result his book comes alive when he challenges the previously held notions about Springsteen's motivations. It is at its best when he dives into Bruce's own explanations. Dolan doesn't have a thesis here, but his insights, sometimes into small events, are revealing.
For example, after Springsteen released his stripped-down 1982 album "Nebraska," and later explained that part of the reason for the choice of recording location was that he found the recording studio too "sterile and isolating," Dolan calls that disingenuous.
Dolan writes, "How much more sterile and isolating could a Manhattan recording studio be than a spare room in a house you rent because you can't commit to a permanent home, sitting alone for hours on end in the middle of the night with nothing but a collection of sound equipment to keep you company?" Touché.
Dolan's writing is strongest when he tackles the middle years of Springsteen's career — the albums "The River" through "Tunnel of Love" — if only because as Springsteen's career was ascendant, few dared to challenge what he said in an interview, or when he obviously was adrift in his personal life. Many of Dolan's most salient points come when he analyzes songs that often have not been so closely examined. As for Springsteen's biggest single, "Dancing in the Dark," Dolan writes "it's hard to say if it's really about anything, except the situation that Bruce found himself in during the winter of 1984: stuck."
At times Dolan comes off as too argumentative, which might be expected from a professor, Dolan's day job. And as with any biography written from secondary sources, at times Dolan tackles a story that is already off-base, and follows it farther astray.
Springsteen's life is still unfolding, of course, and Dolan's book is hardly the final word — two other biographies are due this fall alone. But until the definitive book arrives, "Bruce Springsteen and the Promise of Rock 'N' Roll" is a worthy addition for a fan, or anyone who enjoys a good argument.
Seattle writer Charles R. Cross is the author of biographies
of Jimi Hendrix and Kurt Cobain.