IT IS nearly 40 years since Bruce Springsteen — the Boss — released his debut album, Greetings from Asbury Park, NJ. That 1973 release was the first of 17 studio albums, which, along with live sets and 70 singles, have achieved combined worldwide sales of more than 120 million.
Truly, the man has nothing to prove, and yet he’s still out there, working his butt off: Springsteen brings his Wrecking Ball Tour to Dublin next week, playing two nights at the RDS before legging it around Scandinavia and embarking on a further series of dates in America that will keep him on the road until his 63rd birthday in September. Typically, each set will be more than three hours long. If he’s on form, he may even crowd-surf.
American academic Marc Dolan’s new book, Bruce Springsteen and the Promise of Rock’n’roll, can hardly be seen as cashing in on the Boss’s current bout of success. It’s a large tome, several years in the research and writing, but such a biography would have found a ready audience at any time in the decade since Springsteen returned from an hiatus of several years with his 2002 album, The Rising. Springsteen was hardly a minority favourite before that — indeed, he has enjoyed almost universal recognition since his 1984 album, Born in the USA — but the body of work he has produced since ‘02 has cemented his reputation as a contemporary rock icon.
Springsteen’s work ethic can be traced directly to his blue collar background in Freehold, New Jersey. His father was a bus driver, his mother a legal secretary, and the family lived from one pay cheque to the next. Springsteen acquired his first guitar at age 13, and performed in bands such as Earth and Steel Mill, then Dr Zoom and the Sonic Boom and the Sundance Blues Band, before forming the Bruce Springsteen Band in 1971. By then, experimenting with blues, jazz, folk and R’n’B, Springsteen was already a prolific songwriter, chronicling the lives of the working class Americans he’d grown up among in poetic epics that inevitably saw him compared to Bob Dylan and Van Morrison.
Championed by talent scout John Hammond, Springsteen was signed to Columbia Records in 1972. His first few albums were critically lauded but sold poorly. Determined to make good on their investment, Columbia extended to $50,000 the budget for his next effort, Born to Run, which saw Springsteen hole up in the studio for 14 months, writing and recording with the group of musicians that would became known as the E Street Band.
Springsteen was under massive pressure to deliver a commercially successful album, but most of the musicians who had played with him for years deserted before the sessions proper began. Even saxophonist Clarence Clemens, Springsteen’s most steadfast ally until his death in 2011, began enquiring of Columbia if he could get a contract as a solo artist. What delayed matters most of all was Springsteen’s determination to push himself creatively. Songs were re-worked over and over, tried out live, and then re-worked again.
Early in 1975 record executive Irwin Segelstein realised that Springsteen had a potentially massive youth audience, and lent him greater support. At Springsteen’s invitation, rock journalist Jon Landau joined him and his manager Mike Appel as co-producer. It was Landau who finally convinced him the album was finished in Aug 1975.
Columbia invested a further $40,000 in their marketing campaign for Born to Run, a strategy that paid rich dividends: there were 350,000 pre-orders for the album. And on its release it was propelled to No 1 by critical and popular fervour, and Springsteen appeared on the covers of Time and Newsweek.
Born to Run gave Springsteen massive exposure and success. Almost inevitably there was also fall-out. Springsteen parted with long time manager Mike Appel and replaced him with Landau.
Springsteen followed up with the more melancholic Darkness on the Edge of Town. Then came the 20-track double album The River, and the solo acoustic Nebraska, an album his label feared would end his career, but which comfortably sold a million copies, even without serious promotion.
Springsteen’s greatest contradiction is that, while he likes to champion the common man, his sights were always firmly set on world domination. Doran makes no bones about the extent of Springsteen’s ambitions for his seventh album, to be released in 1984: he dreamt it would be as great a success as Michael Jackson’s Thriller. The album, Born in the USA, lived up to his expectations, more or less. While it didn’t achieve Thriller’s massive sales , it came close enough, selling at least 30m copies.
Whatever about its huge commercial success, Born in the USA was hardly Springsteen’s finest hour as a creative artist: for every sublime moment like ‘I’m On Fire’, there was a largely nonsensical ‘Dancing in the Dark’. The video featured a newly buff Springsteen, who, Doran remarks, looks like “Hollywood’s idea of a firefighter or a motor mechanic.”
The albums that followed — Tunnel of Love, Human Touch and Lucky Town — were solid affairs, but none was as huge or world conquering. Springsteen released the downbeat, acoustic The Ghost of Tom Joad in 1995: it seemed to signal an end to the rabble-rousing arena era.
In 1985 he married the actress Julianne Philips. By the time they divorced three years later he had found his soul mate in musician Patti Scialfa: they married in 1989, settled in New Jersey and had three two boys and a girl.
In 1999, Springsteen was inducted into the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame by Bono, who reminded the world of just how unusual his career had been: “No drug busts, no public brawling, no bad haircuts — not even in the ‘80s — and most remarkably, no golf. Credibility: you couldn’t have more unless you were dead.”
That same year, Springsteen reformed the E Street Band for the Reunion Tour.
Springsteen found a new focus as a songwriter after the 9/11 tragedy in 2001. He spoke to the families of many of the victims of the Twin Towers disaster, and composed a body of songs about their plight. These found their way onto his 2002 album, The Rising.
Doran’s book brings us up to late 2009, when Springsteen had premiered live the title track of Wrecking Ball (released in March this year), but had yet to record the album. The album is surely his angriest collection to date, a suite of songs that heap scorn on corporate America and demand a return to the values of common decency that Springsteen has always held dear.
It would be unfair to dismiss Bruce Springsteen and the Promise of Rock’n’Roll as an hagiography; rather the work is an homage to an artist Doran clearly idolises. But the definitive biography on Springsteen has yet to be written. That will require an author with greater objectivity and a willingness to dirty his hands: Doran’s book is a perfectly competent review of Springsteen’s more than 40 years in showbusiness.
Marc Doran and the Promise of Rock’n’Roll (WW Norton & Company $29.95) Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band play the RDS Arena, Dublin Jul 17/18.