[23 April 2009]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Magic in the Night: The Words and Music of Bruce Springsteen is exactly what its subtitle promises. Author Rob Kirkpatrick (1969, The Quotable Sixties) explores the songs of an American icon from the ground up, in great detail.
Bruce Springsteen stepped into the spotlight nearly 40 years ago now, with Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J., and since then every facet of his life, his work and his career has been analyzed and dissected by countless scholars, supporters and sycophants. In that way, one could say he fulfilled the promise of his very early promotional press, which tagged him as “the new Dylan”, for only Bob and the Beatles have garnered greater volumes of serious study into their creative processes and output.
Like many of the books analyzing iconic artists, Magic in the Night tends to try and give Springsteen an almost clairvoyant cleverness and a more far-reaching view, as though he wrote certain lyrics intending for them to be deciphered by future literary and cultural analysts. For instance, Kirkpatrick implies that Springsteen was self-referentially commenting on the Peter Pan elements in rock and roll when he named the girl “Wendy” in Born to Run. While it is certainly possible that he chose the name for a very specific reason, it’s much more likely that he was a young man writing about the things and people he knew and loved, like car culture, the desire for freedom, and girls named Wendy.
That’s not to say that all of Kirkpatrick’s observations are as quick to give Springsteen special prescience. Most of the analysis is well-researched and simply expressed, and his commentary is often insightful as he gathers lyrics, music, and details of the surrounding creative climate and Springsteen’s personal life to reach valid conclusions about the impact of Bruce Springsteen on the modern cultural landscape.
Each chapter of Magic in the Night chronologically explores every album, beginning with Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. and ending with 2005s Devils and Dust (an “Update” chapter is added to address Live in Dublin and Magic). The reader is given a mass of information, both well-documented details (his 1976 legal battle over publishing rights or the legendary landmarks that often find their way into his songs) and lesser-known trivia (which rarer songs were performed at specific concerts). It’s a treasure trove for serious Springsteen fans.
One problem that even the hardcore fans might have with Kirkpatrick’s book is that an inordinately large portion of the text is taken from previous works. Whole passages are direct quotations from the multitude of prior studies of Springsteen and his music. Not that it’s unusual for a book of this sort to gather and liberally quote from similar secondary sources, but Magic in the Night is mostly composed of these other sources.
The original material here—though often quite good—is in the minority, which makes it feel a little inauthentic, especially if you’ve read any of these other works (and I’m sure many fans have). However, Magic in the Night: The Words and Music of Bruce Springsteen is a great overview for the Springsteen novice, and it will undoubtedly please collectors and completists.