In attempting to distance Springsteen from his sainted reputation by humanizing him, Ryan White only manages to sanctify him all the more.
Springsteen: Album by AlbumPublisher: Sterling
Length: 290 pages
Author: Ryan White
Publication date: 2014-11
The desire to simultaneously mythologize and humanize artists is one of the great temptations and one of the great dangers for critics. Though the intention to make these heroes relatable may be noble, it's also misplaced. Heroes are relatable because they transcend the milieu: their virtues are awe-inspiring, their foibles tragic and terrible, the scope of both so great that they encompass every one of us and every one of our victories and defeats.
To make them too sympathetic is to reduce the scale of their accomplishments and their defeats to something banal, to make them at best a saint and at worst a cautionary tale. It's this same impulse that's burned the image of Elvis in Las Vegas -- bloated, stuffed into that rhinestone-studded cartoon suit, mumbling through songs he didn't even remember writing -- into our minds where we might rather have thought of him as the living libido of a post-war America. It’s the same trite drive that reminds us all that in his private life James Brown was an abusive lover, an image quite at odds with the "Godfather of Soul’s" popular persona.
Ryan White, sadly, seems to have underestimated this danger when he began to write Springsteen: Album by Album. It's evident in Pete Carlin's introduction that the book was planned to stand as the ultimate testament to Springsteen's transcendence and his gritty humanity: in the first four pages he is variously described as "the personification of American virtues”, an "everyman superhero...(with a) radically Herculean physique", and finally as "an alpha-legend: the free-world's rocker laureate". In White's afterword, Springsteen is proclaimed "the voice of his times" while also portrayed as exactly the kind of down-to-earth and kind person you might easily grab a beer with after the show. It's an idea so contrived and so hobbled by the book's formulaic structure that it renders Springsteen worse than human: it leaves him sounding like a bore.
This is partly due to the fact that Springsteen's personal life, which the book spends an inordinate amount of time covering, is never particularly interesting. It sounds like the most clichéd screenplay imagined, something written beat-by-beat for maximum dramatic effect: a young, working-class boy who's been mostly neglected by his parents (especially his broken father) finds purpose when he starts listening to rock 'n' roll -- Elvis and James Brown in particular -- and is inspired to take up his guitar. Eventually this passion will catapult him to fame and his rightful place as the voice of the people, but not before various conflicts with nefarious businessmen, contentious bandmates, infidelity and his own ghosts.
Whether or not this is what actually happened to Springsteen is immaterial; if the book is supposed to be presenting Springsteen as a down-to-earth saint -- flawed but great -- it spends too much time cloaking his backstory and life in cheap imagery and distancing abstractions. Much is made of the fact that Springsteen had a contentious relationship with his father, but the facts of the relationship are never expounded upon: Springsteen's father, when he is described, is invariably a disconsolate man "sitting alone in (a) darkened kitchen, drinking beer and smoking, the glow of the cigarette the only light in the room." He’s a ghost, one of the book’s most hamfisted metaphors.
Clarence Clemons may have been popularly known as "The Big Man", but to read this book you might think he was a living piece of Americana: he's the stalwart constant in Bruce's life, a mythical figure who appears in the doorway one windy, rainy night. When White finally has to confront the fact of Clemon's death he's frustratingly evasive about the details. Instead of describing the circumstances, he instead quotes the lyrics of a live variant of "Growing Up”: “Got in a car, a big long Cadillac / Drove through the woods on the outskirts of town. And we got very sleepy, and we fell into this long, long, long, long dream…” It’s as if Clemons never even died, but instead summoned down a car from the heavens in the middle of a concert and then drove off into the sunset. Though an overleaf does provide something more concrete, it's capped by a bit of mystical mumble from Springsteen. "How big was the Big Man?" Springsteen opines. "Too fucking big to die... Clarence doesn't leave the E Street Band when he dies. He leaves when we die."
In fact, one of the most sabotaging presences in this book is Springsteen himself. Or, at least, the Springsteen quotes White chooses to deploy so haphazardly. Though they’re passed off as bits of wisdom they’re often so fuzzy ("...when we let our compassion go, we let go of what little claim we have to the divine. So it's spooky out there sometimes..." or “We all live with our illusions and our self-image, and there’s a good percentage of that that’s a pipe dream”) that rather than lend a mystic air to Springsteen’s character, as they seem meant to, they simply undercut his legendary reputation by presenting him as something of a babbler.
Attempts to tackle each album from a critical standpoint are similarly sabotaging. Instead of engaging each release from a purely critical standpoint and using the events in Springsteen's life as points of reflection on the themes and sounds of the albums, White chooses to find a causal explanation for each and every song. It's all too literal: Terrence Malick's Badlands is the sole inspiration behind "Starkweather(Nebraska);" "Dancing in the Dark" is the result of Springsteen's getting bored with the rock 'n' roll lifestyle, etc. etc.
Other songs are cribbed for lyrics or titles that are then coyly used to summarize a period or event in Springsteen’s life. The result is criticism that lacks a spark -- the critique of each album reads almost identically, with quick summaries of each song’s narrative and a pat guess at their themes -- and an end to the mystery around the work. By reducing these iconic songs to the simple products of cause and effect (and they always seem to be caused by something simple; no song seems to arise out of a complex series of emotions or conflicting creative processes), he reduces Springsteen as well.
Not that in some ways he doesn’t want to: for as much time as White spends explaining Springsteen's biography, it's clear that he wants every reader to walk away realizing that Springsteen wasn't just a talented kind of demigod, but was, more than anything, a hard worker. It's the refrain of the book, this constant reminder that Springsteen only rose to such prominence because he worked harder and longer and faster than anyone else. Again, the sentiment's not wrong, nor is it unworthy of praise, but it reduces Springsteen too much.
"The Boss," as described by White, is a bit churlish, a little goofy, and so often earnest to the point that it's a tad embarrassing. He doles out sound advice in folksy asides: "Pop is funny. It's a tease. It's an important one, but it's a tease, and therein resides its beauty and its joke"; "All the hype in the world is nothing compared to a kid telling another kid, 'Man, you should've seen that!'" He lives life as true to himself as possible and whenever there's any kind of misstep in his character, as there is when he leaves his first wife, Julianne Phillips, for bandmate Patti Scialfa, it's glossed over.
More than once White insists that Springsteen is haunted by "ghosts", but every time he has a chance to really explore these ghosts -- Springsteen's divorce, Springsteen's reaction to 9/11, Clemon's death -- he avoids it. It's almost as if by showing Springsteen in a truly human moment, one lingered on and observed, White fears he'll leave him looking too vulnerable and unworthy of assuming his place as the rightful rock 'n' roll messiah.
Even the photos seem strategically chosen to fulfill this purpose. Very few capture Springsteen and his own in anything other than a gilded or theatrical light. Most concert pictures find him in a state of elevated rapture, either ripping into his guitar or mugging for a thrilled audience. Pictures of his daily life find him sitting around in contemplation and repose, either with guitar in hand or his face crinkled in a mask of reflection, and when the band is assembled they're all so thrilled to be alive you wonder where any struggle ever came from.
There are rare instances that find a Springsteen who looks simultaneously elevated and all-too human. There’s a beautiful example on page 119 that finds The Boss turned away from a crowd, his expression a mixture of confusion, shock and elation as if he can’t honestly believe these people are here to see him; another on page 125 finds him facing a similar crowd, now in full control of his swagger. But these images are deflated by a hundred other photos like the one on page 138 that finds Springsteen doubled over on stage in an attitude of prayer or stalking the empty rows of a soon-to-be-filled stadium. The message is all too clear.
This might be excusable coming from an amateur, a fan in the first blush of love rattling off a 'zine piece eulogizing Springsteen, but White's not unaware of Springsteen's reputation or of the common criticisms leveled against the man and his legacy. In multiple sections, he comments on how the rock press exhibited a bit of a backlash against Springsteen, as when Esquire mocked his supposed canonization or when James Wolcott famously declared, "the mountain can't be blamed for the mist, but still -- the reverence is getting awfully thick..."
White knew the dangers when he took on this project and seemed from the beginning dedicated to forging a link between the legend and the man, but all he's done is reduce Springsteen's life and work to a series of reflective anecdotes that show off a man so seemingly perfect he fights against every injustice in the world, inspires Presidents and whole hordes of rock lovers and, simultaneously, lives the blue-collar life of a down-to-earth artist whose only real desire is to make music that pleases people. White has simply regurgitated the same tired Springsteen narrative that was established when Born to Run catapulted The Boss to national fame. The formula that drives this book, that reduces every album to simple explanations of human motivations and emotional drives and turns Springsteen into the chosen voice of a dispossessed people, turns this icon into the very saint that White is afraid others dismiss him as. Springsteen is robbed of his mythic dimension even as he's made too holy to be human.
It's a wearisome thing, this disingenuous hero worship. If White is going to adore Springsteen, if he's going to build him up, he'd be better off jettisoning the ponderous biographical information, since he has such a difficult time integrating it with his criticisms of the music. Springsteen lives most for his listeners in his music, not in the minutiae of his biography; one might hope that a book entitled Springsteen: Album by Album would emphasize those albums and the music thereon, instead of using each of them to frame a life that reads in these broad strokes like every rock 'n' roll movie ever made.
If, as White notes, "the job... of our artists is to rummage through the [broken] parts [of life] and see if they can make something useful for us," the job of the biographer is to take what's broken in an artist’s narrative and make something useful of that life, to either show us the complexity of a real human being or to elucidate the ideas that drive the best of their work. If White had been a bit more straightforward about his motives, if he had simply went off on a screed about the glory of Springsteen, it would have read more honestly than this. An academic investigation of Bruce’s international appeal would have been more welcome, a philosophical tackling of each and every album would have been more engaging than the watered-down bit of bowing and disseminating (who else has tried to defend Human Touch and Lucky Town, let alone by referring not the qualities of the individual albums but by the events that shaped them, as White offers here.