It can be tough having a Bruce Springsteen obsessive on your Christmas list every year; Bruce has yet to avail himself fully of his holiday box-set potential, he’s got a finite number of records and his current tour is playing better in Ireland than it did in Iowa, so there are no US shows to look forward to. Also, if you had such a person to buy for, you were probably subjected to several hundred listenings of “Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town” by Christmastime, but bear in mind, it could have been worse, and your friend could be really into Wham!
But it’s been a very, very nice season for Bruce freaks: bright-eyed gifters had their choice of a conveniently timed three separate and fairly massive selections this year, each of which touching on a more or less singular aspect of the massive topic that is Bruceness (for my money, he ranks his own entry in the Dewey Decimal System, but that’s just me).
Completists, collectors and/or aficionados of removable swag will probably be best served with the most comprehensive of the three, Greetings From E Street, a Robert Santelli monster that’s being pitched as the first collective biography of Springsteen and the E Street Band. It’s also one written with full participation from E Streeters past and present, which, especially in those early, hippie-hat years, fills in a lot of gaps.
And while it covers the band’s three-plus decades, Greetings is way more about pictures than words. Santelli more or less speeds through the band’s history, which is understandable — the group has remained bizarrely free of the usual meltdowns, overdoses, accidental gunplay, hotel-room thrashings and teary-eyed reunions that generally fuel band bios, and while that’s to their credit as people, it doesn’t necessarily make for gripping drama. Santelli’s prose is pretty workmanlike too, more pragmatic journalism than constantly vibrant nostalgia.
But his book has the best toys. Greetings comes fantastically packaged with reams of random removable ephemera: reproduction River VIP passes, Bruce business cards, tour posters, reprint news clippings, and the like. It’s schticky, sure, but it adds surprisingly interesting life to the trivial comings and goings of a band with as much history as this. The breadth of photographic evidence Santelli has amassed is impressive, too; with access to the vaults of various E Streeters, he’s got everything, including a strong collection from the days when the band was marvelously hirsute.
Fans with higher levels of obsession will be well served by photographer Eric Meola’s gorgeous Born To Run: The Unseen Photos, a man-sized and heretofore unseen collection of outtakes from the one-afternoon session that produced that record’s iconic cover, black and white in both tone and message.
The 88-page, LP-sized book packs in more than 100 images, taken in a single two-hour session in 1975, during that dangling period where Springsteen’s career, future and more or less life hung on the then-risky and obsessively detailed Born To Run. The scotched ideas are loads of fun: street poet-looking Bruce with an half-jokey Elvis pin, Bruce with a pair of ratty gym shoes slung over the neck of his guitar like a train-hopping hobo, Bruce under the shadows of the fire escape outside the studio. The use of color was never in Meola’s plan, and it was, needless to say, a great call: even the lesser images retain a visceral rock-god iconography. That’s stronger in hindsight, sure, but you get a sense in Meola’s pictures and words that he knew what he had on his hands.
Meola writes that Springsteen, even at the make-or-break stage in his career, understood the implicit power of making the cover at least a little bit cheeseball — there’s a thin line, after all, between iconic and kinda goofy. To that end, the outtakes of Bruce and Clarence screwing around and getting comfortable serve as a snapshot in the development of their now-legendary interaction. Springsteen, never one to shy away from putting himself on the cover of his records, understands it’s all just part of the show. Bonus draw: Meola is donating his share of the proceeds to the Community Food Bank of New Jersey, a Springsteen favorite.
Points for access and history, though, go to Springsteen’s twice-biographer Dave Marsh, who wrote the 1979 book Born To Run and its companion, 1987’s Glory Days. Marsh goes back to the well for Bruce Springsteen On Tour: 1968-2005, another coffee-table sized, gorgeously photographed and, you know, pretty well-written piece that focuses on the most important component of the Springsteen machine.
Marsh has, needless to say, had as much access as he needed, and his brightly written history of Springsteen’s days on the Shore in trivia-answer name bands like Child, the Earth Band, and — wait for it — Dr. Zoom and the Sonic Boom serves as a pretty perfect companion piece to the Santelli stuff. Marsh footnotes each page with a running timeline in live Bruce history, too, everything from the first performances of The River to recollections of an incident involving a firecracker, what he calls the only time Bruce lost it on stage, and the date and time he joined a Jamaican band for a reggae version of “Born In The USA.” It’s part biography, part trivia, but rarely less than fascinating, and his compendium of pictures is as impressive as any of those mentioned above.
Marsh wraps things up with 2005’s Devils and Dust tour, a stunning, mostly acoustic trek in which Springsteen, as he’s done on previous acoustic treks, started out playing spare versions of his recent material, and ended up exposing listeners to a stunning re-envisioning of nearly his entire catalog, stuff that, as Marsh points out, hadn’t been played for 30 years, if ever. It’s that sort of wonky, inside-baseball stuff that will be fascinatingly appealing to completists, partially inaccessible to the passing fan. You could spend a lot of coin on Bruce books lately, but you can’t go wrong with any of them.