At Last, a Sober and Punk Rendering of Bruce Springsteen's Life and Work
Boss is a solid book because the firm, understated power of Gillian Gaar’s gutter feminist voice cuts through all that glitters around Springsteen.
Boss: Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band - The Illustrated HistoryPublisher: Voyageur
Length: 208 pages
Author: Gillian G. Gaar
Publication date: 2016-07
There are a bunch of things in Gillian G. Gaar’s Boss worthwhile to complain about. For starters, the photographs are improperly tracked; they don’t coincide with the content of the text until almost a fourth of the way through the book. As far as visuals, it’s like The Castiles never existed, because the collection doesn’t include much of anything before 1974. Hilariously, Gaar even discusses the early publicity shots of Springsteen’s first band and then none of those shots are actually presented.
There are two types of inserts sprinkled throughout the book: Gaar’s review of each album and some highlights of anecdotal behind-the-scenes stuff. The reviews are arguably comprehensive, because there's definitely one sentence about every single song on each album. In this effort at breadth, Gaar sacrifices depth to a large extent. Moreover, she's primarily concerned to read the albums as literature, usually summarizing the plot of each song or analyzing its symbolism in place of dissecting the composition or giving analytic descriptions of Springsteen’s voice. The second set of inserts is often interesting, however, because Gaar chooses to focus on things like why The Bottom Line was such a respected place to perform, and other acts for whom Springsteen opened or with whom he guested. There’s also a little bit on the two wives, and a little bit on other members of the band.
For the main text, which is the real reason to buy this book, Gaar is often working at the margins slightly outside of traditional biographical territory. A lot of diehard Springsteen fans might complain about this because Boss basically doesn't reveal anything beyond what we all already know. The author sometimes leans on Dave Marsh’s 1979 effort, Born to Run and sometimes on Peter Ames Carlin’s 2013 effort, Bruce. The complete bibliography is highly respectable, but there's zero original research.
Normally, these things would relegate a book to the realm of the coffee table, but there's something bigger going on here. I think the truth is that Gaar respects Springsteen a great deal, but she's not possessed of the type of deep, lifelong obsession badge that most of his biographers are proud to display.
I cannot emphasize strongly enough: this is not only not a criticism of Boss, but in fact, it’s best asset. Gaar’s bona fides come from the land of punk rock. She’s written liner notes for Heart and Laurie Anderson. Her first book was She’s a Rebel: The History of Women in Rock and Roll, which is still the definitive tome on the subject despite its 1992 publication date. She lives in Seattle and contributes a lot to the knowledge base on Nirvana. Boss is a solid book because the firm, understated power of Gaar’s gutter feminist voice cuts through all that glitters around Springsteen.
The thing that regularly bothers me in reading up on the Boss is the near uncontrollable pathos with which critics lob their loftiest adjectives at him. Beyond the hyperbolic praise many of his albums garner in reviews, the biographical material available displays a narrative tone so romantic and overwrought that the facts are often glossed by thick layers of apologist psychoanalysis over any mistakes Springsteen might ever have made. The whole enterprise smacks of Don Quixote.
Don’t get me wrong, I think Springsteen is terrific musician and human being, but my stance is akin to Gaar’s in that there's something in the mythologizing characteristics of so much prose written about him that just rubs me the wrong way. Lester Bangs once wrote for Creem, “If I seem to OD on superlatives, it’s only because Born to Run demands them.” Gaar’s clean, cold statements are bracingly effective by comparison.
Let’s examine some of her diction choices. The text is full of streamlined and slightly distanced uses of language more in line with proper journalism that most journalists usually keep to in analyzing Springsteen. When he gives up on his first pretty successful band, Gaar states, “He didn’t want to rejigger Steel Mill; it was simpler to break it up and start over again” (27). Other biographers have devoted very many pages to speculating on the agony of Springsteen’s decision, apologizing for his ambitious abandonment of the other band members. This book simply outlines the two options and confirms that the decision made was easy.
Or there’s this little gem: “There was an awkward start to the first show, when Springsteen forgot the words to the opening song, ‘Born to Run,’ but the audience surprised him by singing the words themselves” (77). There's no excuse made for why the Boss forgot the lyrics, no contextualizing information about how that show may have been a particular struggle in distracting ways, and there’s a straightforward acknowledgement that this was awkward.
Gaar’s syntax and use of punctuation are also something special. She hides her admiration in parentheticals, undermines or makes jokes in sidebars, and uses dependent clauses to great effect. “(In 2000, the compilation Badlands: A Tribute to Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska testified to how highly regarded the album came to be; the album was a straight recreation of Nebraska, with contributions from such artists as Chrissie Hynde, Los Lobos, Ani DiFranco, and Hank Williams III, among others)” (83). Of all the things to praise Nebraska over, this is such an obscure, odd one to pick. It’s a covers album filled with indy, outlaw musicians, showing plainly where Gaar’s sympathies lie.
In the Darkness of the Edge of Town insert: “Side note: race car driver Ritchie Schultz later informed Springsteen of an error in his lyric: Fuelie heads wouldn’t fit on a 1969 Chevy 396, as he sings in the opening line” of “Racing in the Street” (71). What a terrifically irrelevant detail in a review; what a completely unanswerable jab in the ribs of a man who is selling the image of himself as a working class person intimately familiar with cars. “The Max’s show also generated an item in Rolling Stone, but not because of the music; Hammond suffered a heart attack while at one of the shows, and his doctor charitably attributed it to ‘Hammond’s enthusiasm’ for Springsteen’s’ onstage antics” (39).
First there’s the valuable historical fact of the national news item, then there’s the defiance of expectation about that item, then the real news tidbit, and finally the real skinny shot through with opinion in the use of “charitably” and “antics”. As an exercise in form, Gaar is succeeding at something totally different and often better than what many other biographers could accomplish in two or three times as many pages.
Beyond formal elements, the focus of her content is similarly shifting readers away from the usual aggregation of facts to something a little more progressive. She reminds readers more than once that Patti Smith rewrote many of the lyrics to “Because the Night” after Springsteen gave her the unfinished song; Gaar gives ownership of the song’s success primarily to Smith. She also introduces Patty Scialfa into the text at several points before even so much as hinting at her future marriage to Springsteen, emphasizing instead that Scialfa is a talented musician herself, with perhaps more punk credibility than her husband: “There would also be a female vocalist in the lineup: Patti Scialfa. […] ‘We would only play on the streets,’ she later said of Trickster. ‘People would invite us to play clubs, but we thought playing clubs was selling out!’” (88).
Gaar doesn’t spend any time on the dramatic antics of celebrities’ personal lives. The entire opening paragraph on the Julianne Phillips insert reads, “Springsteen’s relationship with Julianna Phillips started out as a white-hot romance. They married just over six months after they met. But by their third wedding anniversary the marriage had fallen apart” (94).
The characterization of Springsteen himself proceeds with reverence not by overloading the pages with purple, but simply by cherry-picking the stories about him that the author herself most reveres in consideration of anyone’s character. She focuses on anecdotes about Springsteen’s rebellious nature, what his guest appearances say about his influences, and the steady escalation of his political involvement. This is my favorite paragraph in the entire book:
At a few shows, Springsteen surprised the audience by returning to play a couple more songs once the house lights had come up and people were beginning to leave. As early as September he began playing ‘Santa Clause is Comin’ to Town’ -- just because he felt like it. But he was also happy to show he wore his fame lightly; while in L.A. over the Fourth of July holiday, he and some members of the band climbed up and defaced a billboard on the Sunset Strip promoting Darkness, spraying ‘Prove It All Night’ (one of the songs on Darkness) in block letters along the bottom (73).
These three stories are all fairly common knowledge, but they're often sprinkled in to show Springsteen’s silly side. I’ve never seen them stacked together like this, where the total effect amounts to rebelliousness more than just prankishness. Gaar is working on an approach to Springsteen that the crusty dudes of rock criticism will not comprehend; she knows it and wants her readers to know it.
I laughed out loud when she played Captain Obvious against what is unquestionably the most famous quote about the Boss. On Jon Landau’s crucially important May 1974, declaration of love in White Paper, she writes, “the piece ultimately became best known for this pronouncement: ‘I saw rock and roll future and its name is Bruce Springsteen. […] (The somewhat awkward phrasing of the sentence meant it was also destined to be misquoted over the years, as ‘I saw rock and roll’s future’ or ‘I saw the future of rock and roll,’ among other variations)” (49).
Again, there’s that clear cut acknowledgement of what is “awkward”. You pay undying respect to Landau; you don’t call him out for ugly syntax. Unless you’re Gillian G. Gaar -- and more power to her. The several best-selling books about Springsteen that have received universal acclaim would not dare engage in a moment like this, either in fact or in sentiment. With Springsteen finally launching his own memoir at the end of September, Boss is likely the most sober and most punk rendering of the man’s life and work that we’ll be seeing for a long while.