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Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The Promise of Springsteen?

New biography tries to write the Boss's history

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Marc Dolan is a professor of English and American Studies and, as with so many who are writing about their rock music heroes these days, is a long-time fan who knows nothing about music. His Springsteen and the Promise Of Rock 'n' Roll (Norton) is the effort by a learned fan to reach the essence of its subject's artistic importance by quasi-analyzing Springsteen songs and albums and their intent relative to family, religion, American politics and history through the personal lens of the author. In other words, the songs and albums as art objects are not being appropriately discussed nor are the artists who create them.

There are inappropriate history lessons in this 512-page text from Rodney King through Barack Obama. According to Dolan, the president "actually thought like a rock star, and the rock star he most frequently sounded like was Bruce Springsteen." The connection to the King event is as awkward. The author consistently attempts to place Bruce Springsteen in a wide historical doorway, and it is not the one into "Candy's Room."

At Dolan's best, we are hearing from a highly intelligent fan, originally from New Jersey, loving Bruce Springsteen.  This does not qualify him to write about music. But it does culturally locate many tantalizing insights—as long as the author doesn't bog down in national events quite beyond the unique artistic endeavor that made Springsteen a vital artist. Dolan's prose style is praiseworthy. It is precise and elegant. But his adoration for the subject often gets in the way of meritorious critical thought. Likewise, his vast assemblage of facts is impressive, but the meticulous research bears little if any resemblance to music criticism.

Referring to "Dancing in the Dark," Dolan assures us that "around the time he recorded this track, the singer finally purchased his first home in New Jersey: a huge spread ... The narrator is tired of staying indoors and being serious. He wants to head out with his partner and have some Fun."  Capitalizing "fun" is inane, and the signature trait of speculative fandom. How can there be an inventive, analytical connection between buying a home, a real big one, and then being bored with it according to the lyrical content of the song? This is not music criticism.

Part academic out of his area of expertise and part fan extraordinaire, the author makes things up that may or may not be in the narration of "Dancing In The Dark." As with so many writers publishing baby boomer-era rocker biographies, he fantasizes by projection and deploying quotation and somehow arriving at an interpretative sum. We have equal portion fact and adoration and a result that muddles both.

Referring to Born in the USA, the album that launched "Dancing In The Dark," Dolan inserts that "...clearly the last two, three, five seven, even nine years had worn the singer-songwriter down" and that, therefore, he wanted to be a star to get above it all and "he was all in, ready to do whatever it took to kick him up to the next level." The math regarding years spent is bizarre and unrelated to any qualified way to interpret an album's content, and, in reference to the song, we find that it is "unapologetically" narrated. Where do reputable publishers find these guys?

The book is about Springsteen but also suggests that it will unveil what rock 'n' roll music promised. It is obvious that it promised a lot to Marc Dolan. Besides that, we do not get much, except that Springsteen did not disappoint.

One needs to re-read Dave Marsh's brilliant Springsteen biographical studies. Way ahead of his time in terms of establishing a pedagogically intact approach, Marsh is being eclipsed by brilliant stalkers such as Dolan, whose obvious intelligence, quality writing and authentic appreciation of the subject are driven not by scholarship but by participation lust.