Book Talk: Man at the Top: Bruce Springsteen

To usher in the high presidential campaign season — “high” in the aggravating, not the mind-altering sense — here are three vignettes from John Jay professor Marc Dolan’s savvy and probing biography, Bruce Springsteen and the Promise of Rock ’n’ Roll (Norton).

Still "The Boss": Springsteen performs during 2012 "Wrecking Ball Tour."

When Springsteen introduced “Man at the Top” from the stage in the midst of the 1984 campaign, he called it “a song for an election year” and mentioned “a movie-star and an astronaut” (obviously Ronald Reagan and John Glenn). The song’s reference to “a big white house” and to the man being “lonely up there” would seem to cinch the connection, but Dolan suggests that behind Springsteen’s political jokes were his own “doubts about impending mega-stardom.” The top man in the song dreams of having a record “in number-one spot.”

Part of Springsteen’s star power then was due to the long mid-’80s tenure of his “Born in the USA” album on the Billboard chart, which the Republicans cheekily tried to co-opt for their own propaganda. Dolan tells the hilarious tale of right-wing columnist George Will — sporting, one assumes, the first bow tie ever at a concert by “The Boss” — taking in a performance and pronouncing him a “wholesome cultural portent.”

Flash forward to a New Orleans gig eight months after Katrina, where Springsteen introduced a song in honor of the city, “How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live,” based on an old Depression lyric. After venting from the stage about “political cronyism” that weakens government agencies, Springsteen dedicated the song to “President Bystander.”

Dolan runs his story up through 2009, which allows him to discuss Barack Obama’s victory. He quotes Hillary Rodham Clinton saying in a primary-season debate with him, “Words are not action.” Obama responded, “No. The truth is, actually words do inspire. Words do help people get involved.” Then Dolan asks, “Was there ever a presidential candidate who fit better with Bruce Springsteen’s worldview?” He also quotes Obama’s backstage joke to Michelle at a fund-raiser: “The reason I’m running for President is because I can’t be Bruce Springsteen.”

This is a thinking fan’s biography, and yet you never get the queasy feeling this fan knows too much. This is not just one more eruption of what Dolan calls “Brucemania.” He does not waste space on illustrations; there are just four, one at the beginning of each section, plus a helpful map of “Bruce Springsteen’s New Jersey.”

Though Dolan teaches English, he rarely parses Springsteen’s flowers of rhetoric or even quotes more than a long phrase or two. There is not a single block quote of a lyric in the whole book, though Dolan quotes often and revealingly from Springsteen’s stage-gab introducing his songs. Professorial touches are few, as for instance when Springsteen’s 1970s advice to “go with the flow” is likened to Keats’s famous “negative capability.”

Even prominent members of Springsteen’s dramatis personae — saxophonist Clarence Clemons, guitarist Steven Van Zandt, producer and factotum Jon Landau, vocalist (and eventual wife) Patti Scialfa, and their three children — are edged off mostly into the wings for the main event of this biography, which is simply to follow the growth and manipulation of Springsteen’s setlists, the changing performances of any given song over time, the ways his 16 or so albums have been conceived and produced, and all the tours, videos and hoopla they spawned.

This book is not for Springsteen virgins (like me). Ideally, the reader’s own mental soundtrack will roll as Dolan breaks down the setlists and offers his authoritative-sounding two cents’ worth. When he gets to the last album he covers, “Working on a Dream,” he calls its title song “probably its weakest song and almost certainly the weakest title song of any Springsteen album.” But such spoutings are part of the joy and freedom of decades-long fandom, and one gets the feeling Dolan will not mind if other fans beg to differ.

We also learn what every Brucemaniac may already know: that the famed E Street Band was named for a street where the musicians often had to wait for tardy keyboardist Dave Sancious, that Springsteen is a “lifelong perfectionist” and a stubborn controller (hence “The Boss”), that his first scheduled TV appearance was in May 1992 on “SNL.” This was at the time of the L.A. riots, and Springsteen’s second song was the subversive “57 Channels (And Nothin’ On).”

Not so well known is that Springsteen’s Oscar-worthy “Streets of Philadelphia” for the 1993 AIDS film by Jonathan Demme was inspired by the non-AIDS-related death from cancer of the daughter of one of his co-managers.

Dolan covers the full Shakespearean arc of Springsteen’s long career, from his Romeo years of youthful estrangement and “never-ending argument with his father” to the not-quite-Lear-like 48-year-old who got a kind of “lifetime achievement” award in 1997 from the Swedish government and then started loosening up on stage. At one 2006 concert he and his “outlandish” band closed with a version of the chestnutty “Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze,” previously recorded by Eddie Cantor and Pete Seeger. Dolan, as usual sees a self-referential angle: Springsteen was sending a message that “in addition to politics, this tour was about making danger look graceful, about doing something difficult as if it was just being tossed off. Nothing to it!”

The last concert Dolan covers was a tour-ending Buffalo gig with a reunited E Street Band in November 2009 (Springsteen had shut it down in the mid-’80s). It would be a one-time-only complete performance of the very first album of 1973, “Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J.”

“Some fans expected a requiem,” Dolan writes, and the effect did seem like a coming full circle. But the evening ended on a happy note. It was Van Zandt’s 59th birthday, and a huge cake was rolled out. Four years earlier Springsteen had refused a request to add “Happy Birthday” to the setlist, saying, “This ain’t a Jimmy Buffett show.” But this time a jocund Bruce led a rendition of the song.

Is the book’s mellow final curtain a hint that Springsteen may have further reinvention in store, as Shakespeare did with his final romances? Dolan is hopeful. In his last paragraph he looks to the past for a prologue: “That’s what you get paid for,” he’s told his audiences: “TO BE HERE NOW!”

Dolan sums up that being “consistently and vitally present” explains his longevity. He recalls the boast Springsteen made at age 26 — that he “had got this guitar/ And learned how to make it talk” — and suggests “The Boss” will not be at a loss for words any time soon.

By Gary Schmidgall

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