May 22nd, 2007
Before having read Runaway American Dream, I didn’t care all that much for Bruce Springsteen’s music. Now that I’ve finished it, I can’t say that the situation has changed. However, when the final page was turned, I was tempted to download some Springsteen songs from the ‘net. But it was late at night and lethargy got the better of me. Still, Guterman’s book was an engaging read from cover to cover despite my lack of interest in the subject and I would recommend it to fans of rock music regardless of their feelings towards The Boss.
Guterman managed this feat by mostly ignoring biographical concerns and concentrating on the songs about which he is so passionate. He lovingly describes the music that he holds dear and he does so in a mostly even-handed way. While certain paragraphs may linger too long on drummer Max Weinberg’s snare, the text never crosses into hagiography. When Springsteen produces a clunker, Guterman is forthright about the song’s shortcomings. It is obvious that he has attended many a concert by The Boss over the years and listened to every one of his albums more times than is probably safe. In addition, bootlegs have proved an invaluable resource as he refers to both concert recordings as well as those which contain studio outtakes and demos. Being a collector of bootlegs myself, I found his references to performances not legitimately available to be of particular interest.
The book is divided into seven chapters which are expanded versions of essays he had written previously. First Guterman introduces us to Springsteen in October 2004 at a stop on the Vote for Change tour in support of the Democratic ticket for that year’s presidential election. Despite other big names on the bill such as REM and Tom Petty, Springsteen is the big draw with everyone else standing in his shadow. The meat of the book starts in chapter two in which the analysis of The Boss’ music begins. For better or for worse, his first two albums, Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. and The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle, are pored over here while Springsteen’s early days prior to landing a recording contract are ignored. Subsequent chapters cover roughly a couple albums apiece up to early 2005 with the book having gone to press just before the release of Devils & Dust.
Guterman gives great nuance to Springsteen’s music as he compares various takes of songs as they evolved during the recording process into the versions that were released. He also contrasts studio versions to live renditions and tracks how Springsteen rearranged songs for audiences over the years. Guterman makes a good case that Springsteen is at his best when he is with the E Street Band. It’s not an argument of mathematical precision, but he does as good a job as can be done of translating the ineffable into words. Unfortunately, he never tries to explain why Springsteen became the massively popular figure we see him as in the first chapter. He is just somehow beset with fame. What impelled millions of fans to buy Born in the U.S.A. to make it a platinum album fifteen times over here in America? A well-placed rap on the snare drum or a particularly melodic guitar solo can only explain so much. Early in the third chapter Guterman posits that Springsteen and the E Street Band became the greatest American rock group in history. Again, he never really is able to get across just why he feels that way other than by essentially saying he loves their music. His love is proven over and over with his encyclopedic knowledge of Springsteen’s music and the adoration he pours into his descriptions of the songs, but neither his boast nor Springsteen’s immense popularity is given an explanation.
Another major flaw is the short shrift given to Springsteen’s post-Born in the U.S.A. output, especially The Ghost of Tom Joad and The Rising. For me, this is when Springsteen gets interesting and I was disappointed that these later albums don’t get the same in-depth treatment as the earlier ones. Besides the issue of personal preference, this also marks the loss of a great opportunity to fully explore the tension between Springsteen as rock star and as working class hero. After spending so much time talking about how genuine the music is and giving the reader a sense of Springsteen’s music moving from the strictly personal more towards the political, he drops that line of thought for the later albums. It seems to me that the contradiction of a rich rock star singing about those less fortunate than him is at least part of the story when explaining the great stature Springsteen is accorded.
While my musical affections may lie elsewhere, I felt a certain kinship with Guterman as I read his book. Its strength is the sheer joy of reading a well-written account of one fan’s love for music. The adoration drips off the page and is absolutely contagious. Everyone who is really, really into a particular musical artist or group wants to write a book like this where he or she can dissect the object of his or her love and proclaim it to the world. The book was written by one fan for all others. While I wholeheartedly endorse Guterman’s well-rounded approach to analyzing the songs, one side effect is that he yanks them from any context thereby avoiding the process of teasing a larger picture from the snapshots on the ground. Despite the book’s flaws, it was an enormously fun read. Arguing about whose favorite band is better as if your life depended on it is perhaps a puerile pursuit dismissed with De gustibus non est disputandum, but for music fanatics, it is lifeblood. Additionally Guterman made me want to delve into Springsteen’s back catalogue to see what I was missing. And that is perhaps the highest praise of all.
Guterman kept a blog during the time he was out promoting the book. You can find corrections and more of his thoughts there.