Bruce Springsteen proved himself to be a natural dramatist with a knack for crafting memorable, fleshed-out characters—none more elaborate than himself. Few artists from the classic rock era take as much care in accurately telling their own story; it’s hard to imagine Bob Dylan or Neil Young refining their memoir into a digestible Broadway show, let alone performing it themselves night after night, as Springsteen is doing right now. Starting in the 1970s, one of his most effective habits in concert set a precedent for this intimate kind of storytelling, when he preceded already-intimate songs like “The River” or “Growin’ Up” with long monologues about his childhood. It was his way of assuring that we didn’t misunderstand him.
Maybe this is why Springsteen has been written about so extensively: We’re all following in the tradition he began. Books on Bruce started arriving before he was a stadium-filling superstar. One of the first, Dave Marsh’s Born to Run: The Bruce Springsteen Story, was published the same year the scruffy songwriter turned 30. Since then, Springsteen’s career has been reviewed, re-assessed, and ranked to sometimes ridiculous degrees. (A sketch by comedy duo Scharpling & Wurster once satirized this long-winded phenomenon with a fictionalized biography entitled Darkness on the River’s Edge in the U.S.A.: From Greetings to the Promise: Bruce Springsteen: The Story Behind the Albums.)
But the best writing on Springsteen remains thrilling. These eight selections manage to find new insights into his career and question assumed narratives in ways that can be enlightening to both the obsessed and the intrigued.
Bruce by Peter Ames Carlin (2012)
On its face, Bruce Springsteen’s life story is fairly straightforward. He was close with his mom and distant from his dad. He got obsessed with music at a young age and set his heart on making a career out of it. Then, he did. The End.
But Bruce has journalist Peter Ames Carlin telling that story with a literary flare—and with the cooperation of the subject himself. Carlin’s biography is revelatory, revealing nuances of Springsteen’s character that had never been addressed before. The perspectives from Bruce’s bandmates are crucial here, particularly in a section discussing the late-’80s dissolution of the E Street Band. Carlin also addresses Springsteen’s depression, a subject kept quiet for much of the star’s career and explored later in his memoir. Told chronologically and offering insight into all of Springsteen’s recorded work, Bruce provides the most complete portrait of the man behind the songs.
Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen (2016)
Springsteen’s wordy and passionate autobiography differentiates from other epics about his life in that it doesn’t merely trace the arc of his records. It’s a more emotional journey, with its own hazy momentum. Across 500 pages, Springsteen focuses on the stories that only he can tell: the complicated relationship with his father that inspired so much of his work, the numerous road trips that established his iconography, the creative and personal struggles he had to keep quiet. Springsteen’s authorial voice is reminiscent of his early songwriting: bursting with ideas and energy, an excitable kid finding his footing in a new world.
The Case Study
Born in the U.S.A. by Geoffrey Himes (2005)
Veteran music writer Geoffrey Himes gets deep inside Springsteen’s head during a crucial time in the singer’s career with his entry in Bloomsbury’s 33 ⅓ series. It kicks off at the tail-end of the River Tour in 1981, as Springsteen was rethinking the basic philosophies that drove his work throughout the ’70s. Himes hypothesizes on the writing of Born in the U.S.A.’s title track—originally a sad, burnt out blues song called “Vietnam”—and the formation of Springsteen’s politics on a grander scale. Chronicling the making of two essential records, 1982’s solo Nebraska and 1984’s labored-over Born in the U.S.A., Himes makes a case for the latter being Bruce’s greatest. Agree or disagree, this well-researched reflection shines new light on the album that made Bruce a worldwide phenomenon and his long road to get there.
Down Thunder Road: The Making of Bruce Springsteen by Marc Eliot (1992)
The title alone suggests that this biography is unlike the others: According to author Marc Eliot, Springsteen, as we know him, is a product. And this is the story of how the industry made him, focusing on Springsteen’s years with his early manager Mike Appel, who cooperated with the writing of the book. Poking holes in the idea of Bruce as the ultimate pillar of integrity, Down Thunder Road is best known for the inclusion of court transcripts, particularly of Springsteen’s long legal battle with Appel over the rights to his songs. For casual fans, this book may not make for the most gripping read—and devotees might find it downright petty—but it’s a side of Bruce’s story you won’t find anywhere else.
The Band Member Memoir
Big Man: Real Life and Tall Tales by Clarence Clemons and Don Reo (2009)
The only memoir on the market by an E Street Band member is an odd collaborative saga from late saxophonist Clarence “Big Man” Clemons and, for whatever reason, veteran TV writer-producer Don Reo, who’s partly responsible for shows including “Two and a Half Men” and “Blossom.” But even when Reo threatens to steal the show with frustrating tangents and asides about his own career, Clarence’s life story shines through. Anyone who’s heard the legend of the dark, stormy night when he and Bruce first met will be pleased to find it immortalized in print, along with the similarly mythological tale of the recording of the sax solo in “Jungleland.”
The Fan’s Story
Raise Your Hand: Adventures of an American Springsteen Fan in Europe by Caryn Rose (2012)
To be a Springsteen fan is to be obsessive, tireless, and—in the years when he’s on tour—penniless. Pitchfork contributor Caryn Rose captures the beauty and insanity of this community in her travelogue, written from the European leg of 2012’s Wrecking Ball tour. In a pivotal scene, she watches as the power is shut down at Hyde Park, when the show goes long during a surprise performance with Paul McCartney, tracking both the band’s shock and the audience’s fury. At the end of the book, Rose breaks down the differences between American fans and European ones, analyzing age and gender as well as enthusiasm and etiquette. She suggests that overseas fans have a more positive and inclusive community, but she makes it clear that the passion for Bruce knows no boundaries.
Talk About a Dream: The Essential Interviews of Bruce Springsteen by Christopher Phillips and Louis P. Masur (2013)
Bruce Springsteen has a long, loving history with the press. The origin story for his career, after all, involves appearing on the cover of both Time and Newsweek simultaneously in the fall of 1975. And lest we forget, he picked rock journalist Jon Landau to be his manager and most trusted collaborator. This essential tome collects Bruce’s most notable interviews, dating back to an early chat with The Asbury Park Evening Press and ending with a 2013 Grammys interview about his philanthropy. For anyone interested in his music, Talk About a Dream offers a goldmine of information, with a particularly revelatory selection on his otherwise underwritten “wilderness years” in the ’90s. It showcases an artist who thinks carefully about his work and discusses it with a critic’s attention to detail.
The Photo Book
Bruce Springsteen on Tour: 1968-2005 by Dave Marsh (2006)
For a guy who’s made his name putting the music first, Springsteen sure does love a good picture of his face. And who can blame him! That mug—rugged and stern, with a confident underbite—has not only graced pretty much every one of his album covers, but it’s also served as the subject of numerous photo books. The most acclaimed are Frank Stefanko’s, featuring outtakes from his iconic cover shoots for Darkness on the Edge of Town and The River. The most fascinating, however, is this one from Springsteen biographer Dave Marsh. The book includes reflections, photographs, and memorabilia from all eras of Springsteen’s career, including early press shots of his local Jersey groups. The story told through these pictures—from the teenage dreamer with a Beatles haircut to the soul-patched, middle-aged icon—is as comprehensive as any.
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