Bruce Springsteen and the Promise of Rock ‘n’ Roll is Marc Dolan’s massive 2012 bio that takes the reader through an entertainer’s life from first guitar to the present day. Up front, I’ll set my personal perspective. I had a few Boss albums on vinyl in the late 70’s. I didn’t follow him into the 80’s–mainstream rock lost its appeal to me as I turned to other genres for listening and concerts. I’ve never been to a Springsteen concert, but many of my friends have and have raved. I like to pepper my reading with biography now and then. I usually find rock biographies depressing for the waste of artists’ lives in chemicals and other forms of self-indulgence. This book, not so much. But it was a marathon.
Mr Dolan is a very good writer. And the story that traces Bruce Springsteen’s rise from a kid with his first guitar to “Born To Run” is engaging. From 1975 on, we get a detailed, though not totally intimate view of a star trying to develop as an artist and as a person while carrying the burdens of stardom/celebrity and some personal demons. That might be an interesting story to fans, but I found it less inspiring. The second half of the book is a long travelogue of details in a very productive artistic life. Are changes in musicians, set-lists, and composing/recording styles important? They got a lot of attention. Springsteen’s failed first marriage and seemingly sound second one, not as much. More of the man’s direct testimony about his own music? None, except through other sources.
I think I’m interested in personal details less for the voyeurism, and more for how one’s loved ones and friends inform and guide one’s life as an artist. Springsteen is painted with his flaws, but these are skipped over somewhat. Psychotherapy is mentioned as sort of a backstory. The last several years seem to be scanned over more quickly, as if the author isn’t quite keen on the move out of rock and into Woody Guthrie and more traditional American music of the last century.
Maybe the problem is writing what is presented as an “authoritative” (or perhaps “long”) biography of a person who doesn’t seem quite finished with his life. Or maybe the Boss is done, pretty much. Or maybe Mr Dolan harbors some of his own skittishness about being fifty, or being sixty, and coming to terms with mortality and age a bit more deeply than he would like. I can dig it. I’m not reading this biography (or others like it) so I can be informed enough to visit websites and chat about the minute details of a star’s life. I want insight into art, creativity, and the hand of God in all of that. In the end, this book didn’t satisfy that for me.
A fan will love this book, especially if you know the music and the concerts. There are most insights into the man’s life, I’m sure. But these seem better suited to what will come sometime in about thirty to fifty years: a cover-to-cover authoritative biography of Bruce Springsteen. If you’re not a fan, this book will likely lose you. Listen to Bruce’s music first. That tells the story you really need to know.