Saturday 24 March 2018

Review: Music: Bruce Springsteen and the Promise of Rock ‘n’ Roll by Marc Dolan

Norton, €23.75, hbk, 528 pages
Available with free P&P on or by calling 091 709350

Slane Castle in 1985 was the first time Bruce Springsteen played to 100,000 people. In 1999 he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame by Bono. When he toured The Seeger Sessions album he chose The Point Depot in Dublin as the venue for the live DVD.

Clearly he has a special connection with Ireland, as we saw again this week at his concerts in the RDS. And fans still on a high after the music who want to delve deep into his life's work will find much to study in this book.

Springsteen is probably the distillation of all that is best about American music rolled into one great artist, and in this book Marc Dolan goes into immense detail to prove it.

Dolan is a professor of English at City University New York and it shows. This is not a showbiz biography but a serious book which analyses Springsteen entirely through his work.

The book opens with a short history of rock rather than an overview of Springsteen's life. We skip quickly through his family and childhood, moving on instead to Springsteen's greater music family, that of the bands playing the Jersey shore area.

The detail that Dolan has gathered about early rehearsals and bar gigs with his early garage and pub bands is astonishing. He maps out who played what instrument in which band and at what gig.

In the early chapters of the book, Springsteen is one of a number of characters (including Steve Van Zandt) playing the Asbury Park music scene and in particular the now infamous 'Upstage Club' where Springsteen and his contemporaries convened late after their paying gigs to jam together late into the night.

If ever a 'music scene' existed then this sounds like the kind every musician dreams of. Springsteen went on to draw from this pool of talent for his various studio and live bands.

From the earliest demos and live recordings, even down to studying old set lists, Dolan has deciphered the evolution of Springsteen's music and lyrics and all the possible influences that might have shaped it.

While Dolan barely covers the break-up of the marriage to actress Julianne Philips, he does provide great analysis of the songs it gave rise to on the Tunnel of Love album such as 'Brilliant Disguise'.

He describes Springsteen's unusual route to Columbia Records (CBS) via a complicated deal with the production company 'Pocket Full of Tunes' and the subsequent lawsuit with his possessive manager Mike Appel (who once wrote songs for The Partridge Family!).

But every story centres on Springsteen's musical life. Album by album, tour by tour, this is the pattern throughout the book.

The painstaking months it took to finish the Born To Run album make for great reading. Springsteen recorded the title track long before the album itself, but due to waning support from his record label they wouldn't release it until he had the album finished.

In the interim, his manager, Mike Appel, released cassettes of the song to radio stations and accidentally created a massive teaser campaign. Listeners loved the song, fans coming to the concerts knew the song, but ironically no one could buy it.

Halfway through recording the album Springsteen brought a rock journalist friend of his, Jon Landau, into the studio to help him finish the record. But Springsteen just couldn't sign off on the album doing mix after endless remix. It was Landau who convinced Springsteen that the album was complete.

When the album was finally released it sold more copies than his previous two albums combined, changing Springsteen's status from artist to superstar.

In 1982, after giving the E Street Band six months off, Springsteen got them into the studio to jam the new songs he had been working on. One of them, a song called 'Vietnam', was transformed by the band into the track we now know as 'Born In The USA'.

Others, the ones he had worked hardest on, didn't sound so great with the band. So, Springsteen compiled the acoustic demos into a collection and with a couple of new recordings thrown in called it Nebraska and released it as a solo album, selling over a million copies without even a promotional tour.

Then he went back to finish the band album. In 1983, when it was nearing completion, his manager/ producer Landau suggested that the album needed a big hit single. So Bruce went off and wrote 'Dancing In The Dark'.

Within a month of its release, Born In The USA went platinum. It gave rise to seven hit singles and a two-year tour playing to over a million and a half people. Inspiring stuff indeed.

Paul Byrne is the drummer with In Tua Nua who play Electric Picnic this year

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