What are the odds? For the second time in three years, the most notable new book of the year about Bruce Springsteen comes from a writer who lives all the way on the opposite side of the country from New Jersey, in Portland, Ore.
In 2012, it was Bruce, by Peter Ames Carlin, a definitive biography written with the cooperation of the Boss himself. And this year, it’s Springsteen: Album by Album, written by Carlin’s former colleague at the Portland-based newspaper The Oregonian, Ryan White (Carlin contributes the book’s Introduction).
They’re different kinds of book. Bruce was an essential purchase for Springsteen fans, as it delved more deeply into the story of Springsteen’s life than any biography had done before. Springsteen: Album by Album (Sterling, hardcover, 288 pp., $27.95) does not have the same kind of original research, but it’s still something any Springsteen fan would enjoy. It’s a handsome coffeetable book, telling the story through photos, but also with more text than a lot of coffeetable books have. And like Carlin’s book, it’s well written, even-handed and obsessively detailed. It sums everything up, like Bruce does, but in a different way.
The title is a bit misleading. Yes, the book examines Springsteen’s albums chronologically, as promised. But it also covers his pre-album years, touches on his personal life and his charitable efforts, and has tributes to the late E Street Band members Clarence Clemons and Danny Federici. And it spends a lot of time on (and, obviously, devotes a lot of photo space to) the evolution of Springsteen as arguably the most important rock concert artist of his generation.
As Springsteen himself said, in a 1974 quote that White includes in his chapter on The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle, “In performance things crystallize that do not on an album. I think, to know what I’m trying to do, what the band is, you have to see it.”
White had a mountain of material to draw from — decades of interviews and photos — but picks and chooses well, weaving everything together into a cohesive narrative. He’s got a long, long career to summarize, so he’s got to describe things quickly and clearly, and he does so. Look at the way, for instance, that he introduces the Wrecking Ball album:
“Wrecking Ball is about loss. The characters have lost homes, jobs, and pensions. Gone is a basic sense of fairness and decency, the bedrock of the American core Springsteen had been mining since the 1970s. As with The Rising and Magic, it was as if the moment demanded Springsteen. The time for lushly arranged pop songs about love was over.”
Or look at the way White ties everything up at the end of the book, writing that Springsteen has accomplished so much because he was able “[t]o believe the work mattered — more than anything in the world. And believe that because it mattered so much to him, it would matter to his fans — that by wrestling with the issues in his life, he could help others wrestle with theirs. ‘Fundamentally, we’re repairmen,’ he told E Street Radio. ‘Everybody’s broken somewhere. You can’t get through life without it.’ The job we ask of our artists is to rummage through the parts and see if they can make something useful for us all.”