No musician this side of Bob Dylan has been mythologized more than Bruce Springsteen. Depending on who you talk to, he is a modern-day Woody Guthrie, a spiritual descendant of John Steinbeck or a would-be intellectual who reads William Carlos Williams on the tour bus. The trick, for those who consider ourselves fans, is sorting the truth from the spin.
One of the more intriguing stories about Springsteen involves his relationship with Walker Percy. Not long before he died, Percy wrote Springsteen a fan letter. Springsteen never responded, but their pseudo-relationship has become legendary, fueling speculation about Springsteen’s religious sensibility. Springsteen was raised Catholic and reportedly drew on Flannery O’Connor while writing the songs on Nebraska. His last album, The Rising, features some overtly religious symbolism. (See The Rising of Bruce Springsteen, by Patrick Kelly, Am. 2/10.) As is often the case with Springsteen, it is hard to know what to make of all of this. Does he really have a religious vision? Or are these just shards of a long-since-rejected faith?
Who better to answer these questions than Robert Coles? Coles knew Percy well and is now close friends with Springsteen. When Coles’s magazine, DoubleTake, was in trouble, Springsteen played the fundraiser to help pay the bills. A former columnist for America, Coles is no stranger to questions of faith. And he has the kind of access to Springsteen that journalists dream of. Coming upon this book, I was genuinely excited; I couldn’t imagine a better biographer. Sad to say, the book fails to provide any real insight into Springsteen’s faith or, for that matter, his art in general. Instead, Coles trots out the same old clichés.
The book begins well. Coles is famous for his use of long quotations, and he does not disappoint here, providing chunks of Percy on Springsteen. I listen to him singing, and I think...Hey, this guy has got it! Percy tells Coles. What Kierkegaard called everydayness’ this singing American knows in his bones: how we get lost in our thoughts, lose sight of one another courtesy of the distractions that come upon us so constantly in what gets described as an affluent’ societybut also, how we find ourselves, through finding one another.
Unfortunately, Coles does not spend much time analyzing these passages. Instead, we get more quotes, from figures like Erik H. Erikson, William Carlos Williams and J. Skelly Wright, the federal judge who ordered school desegregation in New Orleans. These are familiar figures to anyone who has read Coles before; and, at times, this book has a greatest-hits feel to it. Springsteen, it seems, is just along for the ride.
Part of the problem is that this is not a standard biography. The bulk of the book is devoted to transcribed interviews with Springsteen fans: a lawyer on Saint in the City, a police officer’s take on American Skin and so on. Coles purposely chose casual Springsteen fans, not fanatics. He should be commended for his egalitarianism - why should jaded music critics have the last word on Springsteen - but the final product is not particularly insightful. Those interviewed just are not very eloquent, and Coles allows them to go on for pages on end. Judging by the rambling asides, these interviews were barely edited. Most of the subjects are very earnest, and their thoughts on Springsteen tend to be quite trite. I hear Springsteen singing that song, and for a while I’m ready to go salute that flag! one woman writes about Born in the USA. It’s like listening to the national anthem. Please!
Coles’s analysis is not much better. Springsteen, in his reading, is the latest in a line of poets from New Jersey, a descendant of Walt Whitman and William Carlos Williams. He is an old-fashioned troubadour, traveling the country dispensing moral advice. A poet, performer, music maker who has come to the people as their gratefully embraced spokespersontheir morally introspective teacher, whose writing mind, singing voice, traveling appearances prompt people to stop and think about the lives they are living in contemporary America.
This is not the Bruce Springsteen I know. Yes, it is true that sometime around 1977 he started writing about important subjects like race and poverty and that some of his albums, especially Nebraska, are as poignant and moving as a good novel. But that is just part of the story. The man who wrote My Hometown also wrote Dancing in the Dark. Coles’s problem - he is not alone here - is that he takes Springsteen too seriously. This is, after all, the same man who once wrote, "Madman drummers bummers and Indians in the summer with a teenage diplomat/ In the dumps with the mumps as the adolescent pumps his way into his hat."
Springsteen is not a poet or a saint. He is, first of all, a man interested in words, the images they conjure and how they sound set to music. His songs are not always profound, and it is silly to pretend that they are. Mostly, they just sound good, and sometimes they make you want to get up and dance. And most of the time, that’s enough.