Alumni Book Review

Rob Kirkpatrick
The Words and Music of Bruce Springsteen
Praeger Publishers, 2006

Reviewed by Richard E. Miller and Martha Nell Smith

“Meet Me in Atlantic City” was the subject heading of Martha’s email in November 2005, letting me know she had extra tickets to see Bruce Springsteen’s solo concert in Atlantic City. A few hours after receiving this email, I was hurtling down the Garden State Parkway for what turned out to be the best live rock performance I had ever heard. My favorite memory of the night was when Springsteen broke into “Thundercrack” and Martha opened her cell, placed a call, and held the phone up high. You had to be there and, well, if you couldn’t, telephony was the next best thing.

Anyone who has reveled in rolling down the windows to let wind blow back their hair, or in the late twentieth century delights of New Jersey boardwalk culture, will enjoy The Words and Music of Bruce Springsteen by Rob Kirkpatrick (BA 1990). Kirkpatrick, a senior editor at Thomas Dunne Books, is the most recent Rutgers English alumni to write on the hometown bard and the only one to devote an entire book to the subject of Asbury Park’s favorite son. The Words and Music of Bruce Springsteen is part of a singer-songwriter book series on musicians who have produced commercially successful and historically important music at some point in their careers. Each volume is organized chronologically, which proves most fitting for this overview of Springsteen’s evolutions as a songwriter who crooned in bars and at dances on the Jersey shore in the late 1960s to the rock star who packs arenas from the Meadowlands to Oslo today—a larger-than-life figure rumored to perform at the halftime show at next year’s Super Bowl.

The strength of The Words and Music of Bruce Springsteen resides both in its contextualizations—gossipy anecdotes and fun facts that inform the circumstances of Springsteen’s writing—and in its syntheses of three decades of rock and roll criticism, which draws on insights such as Jon Landau’s perhaps overly-famous but prescient May 1974 conclusion that, “at the Harvard Square theatre, I saw my rock’n’ roll past flash before my eyes. And I saw something else: I saw rock and roll future and its name is Bruce Springsteen.” Kirkpatrick reminds us that those words were written after seeing the Boss warm up for Bonnie Raitt. Other fun facts that are highlighted are quips from early interviews about Elvis Presley’s influence (“Man, when I was nine, I couldn’t imagine anyone not wanting to be Elvis Presley”) and about the impact of rock and roll during his adolescence (“I was dead until I was thirteen” and caught the rock and roll bug). Kirkpatrick also succinctly retells the history of bar band culture down the Jersey shore in the late 1960s, of Springsteen’s brief stints in the bands, The Castiles and Steel Mill, and of his 1972 meeting with legendary producer John Hammond that resulted in him playing later that very night at The Gaslight Café in Greenwich Village and recording a demo the next day.

Romping with Springsteen’s own word play—“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”—Kirkpatrick deftly traces Springsteen’s developments in songwriting and as a songwriter. And he documents how profilic Springsteen has been. As a young songwriter, Springsteen would churn out “five or ten songs a day” and the band would perform an “entirely different thirty-song set” on Saturday than on Friday, “all written that week.” By Born to Run, he was channeling his energies into epic storytelling songs. If The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle is “the album on which Bruce Springsteen became Bruce Springsteen,” Born to Run marks his turn to a more disciplined songwriting and, in Darkness on the Edge of Town, his move from forging a “grand narrative voice” to working as a singer-songwriter “within the standard verse-chorus structure of popular rock song.”

Kirkpatrick continues this exploration of the conditions of Springsteen’s writing and the reception of his work through all of the rest of the 15 albums (Magic had not yet been released). The Afterword takes us back to the moment Landau witnessed “rock and roll future” by reflecting on the recently released DVD of Springsteen’s first European performance, Hammersmith Odeon, London ’75. Here, Kirkpatrick flatly declares, “The band’s rendition [of She’s the One] is a revelation: tight and inspired, one of the best performances …you’re likely to hear. Springsteen and Van Zandt feed off each other’s energy as they share the same mic and sing about the desperate liar with the angel in her eyes, and the thunder in her heart that makes you never want to leave her.” Reading about the stories in The Words and Music of Bruce Springsteen isn’t the same as listening to the man sitting at the piano, intently singing into a microphone, harmonica hanging around his neck, no guitar in sight. But the memories they stir of the many tunes he has given us and the information they pass along about the circumstances of those songs’ compositions are the next best thing.

Editor’s Note: Other Rutgers English alumni who who have written on Bruce Springsteen include Alan Rauch (PhD 1989), an associate professor of English at University of North Carolina–Charlotte, and Martha Nell Smith.