In the same way that Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan recognized and used the power of folk music to prophesize about matters of economic and social injustice, Bruce Springsteen has used rock and roll to urge us to transform our cultural and political landscape. In the words of his song, “Thunder Road,” he’s “got this guitar, and he’s learned how to make it talk.”
In Bruce Springsteen and the Promise of Rock ‘n’ Roll, Marc Dolan’s fan notes trace the conversation that Springsteen’s guitar has carried on with rock and roll from the moment The Boss first picked up the instrument to his latest album, 2012’s Wrecking Ball. Not a conventional biography, Dolan’s compelling book follows Springsteen’s development as a rock and roll musician song by song, album by album and concert by concert as a way of telling the cultural history of our times. Springsteen has famously said that his role is “to be here now,” and Dolan demonstrates in exhaustive detail how Springsteen’s music has been the soundtrack of our lives from the defaulting of Manhattan in the early 1970s, to the shame and hope of Ronald Reagan’s U.S.A., to the shaky good fortune of Bill Clinton’s America, to the haunting days after 9/11 and the culturally estranged home front of the Second Gulf War.
Springsteen’s glory days began in 1957 when his mother let him stay up to watch Elvis Presley on “The Ed Sullivan Show”; he immediately wanted to play the guitar, and the first song he learned to play was “Twist and Shout.” In 1964, his mother bought him an electric guitar and amp for Christmas, and practicing harder than ever before, Springsteen started his journey down the highway littered with broken heroes on a last-chance power drive. Over the course of the next decade, Springsteen played in several bands around New Jersey and New York, honing his guitar riffs and songwriting licks as well as the canny leadership skills that led to the formation of the E Street Band. Springsteen emerged in an era dominated by introspective songwriters such as Jackson Browne and Joni Mitchell, but although many of his songs were covertly autobiographical, what made Springsteen’s songs “personal” was not so much their specific autobiographical detail or insights as the vision that they communicated of the observed world.
Springsteen fans may disagree with many of Dolan’s readings of his lyrics, but they’ll likely agree that The Boss is a remarkable performer who can shape an audience’s perception, just as a remarkable audience can shape a performer’s perception, and that together they can shape and be shaped by the moment itself. After all, that’s what rock and roll is all about.