Friday, August 28, 2009

Running after Bruce

In Runaway Dream, Louis Masur draws a series of concentric circles around Bruce Springsteen's landmark album Born to Run

The following review was published yesterday in the book section at the History News Network. This is the second in a trilogy of Springsteen posts. To see the last one, click here.

We are now in the second generation of commentary on the life and art of Bruce Springsteen, a man now widely considered one of the defining artists of our time. The first generation of Springsteen commentators were dominated by a new form of writer who emerged in the late 1960s and who played a surprisingly large role in shaping popular taste for the next quarter century: rock critics. These figures, who include Robert Santelli, Greil Marcus, Robert Hilburn and future Springsteen biographer Dave Marsh, were there for the creation, as it were (as was Ariel Swartley, who along with Ellen Willis were among the handful of women who elbowed their way into this men’s club). They witnessed Springsteen on the club scene, reviewed the early albums as they were released, and discussed Springsteen’s work in high profile venues like Rolling Stone. These people did not all feel the same way about Springsteen, but they all took him seriously. And he took them seriously, granting them access in a way that would become more rare.

Beginning in the 1990s, a second wave of writers, many with academic training (myself among them), emerged to produce a body of Springsteen scholarship. Their backgrounds have varied. Liberal journalist Eric Alterman has a Ph.D. in History; Daniel Cavicchi, author of a fine study of Springsteen fans, is an ethnomusicologist. Psychologist Robert Coles published an underrated oral history of listeners; Colleen Sheedy, a curator, mounted a traveling exhibition of visual art about Springsteen. By and large, this protocol of commentators is younger (Coles, who will turn 80 later this year, is a generational outlier). They were children or adolescents when Springsteen came of age. Lacking the experience and access of the rock critics, their work tends to be contextual.

Louis P. Masur falls into this group. A cultural historian with a penchant for choosing specific subjects (the year 1831, baseball’s first world series, a famous photograph from the Boston busing crisis of the 1970s) and situating them against the larger background of their times, he combines scholarly rigor and journalistic accessibility. These talents are vividly on display in Runaway Dream, which uses Born to Run as ground zero for understanding Springsteen's career as a whole.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Masur breaks little new interpretative ground. Although this is the first book devoted to the subject, Born to Run has been the subject of extensive commentary, notably by Springsteen himself, who released a richly documented thirtieth anniversary edition in 2005 (and, one can see in retrospect, has been positively cunning in crafting master narratives of his work that he dispenses to media outlets when he releases albums). An avowed fan, Masur sees Born to Run as a shot of adrenalin in the culturally enervated 1970s, when economic malaise, political exhaustion, and commercial hucksterism dominated the national mood. What he also sees, whether by virtue of his perspective as a historian, the benefit of hindsight, or both, is that the questions the album raises about love and aspiration do not simply capture a moment in time or a period in one's life, but also provide an opportunity for recurrent reflection that's more than memory or nostalgia. As Masur explains, "Born to Run was connected to the times but also timeless, built to last, so that thirty years later it still speaks to those who were eighteen when it came out, and those who turned eighteen in 1985, 1995, or 2005."

Runaway Dream draws a ring of concentric circles around Born to Run in a set of six brief chapters, beginning with the circumstances of its creation and rippling outward to the legacy of the album 35 years later. Of particular note is his chapter on “The Geography of Born to Run,” in which he interprets the concept of place broadly – in his analysis, night is a “location” – and shows how it operates on the album. (Masur presented this material as a work in progress at “Glory Days: A Bruce Springsteen Symposium” in 2005; the second such symposium will be held in New Jersey in late September.) He also does an exceptionally good job of tracing the critical reception of the record at the time of its release, as well as later. In its fusion of enthusiasm and craft, it represents a summing up of this phase of the Springsteen discourse.

The unanswered question at this point is how Springsteen will fare in the coming generation. We’re at a point now when it’s possible to imagine good work produced by writers born post-Born to Run. Will they maintain the high degree of enthusiasm that has marked the first two cycles of Springsteen scholarship? How will their Springsteen be different from ours? Will he have the durability of a Woody Guthrie, a Billie Holiday, or an Elvis Presley? It is perhaps the uncertainty surrounding these questions more than anything else which will determine whether the conversation around Springsteen remains interesting. In the meantime, those of us who are living with Springsteen will go on trying to make sense of what has now become the experience of a lifetime.