Reading: Rebellion 'n' Reconciliation | Essay | Chicago Reader

Reading: Rebellion 'n' Reconciliation 

Dave Marsh's court biography of Bruce Springsteen bows when it ought to bite--but behind it lie some intriguing political questions.

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"I was stark naked, stoned out of my mind on heroin, and the girl lying between my legs giving me head was Janis Joplin." That sentence is the opener to Going Down With Janis ("by Peggy Caserta as told to Dan Knapp"), for my money the best book about rock and roll ever written. It's the apotheosis of the I-got-fucked-by school of biography, a you-are-there tip sheet for the fab 60s--full of lies, lies, lies, but true, true, true for all that. I never liked Janis Joplin till I read this book (too slobbery drunk, too grossly carnal); now I love her for all the same reasons. I understand her. Sure the book's tragedic and yeah it's tasteless and hoo boy does it represent a surefire cashing-in by a woman who will go through life remembered, if at all, as an answer in some future, unexpurgated version of Trivial Pursuit: "Who was the third participant in a menage a trois with Janis Joplin and Kris Kristofferson?" But I'll tell you something: it's a document.

My second favorite book about rock and roll is Up and Down With the Rolling Stones, a sort-of memoir by Keith Richards gofer Tony Sanchez, which was greeted with universal derision by the rock press, who quoted straight the Rolling Stones Organization's assurances that a lot of Sanchez's best stories--Keith walking away from a car accident, or traveling to Switzerland to have his heroin-filled blood replaced--just weren't true. Imagine that: Tony Sanchez, a sort of professional groupie-roadie-chauffeur, who, the book makes clear, has an IQ somewhere in the mid two figures, just making up all these scurrilous fairy tales. Kinda makes you wish Keith'd sued or something so he wouldn't have to go through life with all these stories hanging over his head.

Rock biographies are a real bastard breed. They try to be scandalous, but what's more outre than "Down on Me" or "Stray Cat Blues"? Rock and roll is so blatantly straightforward, and at the same time absurdly, obviously subliminal, that all a rock biographer can do is pull the pieces together and then look for skeletons that the artist him-or-her-self hasn't got around to writing about yet. I mean, these are guys who do stuff like try to masturbate onstage (Jim Morrison, woefully unsuccessfully), declare themselves geniuses publicly (John Lennon), commission films about what it's like on tour and then suppress them because they show what it's like on tour (Jagger and Richards and Cocksucker Blues), and confide to Bonnie Bramlett, of all people, that Ray Charles is "a dumb blind nigger" (Elvis Costello). It's an already lost battle, and no surprise that the scads of zillions of attempts we've seen (the vast majority on the Beatles-Stones-Dylan Big Three, for some reason) are almost uniformly snoozeville. For the, um, record, exceptions are: Stanley Booth's The True Adventures of the Rolling Stones, written in dead-on Dispatches style, but suspiciously reticent on several key points (Mick and Keith's apparent celibacy, for ex., while my namesake's fondness for nine-year-olds gets meticulously detailed); Nick Tosches's Hellfire, done in Old, as opposed to Booth's New, journalism style (but that's old as in Old Testament), all about Jerry Lee Lewis's soul, and also his piano playing; Albert Goldman's Elvis, which gets a lot of bad press, but is unique in that it doesn't condescend to its subject (unlike most of the respectful ones, which seem to be written almost entirely in the passive: "Elvis wasn't allowed to record what he wanted to"), and is anyhow about what the Human Sloth deserves.

Look at it this way: you pick up a bio of Toscanini, say, or Douglas MacArthur. You know what you're going to get: The Grandparents. The Parents. The School Years. The Influences. The Achievements. The Death. Maybe some dirt on the NBC Orchestra, maybe a sleep-in secretary. I don't want to know about Brian Jones's O levels; I want to know where the hell the guitar line in "The Last Time" came from. I want to know exactly how Al Kooper came to be in the studio the day "Like a Rolling Stone" was recorded. Why the Replacements' Paul Westerberg thought he could get away with writing a song called "Alex Chilton" and how come it turned out to be one of the greatest songs ever written. How the two words "rolling stone" came to be among the most important meaningless words in an entire decade. Who put the bomp (in the bomp bomp bomp). Why rock and roll makes me feel so good.

Let's say you're going to write a biography anyway, despite these insurmountable difficulties. Let's say you're Dave Marsh, well-known political yea-and-nay-sayer, sometime critic, and prominent member of that school of the rock establishment that would like to see rock and roll unite the world, as it promised to do so long ago when we were young. And let's say you hooked up with Bruce Springsteen really early on, back when it really seemed like he might just be the guy to unite the world, as it promised etc.

The result would be Glory Days--or Bruce Part II, the sequel to Born to Run (1979, revised 1981)--450 pages strong, bringing the Life to a total of 750-plus so far (Bruce is 37), and making the Boss in the process, as Rolling Stone magazine noted recently, one of the few living Americans to have a two-volume biography devoted to him. Now, there are worse people that this could happen to, just as worse people have sold 18 million copies of one album (OK, there haven't been that many--just Michael Jackson--so let's just say worse people have been superstars), though it should be noted right at the outset that Born in the U.S.A. is in no way his best album and that if you didn't know there was something pretty special about Springsteen back in 1975, when both Time and Newsweek saw fit to put him (simultaneously) on their covers in an accidental epiphany of journalistic one-upmanship (there have been worse people . . . ), you just weren't paying attention.

You're probably wondering if this is a respectful, almost too respectful volume that shows Bruce confronting and then conquering whatever obstacles get in his way. This is a respectful, almost too respectful volume that shows Bruce confronting and then conquering whatever obstacles get in his way. I should come right out and say that I have problems with this approach. Springsteen is now married and is at least thinking about kids, so it's safe to assume he has a penis, that he at least thinks about sex, and, rock and roll being what it is, that this would come out at least occasionally in his songs. You wouldn't know it from Glory Days. In the midst of pages of analysis of "Dancing in the Dark," there's never a hint that the chorus ("You can't start a fire without a spark / This gun's for hire . . . ") has anything to do with Bruce wanting some "love reaction."

All of this is of a piece with Springsteen's attitude toward women generally, which is only a little bit more complicated than his attitude toward cars. The "little girls" that sprinkle his songs like Buddy Holly's hiccups, the infamous "You ain't a beauty but hey you're all right" line from "Thunder Road," the cheesy attitudes that permeate even Born in the U.S.A., the complete absence of anything like a full-bodied female character in his entire 13-record body of work--this is what Springsteen has to say about the opposite sex. So big deal: Bruce isn't great on the subject of women. He's an unreconstructed guy from Jersey.

Noted and filed. But Marsh doesn't say this; he avoids any such discussion, and then goes out of his way to give credit where credit isn't due: "When Bruce went into the crowd to bring a fan from the front rows on stage to dance with him, women became an important part of the group." When Springsteen hires a female backup singer, Marsh actually quotes approvingly his incoherent explanation: "It's nice having her in the band. It's kinda like, 'Yeah, everybody join in.' She's a local person, and it just feels like a bunch of people up there. It has a little of that community thing to it." Marsh concludes, "Now his tableaus of male bonding would acquire a different dimension."

Such airbrushing was endemic to the first volume as well: that Terry in "Backstreets" is described as a "friend" (and not "best friend," either) Marsh sees as a "landmark" in rock and roll. Marsh doesn't note that after that line Terry disappears, until the end of the song, when she's "just another tramp of hearts cryin' tears of faithlessness." "Backstreets" is one of the greatest songs by perhaps the most far-reaching, brilliant rock and roll songwriter of his generation. It doesn't happen to have a complex female character in it. Big deal. But again, Marsh tries to broaden horizons for a guy who doesn't need it.

I only go into such detail to illustrate one aspect of a crucial failing here. Marsh's glossing over pops up throughout. We never learn, for example, exactly how much money Springsteen makes or what percentage manager Jon Landau takes--both, one would think, uncontroversial elements in modern biography. Springsteen's move to outdoor stadiums is discussed thoroughly, but only in the form of an extended justification for it. The move was dismaying for me and many other fans for several reasons ranging from sadness at the end of the legendary intimacy of his live shows to anger that Springsteen finally gave in to the huge amounts of money involved. Again: Life goes on. Bruce isn't perfect. But Marsh has to make it clean. The stadium shows were more "efficient." Besides, they "worked." He even goes so far as to attempt to provide a rationale for Springsteen's having played certain stadiums under a festival seating arrangement (i.e., no reserved seats), a reprehensible practice that killed kids at a Who concert in Cincinnati in 1980. "Ordinary Springsteen fans," he writes, "may have found it an inconvenient violation of protocol."

In other words, this is something of a court biography. Marsh is a longtime colleague and close friend of Landau's, describes himself as a good friend of Bruce's, and has a wife who works for Landau's management company. None of this would matter if Marsh could maintain some critical distance from his subject, which he simply cannot. My reading of the book turned up exactly one negative critical comment: that "Downbound Train," off Born in the U.S.A., is "incredibly sloppy," the worst track Springsteen has recorded since his second album. (I happen to disagree; there's a lot of junk on The River [1981] and U.S.A. as well.) But that's it: one bad track on six albums of material.

Glory Days does come through at points: the accounts of the making of Nebraska, Springsteen's forlorn, New Depression solo effort, and Born in the U.S.A., the giganto-plasma-megabuster breakthrough LP, have some force. Nebraska was originally designed in usual Springsteen fashion as a "demo tape" that would show the rest of his band what they would be working on. But the Nebraska songs just wouldn't work in ensemble. How the tape eventually became the album, and the oddly dramatic telling of the problems engineer Chuck Plotkin had transferring Bruce's home recording to a high-quality master (it's very technical, all about VU meters and such, and just fascinating--I'm serious), is sure to go down as a great bit of rock history, like the making of the Basement Tapes or something.

Similarly, the recording and marketing of Born in the U.S.A. is an interesting look at the making of one of those giganto-plasma whatevers. (Marsh did a similar limning of this process, about Thriller, in his otherwise pretty outlandish Trapped: Michael Jackson and the Crossover Dream.) The title song, a very sad, highly charged mythopoeic rendering of the crisis of the Vietnam vets, was originally a Nebraska track; unlike the others, however, this one didn't seem right in the solo acoustic version. Praise the Lord it wasn't thrown out, and marvel at His works that the version we know and love was a second take. But even here we get waylaid on the road to Zion: turns out that "Dancing in the Dark," the hit single that kicked off U.S.A.'s selling spree, was written and produced (can't hardly hear any guitars in that song, can you?) to be a hit single. For the last time: No big deal. Bruce sold out a little bit. But wait a minute, according, to Marsh he really didn't: Marsh quotes, approvingly, Landau: "[It's] a song for a person who is a Bruce fan, who stayed with you on Nebraska . . . a song where that guy's gonna say, 'Yeah, that's Bruce; that's what he's all about, right now, today.'" "Dancing in the Dark" is (another) giddy masterpiece from Bruce, but this is bullshit. In the modern world of record marketing, the breakout hit single has an exactly opposite purpose: to draw in new fans. Landau's remark goes unchallenged, and later, Marsh takes a cheap shot and ends up contradicting himself: "[The song] was already getting mixed reactions from hard-core Springsteen aficionados [like who?] . . . The fact that [it] expanded Springsteen's appeal might have been just the problem from their point of view."

The book is also exhaustingly long and Marsh's prose style seldom rises above the workmanlike. But there is in Glory Days an important subtext that sets it apart from other rock bios and most criticism generally. It has a little to do with Springsteen, and a lot to do with Dave Marsh.

Marsh started rocking out at the scabrously joyful Creem in the early 70s, worked for Newsday, became Rolling Stone's records editor at its influential and journalistic height in the mid-70s, did a stint at Record, and finally left to start his own newsletter (Rock & Roll Confidential) and write books--biographies (the Who, Elvis, Jackson), a volume of collected criticism, and various novelties (The Book of Rock Lists).

Among major national rock critics (he's one of the Big Three along with the Village Voice's Robert Christgau and Berkeley's Greil Marcus), Marsh is a genuine renegade. Where the writings of others almost always contain an extended rationalization of the genre they've chosen, Marsh is unapologetic: "Rock and roll saved my life." Where others crave newness, Marsh champions tradition. And where others wear themselves out seeking expansions of rock's vocabulary, Marsh has hitched his wagon to the most fabulously retro superstar in rock history. To his credit, he does have a strong political identification. Rock & Roll Confidential makes a crucial connection between rock and roll and political issues related to the music's various constituencies (kids, blacks, the working class, as Marsh sees it--more on that later), He promotes everything from the Sun City record to rock fund-raisers for unions and dispossessed workers, keeps a close watch on antirock moves (a lot of them these days) on the part of the government and corporations, and also demands a reciprocal political correctness on the part of rock and rollers, condemning, for example, endorsements of Reagan by, among others, Neil Young and Prince.

What sets Marsh apart from Christgau and Marcus--and what, indeed, functions as the subtext in Glory Days--is his almost poignant search for the element in the music that, as he puts it, can "bring it all back home." (I met Marsh on his ongoing promotional tour and we had a couple of long conversations on just this subject.) For Marsh, the theme of "reconciliation" (as opposed to "rebellion") is the most important one in rock today: how it gets played out will provide a major sound track as the rock and roll generation completes its ineluctable move from prominent subculture to dominant culture.

Rock and roll was once thought by some very serious people to be the mysterious Ur-culture that would save the world. Rockers as diverse as John Sebastian ("Do You Believe in Magic") and Lou Reed ("Rock and Roll") thought so, critics in the 60s took it as a gargantuan impending given; and the audience--well, the audience were the ones that were going to do the changing.

Nothing changed, of course (actually, very little changed, which was not enough and therefore nothing), but that just turned the questions over. Why didn't it change? If rock and roll by definition was the music that was going to change the world, what was that loud noise that was still going on? Or, alternately, if rock and roll was about change, and we all knew that things weren't going to change easily, then it was about rebellion: so what is it about today? And finally, what are we going to do now?

Marsh sees Springsteen as the answer to a lot of these questions. In Fortunate Son, his collection of criticism, he writes, "I would far rather have rock and roll that spoke clearly and forcefully to its base audience of youth, blacks and working people than one which perfectly filled the needs of even an antiestablishment intelligentsia." For him, rock should try to meet those needs of that base audience, and for him, Springsteen, whose concerns in the last ten years or so have moved over to an almost uniform portrayal of the sad economic and emotional underbelly of Ronald Reagan's America, is the one who does it and can do it better than anyone else. Marsh would like to see him continue, and see others follow.

"Bruce had long been determined to find out what rock and roll became when it wasn't 'youth culture' anymore," Marsh writes, and makes an interesting case for the songs of Born in the U.S.A. to be seen in that light. Springsteen, who made his mark early on with rushing, prolix fantasies about leaving the old town behind, now, in "My Hometown," for example, describes an opposite, sparer yearning: the speaker lives in a decaying town, but rejects "getting out" at the end--certain ties are too demanding, and demand responsibility. (Another bit of evidence might be the story Springsteen tells at the end of the live album's version of "The River"--reconciliation with his father is the theme, a significant change from Springsteen's usual family tales.)

If you give Marsh a chance to lay his argument out, you might find it intriguing. The children of the 60s and even the 70s (me!) have a new set of terrors, chances, needs. There's nothing more pathetic than seeing a "Dead head sticker on a Cadillac," as Don Henley put it in a recent hit of his; there's an odd, sad quality to the picture of an MBA who blisses out each night to Jimi Hendrix. "We expected truth from our avatars, but not candor," critic Tom Carson is quoted as saying early on in Glory Days; as you get older you need both, and the argument can be made that we're not getting either. Except, of course, from the punks and their successors, which points up a problem or two with Marsh's particular approach to this subject. Marsh looks at punk with the finicky distaste of a Mormon: "Like other sectarian cults, punk partly foundered on the idea that the population wanted something in which most folks had no interest: challenging and abrasive popular music." Outside of being a sentence that, with "punk" changed to "rock and roll," could have been published in the Saturday Evening Post in the late 50s, the sentence reveals an interesting analytical flaw of Marsh's: despite its generally explicit political content and context, punk's rawness was an authentic artistic statement, a reproach to both the outside world and the musical and thematic banality of mid-70s rock. When you start trying to channel rock's concerns into meeting the needs of new groups of people (aging baby boomers, blacks, the working classes, whatever), you start getting hostile to parts of it that don't fit the bill. Marsh's oeuvre-wide hostility to the punk and new wave music that startlingly rejuvenated the form in the late 70s is a serious drawback to his work and, ironically, is itself borderline sectarianism.

Another problem is what rock and roll's function will be as an (inevitably) ruling-class instrument in a society whose essentially and inherently racist and exploitative structure will not have changed. One of the things Marsh correctly fastens on in Glory Days is Springsteen's astonishing political growth, to the point where his stadium tour saw him donating large sums of money to local food, vet, or workers' groups in each city he visited, and plugging their work from the stage as well. This part of the story is tremendously moving, because as you read it, or if you were lucky enough to see Bruce do it, for just a while you're swept up again in the hysterical potential of it all. But there's a terrible contradiction here: food banks and displaced workers' groups are band-aids--worthy, necessary ones, to be sure, but band-aids nonetheless. There have been times when rock and roll explicitly addressed these contradictions (or at least implicitly knocked you over the head with them): in the mid-60s, certainly, and in the late 70s. What punk was, ultimately, was a shaking-out of a tired structure that had finally gotten tired of dealing with those contradictions.

What no one foresaw, I think, was that rock and roll, far from overwhelming the world, was overwhelmed by it, a pawn in a vast balkanization that today, for example, shows on the radio dial with a plethora of stations separately devoted to soul-rap-funk, 70s-white-nostalgia, 50s-and-60s-white-nostalgia, teenybopper-pop-techno-floss, pseudointellectual-college-headbanger, and other stuff. Sure, there's crossover potential (Michael Jackson, for ex., though not Bruce, for some reason), the possibility of which excites me as much as it does Marsh. But I'm still worried about the kids most of all: I want there to be, just as there was for me, something there that suggests something different, better, more exciting. The Beatles had it, the Jefferson Airplane had it, Led Zeppelin had it, the Clash and Joy Division had it, Run-D.M.C. and the Beastie Boys have it, and so, for some kids, do groups you might not have heard of (or want to hear of): the Butthole Surfers, Husker Du, Big Black. And punk is dying out, too; you think it was hard to go through life with a braid hanging down to your ass, try it with a shaved head or purple hair. And out in the distance you can hear the sounds of some new rough beasts slouching around, and not even Bruce Springsteen is going to stop them from coming.

Glory Days: Bruce Springsteen in the 1980s by Dave Marsh, Pantheon Books, $18.95.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Kurt Mitchell.

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