# A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z

Bruce Springsteen - Springsteen: Saint in the City 1949 -1974

  by Benjamin Howarth

published: 14 / 12 / 2013

Bruce Springsteen - Springsteen: Saint in the City 1949 -1974


Ben Howarth finds much to recommend in a new book about the early years of the young Bruce Springsteen

A few years ago, a mod-influenced band called Viva Brother found themselves on the cover of the ‘NME’ – boasting that they were the future of music. Needless to say, they weren't. Quickly the band became the subject of internet ridicule. They split up after their debut album was universally panned. An interesting development in this sorry story was how quickly Viva Brother's pre-fame story was uncovered. It turned out that, before the band became disciples of Oasis and Blur, they previously played emo-hardcore, and had sought fame as Kill The Arcade. The accusation was that Viva Brother were careerists, seeking fame at any cost. As bad as Viva Brother were, this struck me as unfair – few musicians arrive fully formed at 18 years old. Would we be any kinder to Bruce Springsteen if he arrived today? Introduced to the world as a folk-influenced singer-songwriter, he had actually been plying his trade for several years – hopping restlessly from proggy-blues jams to soul influenced 'big bands', before finally presenting himself as a solo artist almost as the final roll of the dice. Even today, he is reluctant to discuss his pre-fame music in much detail – although much of it is readily accessible on YouTube. Clearly a skilled guitarist (in fact – much more so than his studio albums suggest), he was slower to develop as a songwriter – had Springsteen been spotted earlier, his music would have been entertaining, but not great. That said, Craig Statham makes a fair case for the significance of the pre-fame life of Bruce Springsteen in his new biography. An active contributor to online Springsteen fan forums for some time, he was persuaded to compile a book detailing Springsteen's early life and work. Statham may not seem like an obvious candidate as a Springsteen biographer – a retired local politician and campaigner for Scottish independence who has previously published a book on the local history of East Lothian. Yet he brings the archivist skills he has acquired as a local historian to the task, with impressive results – in extensive footnotes, he has compiled what seems like every snippet of information about Springsteen's various bands. He has also diligently set about tracking down anyone who knew and worked with Springsteen at the time. These interviews make up the core of the book. The book is as much about the New Jersey music scene as it is about Bruce – and Statham doesn't make the mistake of seeing every event only as part of an inevitable road to later fame. He is also honest enough to admit that much of Springsteen's pre-fame work pales in comparison to his classic albums. Throughout this period covered, Springsteen's bands were always able to draw a crowd, and often upstaged the more famous bands who were travelling through New Jersey. At several points, he could have agreed a record contract and gone into the studio. Statham perceptively observes that, usually, it was reluctance from Springsteen that stopped this happening. He knew he was capable of more – and was just waiting for the right moment to seek fame on his own terms. A fascinating theme that emerges is the tension in Springsteen's own mind over what music he wanted to pursue. Though recognised as a skilled guitarist, he seeks recognition as a songwriter – arguably holding himself back until his songs met his own expectations. Before meeting Mike Appel, and finally settling on a singer-songwriter identity, he flirted with forming a 'big band', and even hired a chorus line of backing singers. Meanwhile, those who would eventually join him in the E-Street Band have walk-on roles, as Springsteen searched for the perfect formula. Who knew, for example, that at one point he saw his ideal sound as a fusion of Van Morrison and Joe Cocker? Occasionally, Statham's message-board habits let his writing down. He seems determined to justify the antics of Mike Appel, without properly explaining why he needs to. Of course, any reader will know that Appel and Springsteen would later fight a bitter court battle. Statham's goal is to demonstrate how much Springsteen relied on Appel during his early years, which is perfectly reasonably, but he seems too keen to stick up for Appel – perhaps forgetting that many readers will know little about the later legal action. That said, Statham has cleverly placed Appel into a context of a series of managers, on whom Springsteen was evidently wholly reliant. Each pushed his career further on, and were then gently eased aside when their usefulness had been exhausted. With the exception of Appel, each seemed remarkably sanguine, recognising that Springsteen was destined for more than they could offer him. This casts a fascinating light on the later legal case – was Springsteen simply taken aback as no-one had questioned his habit of casting managers aside before? Though not a strictly-academic work, 'Saint in the City' could have been made easier to read. Throughout, you are confronted with a blizzard of names and facts. While the research is commendable, I wish as much effort had gone into organising the end-product. Each chapter could have done with a quick breakdown of the periods covered, and the line-up of the band Springsteen was playing with at that point. This material is all available in the extensive appendixes, but should really have been integrated into the text. If Statham ever considers revisiting his book, he might take a look at how Simon Price organised his biography of the Manic Street Preachers – 'Everything'. Around a carefully researched chronology, Price added a series of thematic essays on particular topics. Statham has more than enough material to do the same – he could, for example, have directly compared the influence of Springsteen's various managers and reviewed Springsteen's early songwriting effects in separate chapters. Instead, longer discussions on these themes are somewhat uncomfortably shoehorned into the main narrative. Those quibbles, however, do not truly detract from an enjoyable read. The book ends in 1974 as Springsteen has achieved a modicum of success – his two Columbia albums have not sold particularly well, but he has acquired some influential backers at his label and in the media. Had Springsteen been around today, 'Born to Run' would probably have been made in a home studio and funded by Kickstarter donations from his loyal fanbase in and around New Jersey. But in 1974, his more patient label were willing to give him another chance. He cracked it – and would eventually leave most of the characters whose stories this book tells behind. But Statham is correct in his assumption that those stories were worth telling, and that Springsteen fans will learn lots from them. Whether you a diehard Springsteen fan, or just someone who likes a good rock and roll story, ‘Saint in the City’ would be a good way to spend your Christmas book tokens.

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