Hey, have you read this book?
I’m a sucker for rock biographies. Well, I’m a sucker for lots of things, actually, as my wife will be more than happy to tell you — new cereal, useless gadgets, boobies — but these books are high on the list. I eagerly devour the ones about artists whose music I really enjoy, but I’ll also read hundreds of pages about musicians I think are overrated or actively hate listening to. My favorite parts are about the low points in these artists’ careers. I have no interest in listening to the actual albums again, but I’d love to know what was happening in the studio while Yes was recording Drama or Emerson, Lake & Palmer were working on Love Beach. There’s a Stones bio I may check out just to see what they have to say about Dirty Work. There’s a certain satisfaction in seeing the rich and famous fuck things up, I suppose, but mainly, I just think it’s incredibly interesting to trace the anatomy of a failure. Besides, there are entire books devoted to this or that classic album; the lousy ones are swept aside. I’d love to write a series of books about horrible records by well-known musicians. I think it’d sell, too.
It’d be next to impossible to do, though — mainly, I think, because these artists are ordinary human beings and would rather not dwell on their mistakes. I doubt Dylan would sit for a series of interviews about Down in the Groove, for instance. And besides, they’re used to a certain amount of fawning from the people who write about them.
Oh yeah, and speaking of fawning, here’s Dave Marsh with Two Hearts.
Now, I didn’t get this book because I wanted to read about Springsteen’s low period, or his shit record, because as far as I can tell, he hasn’t really had one or released one yet. And yeah, yeah, there’s Human Touch and Lucky Town, but those aren’t shitty albums; they’re just shitty Springsteen albums, and there’s a big difference. So I was expecting a certain amount of reverence for The Boss and his work. I was also expecting honest, critical analysis of the music, something the book pretty much lacks entirely.
Okay, so it isn’t entirely lacking — someone who has spent as much time with Springsteen’s music as Dave Marsh could purposely try to avoid analysis in a book like this and some would still leak out. Problem is, it’s larded over with over-the-top hooey about Springsteen the Messiah. For all I know, Springsteen’s a great guy — maybe even every bit as great as Marsh thinks he is — but, as the reader, I’d like the opportunity to draw that conclusion myself. Or at least think I’m drawing the conclusion myself, instead of being beaten over the head with it. Marsh thinks he addresses this in one of the book’s introductions:
I figured out that if you find the most coherent and dramatic rock ‘n’ roll story of your generation and tell it well enough for people to still be interested after a quarter of a century, you’ve done the job. If, as part of the story, you claim that the person you’re writing about is not a fraudulent, exploitative scoundrel but in fact honorable, immensely gifted, and inspired, and if, fifteen years later, there is nothing to contradict those claims, then somebody has a problem but it ain’t the writer.
Marsh is responding specifically to charges that his writing about Springsteen amounts to hagiography, and if, as he says, there’s nothing to contradict his claims, then he’s got a solid defense. But I don’t think anybody really had a problem with Marsh’s claims per se; it’s more the way he makes them. It’s like your friend dragging you to his favorite movie and then giving you a non-stop commentary during the whole thing. It’s unrelenting and obvious, and it makes you want to form an opposing argument, no matter how good the thing in question happens to be. Marsh was there pretty much from the beginning of Springsteen’s career, and at that point, his preaching made sense, because nobody had heard his music yet. Now it’s just irritating.
I think it mostly stems from Marsh’s old-school belief in rock & roll as a pure, magical force whose slow “corruption” (he actually uses this term in the book) broke his heart, at least until Springsteen came along and died for all our sins. I’m overstating his case, but just barely; the engine that really drives this book is an unwavering belief in the redemptive power of rock music, and how Springsteen not only shares this belief, but actually personifies it.
As far as theses go (not to mention beliefs), this is utterly groan-worthy: Rock & roll offers redemption from nothing, except maybe boredom or a bad mood. Understand that I love rock music, truly, madly, and deeply; when other kids my age were playing with toys, I was sneaking my mom’s LPs onto a Fisher-Price record player. It’s been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. But there’s no redemption in it, any more than there’s long-term subsistence in chocolate — ultimately, however closely your favorite music might speak to or reflect your own experiences (or even provide you compelling glimpses into experiences you wish were your own), that’s all it can do. It’s the experiences that feed the music. That’s why rock songs about rock & roll almost always suck.
The thing is, Dave Marsh might be in love with Bruce Springsteen, but he’s far from alone when it comes to this style of writing. It sort of goes with the territory when you’re writing about music; it really is sort of like dancing about architecture. The only way to accurately convey an auditory experience with words is either through conflation or truly brilliant writing; since there are a lot more music writers than brilliant writers, the former typically wins out over the latter. It isn’t so bad when you’re writing about music that sucks, because then the results can be funny even when they aren’t wholly accurate, or even truly descriptive. But writing about good music is tough. I think I’ve only done a decent job of it a few times in the last fifteen years. Very often, I feel something like self-hatred for the stuff I post in this space; the only reason I keep doing it is because I can offer mp3s so you can actually hear what I’m writing about. We can share the experience that way (though most of you seem content to just download the files and keep your opinions to yourself).
Oh yeah. Files. I guess this wouldn’t be much of a post without one or two, would it? Here’s a pair of semi-rare Springsteen tracks: A live acoustic version of “Brilliant Disguise” (download) and the twelve-inch “Dub Mix” of “Dancing in the Dark” (download). Enjoy!