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A Boss Book on Springsteen's Songs

Bruce Springsteen contemplating soundcheck before the first show of the "Wrecking Ball" tour in Australia, March 14, 2013.EXPAND
Bruce Springsteen contemplating soundcheck before the first show of the "Wrecking Ball" tour in Australia, March 14, 2013.
Photo by Bradley Kanaris-Getty Images/Courtesy of Abrams Books
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Bruce Springsteen: The Stories Behind the Songs
By Brian Hiatt
288 pp.
Abrams Books

For the general music listener, a biography or autobiography of their favorite artist would probably suffice in terms of reading investigation. More hardcore fans like to dig deeper, and will devour books that are based on one catalog, one album, or even a single song (as in Greil Marcus’ entire-tome treatise on Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone”).

For this book, Rolling Stone senior writer Brian Hiatt goes long and deep into the songs of Bruce Springsteen, giving the lyrical, thematic, and musical CliffsNotes for every tune on his studio albums from 1973’s Greetings
from Asbury Park, N.J.
up to 2014’s High Hopes

And Hiatt does a skillful, detailed and succinc t job at that. He uses a combination of many previous sources, his own past interviews with Springsteen and – wonderfully – 55 hours of new interviews he conducted for this book with many of those involved in the recording.

Some of the backgrounds – especially up to The River – may be familiar to readers of other Springsteen bios. Like how he wrote “Hungry Heart” to give to the Ramones, but was talked out of it by producer/manager Jon Landau. Sage advice, as it gave Bruce his first real chart hit. But there’s plenty more that Hiatt both drops as nuggets and also in larger themes.

Who knew that “Mary Queen of Arkansas” was about a man in love with a transvestite? Or how many songs stemmed from the Boss’s love of Van Morrison? Or just how many were based on real-life incidents and people? (One nitpick: In “Cadillac Ranch,” Hiatt doesn’t note that its inspiration comes partially the real-life outdoor art installation of half-buried cars in Amarillo, Texas. Though we do learn that Springsteen sometime sang it in the voice of Richard Nixon during rehearsals!).

As for signature song “Born to Run,” Hiatt neatly summarizes just why it has meant so much to so many people for so long, noting that “for decades to come, the song was the climax of Springsteen shows, with fans whose running days were far behind them shouting along with as much fervor as ever.” Springsteen himself elaborates on how the emotions and desires and longing expressed in the tune never leave you, and the topic transcends age with its twin peaks of both exhilaration and fright.

It’s part of the Bruce Springsteen legend that he recorded – then cut or never released – entire discographies of material. Hiatt thankfully includes songs that also came out not on original releases, but subsequent B-sides, outtakes, and box sets or expanded editions like Tracks, The Promise, and The Ties That Bind. Uber fans will also appreciate the attention given to his work of the past 20 years in albums like The Rising, Devils & Dust, Magic (an underrated gem), and Wrecking Ball.

The 180 photographs sprinkled throughout – from a wide variety of shooters -also deserve their own accolades. They chart Springsteen from the painfully thin singer/songwriter with the wispy beard, to the bulked-up superhero from the Born in the U.S.A. era, to the rock elder statesman he is today in posed, concert, and casual settings. They’re simply a treat to behold. And Hiatt has now made it incredibly easy to answer the question “What birthday/anniversary/holiday gift should I get the Bruce Springsteen fan in my life? When I don’t want to loan them my copy!”

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