[Note: this review is based on a preview copy of the book. It is therefore possible that some of the information referred to in the book is not part of the published version.]
When you’ve read as many Bruce Springsteen biographies as this Bruce Librarian has, you don’t often come across one that is full of new information and interesting facts and analysis. There’s rarely much true insight, and a lot of them contain more than a little repetition of Dave Marsh’s semi-official works, Born to Run and Glory Days (since republished in one volume called Two Hearts).
But Marc Dolan’s recently published Bruce Springsteen and the Promise of Rock ‘n’ Roll truly has something new to offer. While it does chronologically cover Springsteen’s career, it’s not the usual “Bruce-Springsteen-was-born-on-September-23-1949-in-Freehold-NJ-and-his-father-was-a-bus-driver”. The book’s main virtue is the way it puts Bruce’s song-writing, career moves, and even details like his choice of cover songs into a much larger context than what we’re used to. Marc Dolan demonstrates exactly how local events, national events, world events, cultural events, and personal events all helped shape Bruce’s artistic choices and actions. Dolan doesn’t hide the fact that one of his main research sources was bootlegs. He often refers to specific moments during concerts, things that Bruce said from the stage, or songs that he chose to sing on particular occasions, all of which would only be possible by extensive listening to those unofficial preservations of sometimes not very well-documented times.
And it is especially the chapters covering the early pre-E Street Band years that offer insight, detail and analysis that I haven’t seen better anywhere else. For most Springsteen biographers that period is something that just needs to be mentioned briefly before the real story can begin. But in The Promise of Rock ‘n’ Roll the author pays as much attention to those early years as the later ones, again with the use of rare recordings of early live performances as important documentation.
But also Dolan’s description of the period from 1989 to the E Street Band reunion 10 years later is fascinating reading with many pieces of information that this reviewer at least can’t recall hearing before. And it’s not always pleasant reading. While Dave Marsh has often been accused of painting a rather rosy-red picture of Bruce in his otherwise must-read biographies, Dolan is not afraid to expose some of Bruce’s less flattering sides or pointing out the inferiority of much of his work from the Nineties. But there’s never any question that Dolan is a fan who treats his subject with great respect and admiration. Although Bruce’s personal life is in focus, especially in connection with his marriages and fatherhood, this is not a gossip book or an attempt at slandering. The information is consistently used for the higher purpose of putting Bruce’s work in perspective, in which the book succeeds.
If one must point out weaknesses, it would be that the chapter dealing with the Darkness album suffers from apparently having been written before the release of The Promise, the 2010 box set and documentary. The details we learned about the whole era from not only those releases, but also the interviews and articles that followed, would no doubt have been useful for Dolan.
Also, in some cases, especially in dealing with Bruce’s personal life, the author resorts to qualified guesses, but at least he doesn’t state things as fact when he can’t support them. Most of the time, the information in the book is well-documented in a long “Sources and notes” section at the end of the book.
The Promise of Rock ‘n’ Roll covers Bruce’s career up to and including the Working on a Dream Tour, so there’s no info on Clarence’s death, let alone Wrecking Ball. But with Dave Marsh’s main works only covering the ground up to the late Eighties, Marc Dolan’s book is as good as anything I’ve read in bringing us up-to-date in an authoritative manner, at least until the highly expected (official) biography by David Remnick, is released later in the year. But that shouldn’t stop you from checking out Dolan’s book. The Promise of Rock ‘n’ Roll will always be an important book in Bruce literature because of its unique approach to its subject and the fact that it’s simply a well-written, entertaining read for anyone with an interest in Springsteen’s music.
If you're interested in purchasing the book, you can get it here. Use the promotion code WN216 and get a discount.