By Peter Chianca
Apparently everybody has something to say about Bruce Springsteen. There’s been a virtual deluge of books about the rock legend hitting the market, and recent weeks have seen the release of two more, both highly anticipated by Springsteen’s fan followers.
“Talk About A Dream” was compiled by Backstreets fan magazine editor Christopher Phillips and Louis P. Masur, author of the excellent 2009 Springsteen book “Runaway Dream,” and “Bruce Springsteen in Focus 1980-2012” features more than 250 shots by longtime concert photographer Debra Rothenberg. The authors come with impressive Springsteen pedigrees, but are their books truly Boss?
Talk About A Dream
“Talk About A Dream,” a collection of interviews with Springsteen drawn by Phillips and Masur from his long career, may seem a little late to the party: It arrives right on the heels of Jeff Burger’s similarly themed “Springsteen on Springsteen.” Does the world really need two Springsteen interview collections in the same year?
Turns out, yes. Even though the two overlap a bit -- notably including Springsteen’s daring 1996 interview with the Advocate, in which he made an argument for marriage equality 15 years before it was fashionable -- most of “Talk” contains material unique to the new volume, all of revealing, much of it absolutely essential.
Phillips and Masur stay mostly focused on Q&A’s and direct transcripts; it’s a wise choice, and not just because fans will be able to hear Springsteen’s Jersey cadences and full-throated laugh in their heads as they go. He’s remarkably open and thoughtful, and you can see him gradually building and shaping the themes and concerns that have marked his career -- his responsibility to the audience, the forces that drive his writing and the fact that he takes his job deadly seriously, no matter how much fun it is.
“I always come back to the same thing,” he tells Ken Tucker in a 2003 Entertainment Weekly interview. “It’s about work -- the work, working, working.”
The book also has high-profile sit-downs with Rolling Stone, Mojo and many others, along with Springsteen’s 2000s interviews with Backstreets, which helped define the motivations behind his late-career forays into electoral politics. “These are the times we’re working in,” he told Phillips in 2004. “And I think you’ve got to take your stand in them.”
It’s nuggets like that which help Talk About a Dream build a three-dimensional picture of Springsteen as an artist, a performer and as a man: complex, intensely devoted to his craft and his country, and -- despite some early protestations to the contrary -- eager to explain what music has meant to him, to his audience and to the world around him.
Bruce Springsteen in Focus 1980-2012
“Bruce Springsteen in Focus” isn’t just a photographic achievement -- it’s also physical evidence of one photographer’s amazing tenacity and devotion to her subject. For Rothenberg, her lenses have been the lifeline between her and her musical hero, and it’s a connection that comes through in every frame.
Page 2 of 2 - Rothenberg’s work is more than worthy of a collection, and it’s refreshing to see that “In Focus” doesn’t skimp; printed in hardcover on glossy stock, the photos seem to pop from the page. It’s tempting to call it a coffee table book, but that description seems too staid -- this is a book you want to leave out on the bar, or better yet on top of a beat-up old amp.
Rothenberg -- now a N.Y. Daily News shooter -- starts her collection with Springsteen on the “River” tour, bushy-haired and sideburned at 31. She religiously records tour after tour, although notably (and surprisingly) absent are the “Seeger Sessions,” “Magic” and “Working on a Dream” outings.
But Rothenberg picks up again with the start of the “Wrecking Ball” shows last year, offering a peek at Springsteen’s current, post-Clarence Clemons rebirth. The shots of Bruce and Jake Clemons, contrasted with the shots with uncle Clarence earlier in the book, are both joyous and melancholy.
In each instance along the way, Rothenberg finds the dynamic essence of Springsteen’s live shows -- the raucous physicality, the drive, the frenetic joy. Granted, she has a photogenic subject, but she also clearly has a tremendous feel for the special moments that typify the Springsteen experience.
As for the prose, efforts by the Jersey-based contributors seem oddly aimed at the non-fan who’d need to be told which tour was which. And Rothenberg’s own words are a little too breathless-fan, rather than pro photographer: I imagine that shooting a Springsteen concert presents its technical challenges, but you wouldn’t know it from Rothenberg’s breezy accounts.
Still, her obvious love of Springsteen as a fan just as much as a photographer helps keeps “In Focus” grounded and relatable -- Rothenberg’s pictures are the ones we all would want to take, if we had her lenses, her skills and her tenacity.
Peter Chianca is the author of “Glory Days: Springsteen’s Greatest Albums” and founder of the GateHouse Media blog Blogness on the Edge of Town.