By Richard Wink
August 13, 2013
So what happened in the years before ‘Born to Run’ became one of the greatest albums of all time? Springsteen: Saint in the City (published by Soundcheck Books), Craig Statham’s thoroughly researched account of the life of a young rock star jobbing around New Jersey and honing his stage craft, is an interesting, if a tad brief book. My only gripe, which I will get in early, is that this book is just one hundred and eighty pages long. I felt it could’ve done with a little more depth; particularly given that events take place around such a culturally interesting, and indeed fascinating, time.
Most of the content of the book takes place during the sixties and it is a shame that more was not written about Bruce Springsteen’s encounters when growing up with the counter-cultural movement, civil rights and Vietnam. The New Jersey’s riots in ’67 are merely touched upon, and given Bruce’s association with the place it seems surprising the event gets barely a paragraph. There is an interesting little aside about how Steel Mill, one of Springsteen’s early bands, had the chance to play Woodstock, but their manager turned the opportunity down. Such little nuggets are priceless.
Perhaps the absence of cultural padding was deliberate on Statham’s part, as the focus of the book is Springsteen’s single minded desire to live a musical life. Note that I haven’t said ‘seek a career’, ‘become famous’ or ‘sell tons of records’, because that would imply a concern for money. Bruce didn’t play for the money, as is illustrated in several anecdotes; his naïvety about the business is endearing and contributes well to the myth behind the man. Springsteen played for the love of music.
As a child he adored the British Invasion bands, like The Animals and obviously the Fab Four. As a young musician he looked to the likes of Bob Dylan and Joe Cocker for pointers on how to forge his own path. Springsteen started out in a covers band, and grew his hair long and rocked out in a few other bands before considering the mournful singer-songwriter route. One thing was consistent through all these early experiences: Springsteen was always the star, the focal point. He possessed charisma, something intangible that takes a long time to develop.
The impression you get from this book is that Springsteen was a steamroller who took rejection, bad luck and mistakes in his stride because ultimately deep down he knew it would lead him to where he wanted to be. What we don’t get in the book is enough word from the man himself. How did he deal with self-doubt and the setbacks?
Malcolm Gladwell’s often quoted book The Outliers applies the ten thousand hour rule as the measure for success in any field. If a person is to become truly proficient in their craft then they must put in the necessary time and effort. The success of Statham’s book comes is its illustration of Bruce’s relentless work ethic. He played and played and played, chalking up the hours: every dive bar, open mic, any opportunity to play was taken. This book will likely leave a vivid impression on any bedroom dreamer who aspires to be a rock star. In no uncertain terms it illustrates the importance of graft and toil.
Springsteen received a lot of help in his fledgling years. He seemed to meet caring people who were willing to put the scruffy young rocker under their wing, and people who acted as a surrogate family, given that his own had moved across to California, leaving him to try and make it as a musician in New Jersey. Figures like Tex Vinyard (who managed his first band The Castiles) and Tinker West (a surfboard factory owner turned music promoter) were able to provide much-needed stability, and to keep Springsteen on the straight and narrow. They saw and believed in his talent, and attempted to provide an environment that would allow Springsteen to blossom.
Craig Statham has written an interesting book on Bruce Springsteen’s formative years, but this isn’t the kind of rock bio that makes you want to track down the first couple of Springsteen albums and über rare Steel Mill tape recordings. As is often the case with a true legend, it might be that Springsteen telling his story through song on stage is the only true way his story can be told.
Springsteen : Saint In The City : 1949 – 1974 is available now from amazon (here).