Dead Poets Society

Bruce Springsteen gets the high culture treatment

Robert Coles
Bruce Springsteen's America: The People Listening, a Poet Singing
Random House

Imagine that, in your youth, your grandpa had gotten into the Irish whiskey one evening while the two of you were home alone. Let's talk, he says, and he begins drinking and reminiscing. The more he drinks, the loopier his reminiscences get, until finally he is comparing John Lennon or Morrissey or Eminem--whoever it is you happen to care about--to Great Writers He Has Known. You can see that he's working hard to flatter you, and himself, but he's out of his element and going nowhere at all. After a while you just want him to shut up and go to bed.

But he won't stop, no matter how trite and belabored the going gets. Even hours later, when he kneels in front of the toilet, he is still raising his head to pontificate between bouts of the dry heaves. He finally passes out around two in the morning--and 10 of his friends promptly show up at the door to tell you their 10 variations on the same deliriously pointless theory. The sun is coming up when they finish. But what day is it?

If this sounds like a good time to you, you'll love Bruce Springsteen's America, which is not just the worst book ever written about Bruce Springsteen but quite possibly the worst book ever written about America and most certainly the longest 225-page book ever written about anything.

I say "written," but most of it was only typeset. To be precise, 164 of those pages consist of outtakes from interviews conducted for several of author Robert Coles's other books--conversations with teachers, truck drivers, grandmothers. The thread linking them is the mere fact that the speakers all refer to Bruce Springsteen songs in the course of their meanderings. There are two things to say about this portion of the book. First, if you think that great oral history is simply human speech set down to paper, try reading this shit. If nothing else, it will leave you with a heightened appreciation of what a great editor and great artist Studs Terkel really is. Second, if anyone actually had edited these endlessly droning transcripts, the finished work would be about two paragraphs long. Maybe. Or, in the words of a Bruce-loving cop talking about the song "Reason to Believe," "If I met the Boss, I'd say: You're stretching things, or maybe you're just way beyond my numskull mind!"

A pair of essays by Coles, the Pulitzer-winning Harvard psychiatrist best known for his titles on the moral, spiritual, and political lives of children, bracket the book, but again--it's hard to call them essays. The first consists mostly of unedited, extended quotations from Coles's mentor, the doctor/poet William Carlos Williams. What is the author's point? Well, this Springsteen guy, um, really touches people. That's all? That's all. But Coles does compose a poem of his own about Springsteen and Williams, which ends on this pompous note:

 

Two bards, Bill and Bruce
The Doc and the Boss: America--
Love it or leave it to you both to know,
And give back to us, maybe our only chance.

 

What amazes Coles most about Bruce Springsteen, the great mystery he returns to in his concluding note, is that popular music--get this!--matters in people's lives.

I would submit that if you can spend 40 years working among "the people" without recognizing as much, the only interesting question it poses at this late date is how you could be so fucking thick. But no matter, because stupid is not the greatest of the book's sins. It's also stilted and condescending in the way high culture invariably is when it stoops to anoint a "poet" of the low culture. Coles would deliver Springsteen into the clutches of the timelessly, bloodlessly venerable, where one thinks great thoughts and does noble deeds and there is no opportunity to screw up or to be someone or something else even for a moment--where one is as good as dead.

There's a reason saints are not beatified until after they shuffle off this mortal coil, and it's as much for their sake as for ours.

 
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