The summer is almost over, but there are two book I would like to bring under your attention before it ends. Let’s be honest, nothing keeps the winter at bay quite as well as a lazy and rainy Sunday afternoon in bed with a good book and a live recording from the summer tour. In the past few weeks I’ve been reading Daniel Wolff’s 4th of July, Asbury Park: A History of the Promised Land back to back with A Change Is Gonna Come: Music, Race & the Soul of America by Graig Werner. The fist book deals with the history of the Jersey shore’s most famous town, the second relates the history of R&R’s relation to the civil rights movement. Both books feature some insightful chapters on Springsteen while managing to place him in a broader context.
Wolff’s book traces the development of Asbury park from its conception. It is not without irony to find out that the town full of losers Springsteen so desperately tried to leave behind was originally viewed as the promised land by its founder James Bradly. Asbury Park, in his mind, would be a safe haven for America’s religious values while financing itself as a wholesome vacation resort. A venture Wolff shows was bound to fail. Bradley established Asbury park and its boardwalk single handily, trying to keep a firm hand in the town’s direction by keeping it in private ownership. By his death Bradley had to admit that the venture was a failure, the boardwalk had only lost money. Still it remained the town’s main hope of survival through the past 150 years of its existence.
The book also sheds some light on why a multi ethnical act like the E-Street band, especially in its early conception when Sancious and Lopez were still active, never attracted an audience that mirrored their composition. Wolff paints a picture of a highly segregated beach resort with racial relations marred by lynching and deprivation. As Sancious recalls he and Clarence were an exception to the rule, blacks simply weren’t part of the scene where Springsteen rose to fame. So while Springsteen was building his core fan base, his audience was highly skewed to Caucasian to begin with.
Further light on this subject is shed by Werner’s book, “A Change is Gonna Come.” In a fascinating portrait on the relation between (“black”) music and the civil rights movement, from Gospel to Hip Hop, Springsteen is one of the few Caucasian artists that is featured at length, as one of the few outspoken artists in the eighties. Werner quotes black activist LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka) in describing Springsteen as a “blues shouter” who gave a voice to the voiceless. Going from there Werner also explores Spingsteen’s lily white audience, or rather the lack of colour in that audience. Aside from mentioning that around the eighties the racial divide had become too big again to bridge all that easily, Werner mentions that Springsteen was marketed to a white public, African-Americans simply weren't a factor in the marketing plans. Rock music was viewed as a white art form for a white public.
Werner also points towards the, at first glance, blatant patriotism of BITUSA was not something African-Americans growing up in the harsh racial realities of that time (and I suspect today) could easily relate to. The black record buying public found their experiences much better voiced in the stark and vicious Hip Hop beats and blatant raps. The music Springsteen drew from, like Memphis Soul and early R&R, had already been left behind by the African American public as being music of an era of broken promises. Also interesting is that Werner sees Nebraska's content most closely linked to Public Enemy's Rightstarter (Message to a Black Man) in its open criticism of Reaganism. Werner compliments Springsteen as one of the few performers to raise his voice in a time where music strove to be as a-political as possible.
Both books are essential reading for those who want to place Springsteen in a broader context. While the standard works of Dave Marsh strive to do just that, these two works, especially Werner’s, manage to clarify just where to place Springsteen in the ongoing dialog between music and broader society, complete with the often uneasy race relations. While Obama’s nomination radiates an optimism on that terrain that is unprecedented, these two works show that there is still much work to be done.
Read more on 4th of July, Asbury Park (a history of the promised land) here
Read more on Change is Gonna Come here