A gateway with a steep admission price, and a survey too shallow for those who’d be willing to pay for it.
It isn’t clear whether it’s good or bad timing to release an illustrated history of Bruce Springsteen’s career so close to the publication of his autobiography Born to Run. On the one hand, Boss: Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band – The Illustrated History, an oversized tome (its dimensions are closer to an ordinary textbook than a lavish coffee-table book) with an ungainly title, happily piggybacks on Springsteen’s current promotional blitz. But this so-so overview, which favors breadth over depth, chronology over analysis, suffers by comparison, even as a supplementary volume.
Boss is a frustrating work. Though it contains 167 photos, most of them in color, its visual presentation isn’t particularly compelling. The vast majority of these images, often lost within a sea of bland text, are either taken from live performances or promo materials (posters, tour ephemera, magazine covers). Take the first chapter, which outlines Springsteen’s childhood and artistic formation. There isn’t a single era-specific photograph, and none are of his family, which is a distracting omission (no doubt due to a lack of publishing rights).
This wouldn’t be such a problem if Gaar’s narrative were more absorbing. Her workmanlike approach amounts to “this thing happened and was followed by that” storytelling. Gaar inserts commentary here and there, most often within various sidebars that discuss the merit of Springsteen’s albums. But the criticism here is entry-level. She wraps up a discussion of Born to Run with the following banal kicker (and unfortunate typo): “Born to Run fully deserves of all [sic] its accolades. It’s Springsteen’s first classic album.” Some might argue 1973’s The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle holds that distinction, but why split hairs?
The real question is: Who is this book for? Very little of Boss will enlighten longtime Springsteen fans. Most of it is culled from secondary sources diehards are sure to be familiar with. As a brisk (and competent) retrospective of his remarkable career, it should, in theory, appeal to neophytes. And yet, who among those unfamiliar with the legendary musician would be willing to pay $35 for a commemorative issue of Time magazine, dressed up as a book? Ultimately, Boss seems to be a stuffer in search of a giant-sized stocking.
Still, Gaar’s subject is so compelling that this mediocre treatment sent me back to the source material. As she sketched the details of Springsteen’s meteoric ascent, I followed along while listening to a remarkable soundtrack. In that sense, Boss works best as liner notes to his albums. Of course, in our digital era, liner notes are the domain of the completist, not the dabbler. So we return to the fundamental flaw of this pricey work. It’s a gateway with a steep admission price, and a survey too shallow for those who’d be willing to pay for it. But if you’re a Springsteen fan and, come December, a loved one hands you a gift-wrapped copy of Boss, consider it a welcome, if flawed, excuse to dust off some great records.