“I’m always going to trust the art and be suspicious of the artist because he’s generally…a stumbling clown like everybody else.” – Bruce Springsteen, 2006.
Clinton Heylin starts his book with this very same quote. It’s his statement of intent; his anchor for 400-odd pages of exploration into the way this particular artist has grown up through 40 years in the music business.
From the scruffy-bearded street poet who snared a record deal by singing ‘It’s Hard To Be A Saint In The City’ for John ‘I Discovered Dylan’ Hammond, to the tireless stadium rocker taking over the world with ‘Born in the USA’, Heylin retraces the steps of the man you and I know as The Boss through every test and every track worth knowing about.
As far as Heylin is concerned, there’s nothing much worth getting excited about beyond ‘Tunnel of Love’, once the E Street Band had ceased to be (for the next ten years, anyway). E Street Shuffle benefits hugely from this professional focus; there are any number of tomes out there dishing the dirt on Bruce Springsteen the man, and we sure as hell don’t need another one.
Heylin is all about Bruce Springsteen the musician, and when it comes to musicians, this writer is the expert. He’s written about Van Morrison; about the life and times of Sandy Denny; about why 1967 was so important for The Beatles, and half a dozen books on Bob Dylan alone. So it’d be fair to say Clinton Heylin has a little more than a passing interest in rock.
The same goes for you; to get the most out of E Street Shuffle, you do have to be a fairly heavyweight Springsteen fan. For one thing, that’s the only way you’ll get through this book without writing the Boss off as a paranoid control freak, which is largely the impression that Heylin offers of Springsteen the recording artist, post ‘Born To Run’. Take after take is thrown away; songs that could have been the cornerstones of his greatest albums are squirreled away, written off because they do not and cannot fit some intangible ‘vision’.
By the same token however, Springsteen devotees will lap up every page of this book for those same reasons. Treasure after treasure is unearthed, as new/old songs are named and rated, and strange, unheard takes of familiar tracks are presented for detailed inspection. Heylin teases us with documented potential tracklists for the albums that never were, telling the stories of albums leading with monumental anthems like ‘Murder Incorporated’ or heart-rending hymns to regret like ‘The Promise’.
The list of forgotten classics grows and grows; you seriously begin to doubt Springsteen’s capacity to judge his own art. He left show-stoppers like ‘Roulette’ and ‘Frankie’ and countless others off his major releases; he gave away hit singles like ‘Protection’ and ‘Because The Night’; the ‘River’ sessions saw him dismantle incredible first takes of songs like the ghostly ‘Stolen Car’, robbing them of their raw soul power for lack of expertise at the sound desk.
To Springsteen’s credit, he has made an effort in recent years to re-evaluate the songs he threw away so many years ago. ‘Tracks’ and ‘The Collection’ go some way toward filling in the gaps, and last year’s ‘The Promise’ box set brought that lost album partway back to life, if only because it offered tangible visual evidence of the E Street Band’s thunderous ’78 tour. Heylin rightly praises this tour’s blistering nine-minute version of ‘Prove It All Night’; the version that should have been a shattering climax to ‘Darkness on the Edge of Town’.
It’s easy to read this book as a damning portrait of a man who couldn’t make up his mind. You’d think that getting to the end of this book would close up Bruce Springsteen for you; far from it. Heylin opens up the past for us, and wears his badge of future fandom with pride. He’s eager to show us how much we’re still missing from the E Street songbook, and where we might find it.
Fair enough, Heylin might not think ‘Born To Run’ a perfect album like the rest of us, but then, he’s likely more fond of imagining what could have been. That said, Heylin is more than capable of picking out the gems from the coloured glass in this vast treasure chest of material.
He certainly can’t be accused of fawning, much less hero-worship. Perhaps what might irk fans is the realisation that he sees Springsteen for what he is; a stumbling clown like everybody else. Maybe we’d enjoy the man’s music more if we could see him like that too.
Maybe then we could choose between what’s flesh and what’s fantasy.