I've read a lot of Bruce Springsteen books. I've read his acclaimed autobiography, I've read Peter Ames Carlin's solid biography, I've read Dave Marsh's magnum opus. Did I need to read another one? No...but you're not me.
You might be like me circa high school, when I was just getting into the live box set and discovering the depths of a guy I'd only known from his "Born in the U.S.A." hitmaking days of my '80s childhood. Marsh's first Springsteen biography, a large-format illustrated volume called (what else?) Born to Run, served as my introduction to Springsteen's Jersey Shore history. I'd never even heard Born to Run, so I ran out and bought the (this being the '90s) 24K gold "Master Sound" CD.
Whatever your age, if you're just digging into Springsteen's long history (a full four decades longer now than it was when Marsh's book came out), the new edition of Meredith Ochs's Bruce Springsteen: An Illustrated Biography will serve you well as an up-to-the-minute overview of all things Boss.
How did he get his start? Why is the E Street Band called that? What's the deal with Nebraska? Is that really Courteney Cox in the "Born in the U.S.A." video? (Yes, although the photo caption incorrectly sets the shoot in Minneapolis, rather than St. Paul, Minnesota.) When did he start having kids? How did he get the idea to write a 9/11 album? Why does he just keep going?
One benefit of a newly-revised biography (Ochs's first edition came out in 2015) is that it incorporates an essential insight Springsteen opened up about in his memoir: like his father, although less disastrously, he's long struggled with depression. His bandmate and wife Patti Scialfa describes Springsteen's gifts and challenges very precisely in a quote Ochs cites from a New Yorker profile.
When you are that serious and that creative, and non-trusting on an intimate level, and your art has given you so much, your ability to create something becomes your medicine. It's the only thing that's given you that stability, that joy, that self-esteem. And so you are, like, 'This part of me no one is going to touch.' When you're young, that works, because it gets you from A to B. When you get older, when you are trying to have a family and children, it doesn't work. I think that some artists can be prone to protecting the well that they fetched their inspiration from so well that they are actually protecting malignant parts of themselves, too. You begin to see that something is broken. It's not just a matter of being the mythological lone wolf; something is broken. Bruce is very smart. He wanted a family, he wanted a relationship, and he worked really, really, really hard at it — as hard as he works at his music.
In a sense, Ochs's book is the history of what that work ethic has garnered Springsteen and the world. At every stage of his career, Springsteen has focused on what he wants to accomplish. Sometimes he doesn't succeed, but he often does, and the result has been a life and career that are often described with the word "integrity."
Authenticity has always been key to his personal brand, and it's why he's never been irrelevant. It's why his excursions into R&B have always worked (they come from a sincere place of respect and collaboration), it's why Born in the U.S.A. holds up so well (as Ochs notes, those dark stories are still there beneath the studio sheen), it's why his latter-day calls to honor immigrants resonate so strongly for his still largely-white audience (he invokes their common ground with today's immigrants, calling back to the Ellis Island days).
The benefit of hindsight also informs Ochs's observations that Springsteen has been one of rock's great fence-menders. He still invites former bandmate Vini "Mad Dog" Lopez back to play on the old '70s songs, and he even made up in very public fashion with the professional colleague he would seem to have most reason to despise: Mike Appel, with whom Springsteen wrangled for years to get out of a restrictive contract. Ochs describes a show in 2009 when Springsteen played his debut album Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. front to back, dedicating the performance to the man who worked hard to further the Boss's breakthrough.
If you're a longtime Springsteen devotee, you won't learn much that's new in Ochs's Illustrated Biography. Most of her quotes are recycled, with some drawn from Springsteen's recorded stage banter. The photos are nice, but not revelatory. In short, this is a book for the new fan — or for the fan who hasn't been paying close attention to what the Boss has been up to in recent years (for example, his Tony-winning Broadway show) and needs an update.
Ochs and her publisher becker&mayer! do include a few fun items for completists, though. Open an envelope in the back of the book, and you'll find reproductions of memorabilia including posters for gigs by his various bands, a circa-1985 promotional sticker, a 1987 Rolling Stone cover — and even his draft card, marked 4F (unfit for military service) due to injuries he'd sustained in a motorcycle accident.
With all that swag, you can dedicate your bedroom (or cubicle) like a teenager — whether you were a teen in the '60s like Bruce, in the '90s like me, or right now in the 2010s. In every era, the Boss is iconic.