‘E Street Shuffle’ hits a sour note

E Street Shuffle: The Glory Days of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, Clinton Heylin.

This book is meant to “chronicle the evolution and influence of Springsteen’s E Street Band as they rose from blue-collar New Jersey to the heights of rock stardom.” (That’s straight from the book jacket.) What it really is is a poorly written, thinly sourced, morally bankrupt hatchet job that denigrates and belittles the artist it’s meant to celebrate.

How did I hate this book? Let me count the ways …

1. The book appears to have virtually no original reporting in it at all. Nearly every page has one or more paragraph-length excerpts of interviews of  Springsteen or one of the other subjects from other printed sources.

The author did not speak to Bruce or, as far as I can tell, anyone except Bruce’s first producer/manager, whom he ended up suing to get released from a bad contract. Naturally, the author takes the side of the producer/manager (Mike Appel) to an almost laughable extent. Seriously, I have read a fair bit about the lawsuit and that whole period and nothing I’ve read ever claimed that Springsteen was completely blameless in what happened. Bruce himself has been quoted in interviews talking about the mistakes he made at the beginning of his career, and he has been generous in recent years with his praise for what Appel did to launch his career. None of which was apparently persuasive to Heylin, who makes Springsteen seem like a bizarre combination of Machiavelli and Lenny from Of Mice and Men.

2. The author repeatedly asserts that none of Springsteen’s recordings with the E Street Band come close to replicating the magic that they conjure in a live show. Fair enough; that’s a common assertion by rock critics and fans all over the world. But the author seems to feel that simply asserting that as his opinion is sufficient; he offers absolutely nothing to try to explain what makes a live Springsteen show so special. By contrast, Springsteen biographers Dave Marsh and Peter Ames Carlin both managed to convey the magic and the mystery that happens when the E Street Band comes together on a stage in front of an audience.

3. In the album by album chronology of the book, the author repeatedly mocks and castigates the process by which Springsteen, his band, and his subsequent producer/manager Jon Landau (who is clearly held in the highest contempt by the author) managed to produce albums that have sold tens of millions of copies and been listed by respected critics* as among the very best rock records ever produced. He writes as if the struggles the E Street Band experienced in cutting studio albums was almost purely the result of willful selfishness on Springsteen’s part and a complete lack of ability on Landau’s.

* A sidenote: Every critic who ever wrote a complimentary review of one of these albums (i.e., disagreed with the author’s viewpoint) is dismissed as a sycophantic fool; critics who voiced reservations or criticism are bravely speaking truth to power.

The author criticizes the song choices, the recording process, the sequencing of the albums, the choice of cover art — pretty much everything. With every album, he has a list of songs that are supposedly so superior to the songs that made the final cut that only an idiot would have left them off the record. Some of these discarded songs, which were later released on a boxed set, are amazing cuts, no doubt about it. But the author does not seem to take into account the fact that they were not included because they did not fit the mood or theme of the album being recorded, as Springsteen (you know, the guy whose name is on the record) conceived it.

4. Some of the songs that the author holds in highest esteem have still never been released in any official way, either as B-sides of singles or in the compilation set of unreleased songs called Tracks. So how does the author know these unreleased tracks are so great? How did he happen to hear them? By purchasing illegal bootleg* records of studio sessions that were stolen from Springsteen or the recording studio and then sold to fans. This is where the morally corrupt charge comes in. The author makes no apologies for buying studio bootlegs; indeed, he seems to feel that he and other Springsteen fans are entitled to hear everything the man has ever recorded, whether he himself felt it was suitable for public listening or not. And that’s just wrong.

* There are two types of bootlegs when it comes to music: There are live bootlegs, surreptitious fan recordings of concerts that are traded or sold among fans, and there are studio bootlegs, which are copies of the tape that is recorded during studio sessions when albums are being produced. Some people think all bootlegs are wrong. I have a more nuanced viewpoint which is important in the context of this review. I have a number of live bootlegs, of Springsteen and other artists, and I don’t apologize for it. To my mind, the difference is that those live bootlegs are recordings of public performances; in other words, the music was meant to be heard by fans. Studio bootlegs, on the other hand, are recordings that the artist for whatever reason chose not to release to the public. Some of those unreleased recordings might even be superior to material that was officially released but that is irrelevant; the point is that the artist did not intend anyone to hear them outside of the studio and therefore fans and even self-important writers have absolutely no right to listen to them, let along make someone else rich by purchasing them.

5. I left this one for last because I freely admit it’s a petty criticism. The book is just poorly written. The author (who is apparently British) uses words like “gotta” and “gonna” and “ain’t” repeatedly in the narrative of the book ad apparently without irony. If the rest of the book had been worthwhile, this would have resulted in no more than the occasional eye-roll and a footnote in the review. But the rest of the book is crap, and thus I’m piling on with this last gripe.

If anyone reading this is interested in reading a decent, objective biography of Bruce Springsteen that doesn’t shy away from criticizing him or his actions when it’s warranted but also manages to explore all the reasons why and how he became one of the biggest and most acclaimed rock and roll singer-songwriters of his generation, I’d recommend the other recent Springsteen biography, Bruce by Peter Ames Carlin. As for this piece of dreck, it’s the rare music biography that isn’t suitable either for diehard or casual fans.