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Born in the U.S.A.:

Bruce Springsteen

HarperCollins, $23, 254 pp.

I think I have a pretty good idea how Bruce Springsteen would react if he ever read Born in the U.S.A. Jim Cullen’s book, which seeks to explore how the Boss’ music and lyrics connect with the cultural tradition of Lincoln, Twain, Whitman, Martin Luther King, and others, would probably move Springsteen to say something like what he said in Blood Brothers, a fly-on-the-wall documentary released last year. At one point, some members of Springsteen’s entourage are shooting the bull with the filmmakers. Suddenly, Springsteen walks in. With a somewhat cockeyed grin, the Boss calls out, “Is there some pontificatin’ going on?”

The exchange aptly captures Springsteen’s ethos. While his oeuvre is more deserving of book-length treatment than that of almost any other rock star—his lyrics are often delicately poetic, his themes generally mature, and his approach to his vocation serious—Springsteen has always been one of the least pretentious rockers anywhere. His characters are Everymen who put on few airs, certainly none of them intellectual. And virtually everybody who’s ever met Springsteen himself—as neither Cullen nor I have—say he’s decidedly down to earth.

This, of course, leaves Harvard historian Cullen in an unfortunate bind. By writing a book at all, he’s engaged in overintellectualization on a grand scale. (Springsteen would find it especially amusing that Cullen managed to convince professors at Tufts, Brown, and Harvard to accept several Springsteen-centered papers, including a senior honors thesis.) But as long as one is going to overintellectualize, one might as well nail the topic. Alas, Cullen doesn’t quite do that, either.

The author does offer a number of worthwhile insights into Springsteen’s influences—as long as the reader accepts the caveat that Springsteen may or may not have been aware of any of them. Cullen’s thoughtful exegesis of “Born in the U.S.A.” helps explain Springsteen’s complicated feelings toward the Vietnam War and the Americans who fought in it; a similar discussion of “Racing in the Street” is valuable in exploring both Springsteen’s love for cars and his attitude toward what Cullen calls “the play ethic.”

In addition, Cullen cites to good effect some of Springsteen’s many concert monologues, shedding light on such issues as manhood and fatherhood, both of which are crucial to his music. The author also tracks intelligently the development of Springsteen’s attitudes toward religion; early in his career he poked fun at the church before finally beginning to wrestle honestly with spiritual dilemmas.

And although Cullen is on weaker ground when he tries to link Springsteen’s work to larger themes in American history, his skills as a historian do provide some interesting nuggets. Cullen argues that Springsteen is a small-r republican and a “good conservative” who infuses the common man with a Jeffersonian dignity, and he points out the latent appropriateness of the name of Springsteen’s hometown, Freehold, N.J. A “freeholder,” Cullen notes, is someone who owns a small plot of land for family farming. Pointedly, he notes that by the time Springsteen was growing up there, Freehold had become quite the opposite, an industrial town riven with working-class alienation. That’s a pretty nice turn for Cullen, as both themes motivate Springsteen’s work.

Unfortunately, despite a quick survey of Springsteen’s politics, Cullen frustratingly fails to explain how this crucial “republicanism” is distinguishable from ordinary populism. Even less satisfying is Cullen’s discussion of Springsteen and race. Cullen suggests that Springsteen’s first decade of songs ignore race because the topic is “too incendiary” for him—yet Cullen ignores ample evidence, much of which he’s already provided, that Springsteen wrote songs with an impressively colorblind universality. (The E Street Band was, of course, one of the 1970s’ rare integrated rock acts.)

Several unfortunate decisions by Cullen diminish the scope—and the value—of his study. He decides not to include discussions of Springsteen’s bootleg recordings, which are probably as numerous and significant as any rockers’ except for the Grateful Dead. Moreover, in seeking to emphasize the universality of Springsteen’s music within American culture, Cullen winds up understating how well Springsteen’s songs, particularly his earlier ones, create a tangible sense of place, thanks in large part to his frequent use of New Jersey landmarks, from Kingsley Avenue to “that giant Exxon sign/that brings this fair city light” in “Jungleland.”

Nor does the author adequately address Springsteen’s musical trajectory after he broke up with the E Street Band. Even as Cullen initiates a thoughtful analysis of the lyrics on the Ghost of Tom Joad album, he fails to ask whether its spare instrumentals—or the backing of future albums—might benefit from the return of the E Sreet Band’s exuberance.

The author also makes a couple of missteps. Cullen alludes to one or two Springsteen siblings, but he never names them or tells us anything about them. There’s a picture on Page 157 of “THE BAD BOY: Robert Mitchum,” yet Cullen fails to explain what it’s doing there. (Anyone who has listened to the renowned 1980 bootleg Piece de Resistance has a clue: Springsteen got the title for “Thunder Road” from the poster for an old Mitchum movie.)

And Cullen looks downright foolish for trying to find any significance at all in Springsteen’s hallucinogenic early song “Does This Bus Stop at 82nd Street.” Whatever the young and trippy Springsteen meant when he sang, “where dock worker’s dreams mix with panther’s schemes to someday own the rodeo,” he most assuredly did not—as Cullen suggests—mean to imply that “work…like black nationalism, is something of a game.”

In the end, though, Cullen, to his credit, comes up with fitting epitaph for the book. His final line is: “When I listen to Bruce Springsteen, I remember how to be an American.” After surviving 200 pages of Cullen’s pontificatin’, those 13 words do a nice job of summarizing what the Boss is really all about.CP