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on November 4, 2003
I had been looking forward to this book for a long time based on what it had been purported to be: the words of actual non-rabid 'lesser' fans speaking about what the music of Bruce Springsteen means to them, says to them. I suppose I let myself imagine a book on the order/level of Studs Terkel's 'Working,' where one can almost hear a variety of different voices speaking of their lives.
Unfortunately, a major problem I had with this book was that the voices Coles chose to include sound very much the same, almost as if one person was doing the writing/speaking and attributing it to different people. Nearly every account has a comment along the lines of "this guy, the Boss, they call him, this Springsteen guy....." which to me sounds like a line from a film. Beyond that, aside from the very first account (a teacher discussing her class going from Wild Billy's Circus Story to the Nebraska album), these people (person?) are speaking but no one seems to quite be saying anything. People recall various lines of songs but few give any insight into themselves as people, as the people Bruce sings about, or how these songs really relate to them aside from being able to recognize some biblical references.

I would suggest that anyone looking to this book as any sort of scholarly work should instead purchase a copy of Jim Cullen's excellent treatment of the way Springsteen, Woody Guthrie and Walt Whitman relate to the country, the world, and each other. And pick up a copy of the aforementioned Terkel book to 'really' hear the way Bruce Springsteen's America speaks. The people interviewed in Working may never mention Bruce Springsteen by name, but they are the characters who populate his work and our lives, much more so than those presented (or portrayed?) in this new book.
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on July 26, 2004
My god, this book is awful. How can a "celebrated Harvard professor and Pulitzer Prize-winning author" write such a pretentious, embarassing, ridiculous, overwrought, narcissistic/self-centered, rambling, poorly edited (was it edited at all?), unreadable piece of drivel? Perhaps Coles was looking to cash in on the popularity of "this guy they call 'The Boss,'" or perhaps he was trying to get away from his Harvard ivory tower and slum it for a bit with a few "average Americans," showing what a down-to-earth guy he really is? Unfortunately, those "average Americans'" comments and thoughts, as presented here by Robert Coles, end up as little more than incoherent ramblings which shed no light and provide little if any insight into Springsteen the man or the artist. Is this why Springsteen tries so hard to control what gets written and said about him? So that books like this don't ever get written? My advice to any Springsteen fans (or anyone else) out there thinking about buying this book: you were Born to Run -- far away from this godawful book!
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on November 10, 2003
I fortunately had the good sense to save my receipt, and returned this awful book almost immediately. If I weren't a fan, this work wouldn't convince me- I'd likely think that Springsteen's audience was cultish and stupidly devoted, and that he was a vapid rich guy masquerading as a modern day Steinbeck or Woody Guthrie. That's the LAST thing that he is, and anyone who really listens to the music should be able to tell that. I would also think that anyone who knows the music AND possesses their own writing skills should be able to effectively convey that to readers. Coles fails at that. Miserably.

Where did Dr. Coles find people who "talk" like this? Who would actually use the expression "this guy they call The Boss" when referring to Bruce Springsteen? (Do these people go into record stores and ask where to find "those Fab Four lads" or "that chap they named the Chairman of the Board"?) The answer- NO ONE! No one, that is, unless you're an eccentric, out-of-touch academic who is trying to emulate the way you think that "common people" talk. I have to suspect that Coles made these interviews up, or drastically and mistakenly paraphrased them. Sure, Springsteen is still a major rock star and a household name in much of the world. I would guess that he still has several million fans around the world who regularly listen to his music and count him among their alltime favorite rockers. But- and here's my main complaint with this book- does the average person on the street who isn't a a major fan (as Coles makes a point of reminding us about the people he quotes in the book) REALLY give Bruce Springsteen THAT much thought? What are the odds of just pulling randomly off the street someone who can speak in detail about Bruce Springsteen's role in American culture? Does he really play THAT big a role in their everyday lives that they could reflect at length on the meaning of his songs? Does Joe or Josephine Average American really view Bruce Springsteen as THE spokesman for our times? I highly doubt it. I mean, if you know only what you hear on popular radio, how could you be familiar some of the more obscure songs that Coles' interviewees discuss (when was the last time you heard Johnny 99 on the radio?!!!)? Why would someone who is not a fan go around thinking regularly about an artist 20 years past the peak of his commercial popularity? The whole thing just doesn't make sense. There are plenty of legendary, influential pop culture figures of whom I'm aware, but who I would not be able to discuss with any credibility if someone interviewed me about their impact on my life and on our culture. Bruce Springsteen is by far my favorite artist, and his music means the world to me. But let's keep him in perspective- he's not some pop culture superhero/god who is on the forefront of every American's mind. He's big, but he's not quite the Elvis or the Beatles (and even with them, could your grandmother or your mailman really give a profound, flowery dissertation on the meaning of some lesser known track off the "White Album""?). Unless you're a fan, I can't imagine that you've given him much thought in the past 15 years. It's not that Bruce's music isn't important to a lot of people, but to ascribe this as commonplace to most Americans is absurd and insultingly phoney. He's a major American singer/songwriter who achieved superstar status some twenty years ago, and who still commands a fiercely loyal following. Nothing more, nothing less. Sorry, Dr. Coles, but you're making a mountain out of an exceptionally fine molehill here. Bruce's songwriting and place in American music stands on its own, but this pretentious and contrived nonsense ends up demeaning and trivializing it.

My suspicion is that Coles, an academic, wrote about what HE thinks Bruce Springsteen should mean to people- the Springsteen ideal. Even his knowledge of the music is questionable- has he ever actually listened to a Springsteen album??? As good and important as Springsteen is, he's still entertainment. Profound, first class entertaintment, sure. I'm not diminishing at all the role that art and the artist play in our lives. But ultimately, I felt that this effort was rather patronizing and demeaning to Springsteen AND to his audience. That's really doing a great disservice to an important artist. Sad, because given Springsteen's support of Coles' magazine Double Take, I was really looking forward to this book. For whatever reason, a truly great analysis of Bruce's music has simply not been written yet. If that's what you're looking for, avoid this odd piece of work at all costs.
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on January 25, 2004
"I wish I were blind" is the name of a Springsteen song but it's also what readers of this inane drivel will be screaming within the first couple of chapters. I'm in my mid-40s, a writer and editor with book publishing experience, as well as a long-time, diehard Springsteen fan, so I hope the author and publisher will permit me some credit here for having at least a modicum of authority in declaring this book thoroughly unreadable. I've yet to finish 100 pages and I have already surrendered. The first two chapters--some 50 pages--ramble on as the author clumsily attempts to establish a connection between Walt Whitman, Frank Sinatra, Dorothea Lange, and the poet William Carlos Williams, about whom Coles delights in reminding us constantly, through interminable and meaningless quotations, was a personal friend. Why does he do this? Because they were all from New Jersey, a fact worthy of about a paragraph unless the topic of the your book is "Famous Artists from the Garden State." Worse, the author chooses to convey this information through pages-long transcripts of tape-recordings. I found myself reading some sentences three and four times trying futility to derive some understanding from the rambling babble of the author's interviewees, which seems to have been copied onto the page verbatim with little or no concern as to whether the words are actually related to the topic at hand. Early on, Coles quite obviously reveals himself to be of a much older generation and unfamiliar with Springsteen and popular music when he refers to a fan listening to "this guy they call The Boss" on "an electronic disc-playing gadget." Welcome to the '80s, Dr. Coles. They're called CD players. Coles even has the blood-curdling audacity to include a poem of his own about the connection he perceives between WCW and Springsteen, a shoddy and amateurish effort that serves only to embarrass both men, not to mention its author. I don't blame Coles for this journalistic travesty so much as I blame the publisher, Random House. They took an inferior work, slapped a photo of Springsteen on the cover, and mislead potential buyers in the jacket promo by claiming that this book is a deep and meaningful look at Springsteen's lyrics as understood by his fans. It's nothing of the kind and Random House owes, at minimum, an apology (if not a refund) to people like me who were duped into dropping $25 on this soon-to-be-remaindered abomination. Perhaps this book's single redeeming value is that it provides irrefutable proof that an elderly pediatrician has about as much business writing about Springsteen's poetry as Dave Marsh has taking a kid's rectal temperature.
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on February 20, 2005
With so much great potential in this project, it's a shame it had to be so terrible. Can you imagine if the author had talked to people who had a functional understanding of Springsteen's music, instead of just people who were like, "Yeah, I listened to him back in the eighties! 'Borrrrn in the USA!!!'"?

The author is remarkably uninteresting, and his subjects not much better. Even the cop, commenting on "41 Shots," could have been engrossing had they picked a more interesting cop. This one was just like, "How? How could be betray us?" Not even giving a moment's consideration to the real question of whether they were betrayed or whether those cops really were racists and murderers. Would have been nice to at least touch down on that point.
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on November 26, 2004
I don't know what this book was supposed to be, but reading about how someone argues with his wife using Bruce Springsteen's lyrics is a waste of paper.
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on November 18, 2003
I picked this up thinking that the idea of looking at Bruce through the eyes of different Americans would be a unique perspective on Bruce's legacy. There is very little insight here, and the result is very disappointing. As someone who has been affected greatly and thought deeply about Bruce's music, I couldn't even finish reading it.
Here are the criticisms of what I did read:
* Superficial commentary on songs worthy of great comment
* Very poor editing: I think Coles just transcribed his interviewees stories directly from tape without editing. It's like one big run-on sentence. It is choppy and totally unlyrical. Frankly, it hurts my eyes!
* Some of the people aren't even Bruce fans. They are acquainted with Bruce fans or have observed the impact of Bruce on America without participating in it and experiencing it. It's like asking people in China to comment on what baseball means to America.
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on May 24, 2004
I should have listened to my first instinct not to get this book when I noted a Harvard child psychiatrist wrote it. But when you're a fan you suspend disbelief in order to hear what other "average Americans" have to say about Springsteen's work. I agree with one reviewer, Coles book sounds like Cole writing what he thinks common folk think about Springsteen's songs. Either that or he has worked with the people featured in the book so much, they have taken on his voice. I finished the book not out of fascination for what the people said (some of their insights and observations had me wondering if they really listened to the music or perhaps took some bad college literature classes), but out of what seemed strange similarities between the interviewees. They are purportedly from different walks of life and parts of the country, and yet, if you read through, you will find they have similar ways of phrasing ideas, ways of speaking they hold in common (that are not in keeping with how most people speak), and similar rhythms to their speech. It had the feel of coming from the same Harvard educated author and not interviews of different "common folk". I'm not going to accuse Coles of fabrication, rather of embellishing the stories (heavily) with his voice and his ideas. Beyond the question of authenticity, the interpretations and visions of Springsteen's songs in this book are soulless in my opinion. They do a poor job of exploring the teenage angst of his earlier work, the worker/adulthood angst in later work, and the angst of his favorite topic - societal misfits and deviant's. When one of the interviewees in the book states that the songs Nebraska and Johnny 99 are trying to get you to feel sorry for the main characters - it goes to show how far off the mark the interviewee and Coles are.
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on January 23, 2004
This book has an attractive cover. It has a mildly interesting introduction. But that's it. The balance of the book reads as if the author, with oh, perhaps five days to produce this work rounded up a bunch of fans, let them babble about what Bruce's music has meant to them, asked someone to transcribe the narratives, added a few uninsightful comments, and called it a book. How sad. How lazy. The book adds virtually nothing to the studies of this legendary artist. I bemoan the Bruce fans who received this book as a holiday gift from well-intentioned relatives. I weep for the trees that were sacrificed to produce it. And the real tragedy -- and irony -- is that apiring artists (as Bruce once was) find it nearly impossible to attract notice in significant measure because publishers would rather bank on authors such as Coles who have outstanding academic credentials and a publishing "track record," even if the egotistical trash they now produce wouldn't pass muster in any decent college English class. If you already own this book, I suggest sending it back to Coles, annotated with a big red "F -- try again." And if you don't already own it, take the money you considered using to buy this book and give it to a local food bank. And if you're Robert Coles, you ought to be ashamed of yourself.
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on January 2, 2004
I opened this book with the expectation that the author would take us on a journey of Springsteen's lyrical talent, only to discover that Robert Coles truly does not appreciate what Bruce is giving to people. Instead, he focuses on himself, talks about people he knows who bear no connection to Bruce, even includes an inane poem that he wrote in honor of Springsteen and a person he knew: "Dr. Williams", that he somehow sees a connection to. I wish I had researched this author more...... I would have seen that he's published more than 50 books, and that this book is clearly just a marketing move. That old caveat is true "Don't judge a book by its cover"; I would add to that: "or its title!"
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