Greetings From E Street: The Story of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band
By Bob Santelli
Chronicle, 91 pp., illustrated, $35
Though at first blush a 91-page coffee-table photo book with text and tchotchkes, at its best Bob Santelli's ``Greetings From E Street " is more than editorial filler surrounding pictures. Santelli, who's done a long stretch in the service of rock 'n' roll as an educator and now as artistic director of the Experience Music Project in Seattle, was a music critic for Springsteen's regional newspaper, the Asbury Park Press, in the early '70s. Thus, he brings an insider's view of Springsteen's development as a singer, songwriter, guitarist , and bandleader. Though there's no shortage of biographies of Springsteen, the best and best-known American singer-songwriter of the post-Dylan generation, Santelli's perspective is unique and, at least as the story begins, there's little stardust in the eyes.
Springsteen is an incidental character as Santelli looks back to the mid- '60s, when bars dotting the Jersey shore towns hosted a thriving music scene. In 1968, the Upstage, an after-hours club in Asbury Park, began attracting musicians who would jam until dawn. Danny Federici, Vini Lopez, David Sancious, Garry Tallent , and Steve Van Zandt were among those who would drop by, as was Springsteen, a guitar player from nearby Freehold who favored Jimi Hendrix, British blues , and American R & B. Soon the five were in a band led by Springsteen, who had what others at the Upstage lacked: charisma. ``There was something magnetic about him," said Margaret Potter, who owned the club with her husband, Tom. ``The indescribable part of him -- the way he led the musicians onstage or smiled, or the way the guitar hung on his body -- made him special."
By the early '70s, the Asbury Park music scene was dead, and most members of the band headed to Richmond, Va. , where a new scene was brewing. Not Springsteen. Santelli confirms the legend: Though a rocker at heart, Springsteen took a bus to the Greenwich Village coffee shops and began performing solo, playing his new, Dylan-influenced songs on acoustic guitar. In 1972, he auditioned for John Hammond, the Columbia Records executive who signed Count Basie, Bob Dylan , and Billie Holliday to the label. He signed Springsteen too, believing he had brought on board a new, introspective singer-songwriter. But Springsteen insisted his old troops join him to rock. (See ``The Producer," Dunstan Prial's new biography of Hammond, for Springsteen's thoughts on this period.)
Santelli's early Springsteen tales are enriched by reproductions of period artifacts: a business card with Springsteen's home phone; a promotional flier for his band Steel Mill -- ``I have never been so overwhelmed by totally unknown talent," wrote one critic from California -- and lots of photos of a scruffy Springsteen with shoulder-length hair parted in the middle, a Les Paul guitar locked in his hands. (His signature Telecaster guitar came later, along with a new haircut and some work on his teeth.) The marketing tools might have helped him, but Springsteen's charisma was matched by his drive and will. Santelli says that Columbia wanted to identify him as a New York artist. Springsteen insisted his debut be called ``Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J." Columbia asked him to re cut his second album with seasoned studio musicians rather than his band, and Springsteen said no. Though the sales of his first two albums were minuscule, especially given the label's marketing clout, Springsteen fought to do what he wanted and bet his success on his ever-improving songwriting and outsize showmanship.
Reproductions of the Oct. 27, 1975 , covers of Time and Newsweek, which featured Springsteen, and tales of European tours following his breakthrough album, ``Born to Run," give the reader a sense of how quickly he was becoming a major rock 'n' roll star. But Santelli's story loses its traction as his subject moves beyond the sphere the two men shared. Soon hagiography takes over, the kind that curries favor with Springsteen devotees. Of Springsteen's decision to shelve the E Street Band for a while in '89, he writes, ``Most of [his fans] longed for the E Street Band but respected Springsteen's wish to experiment." Never mind that, unless Santelli polled all Springsteen fans, he has no way of knowing if the statement is true, I've found Springsteen's followers to be among the most intractable in rock, and though the albums Springsteen made shortly after the break up are distinguished by keen-eyed songwriting, they aren't all that experimental.
Santelli offers several anecdotes that bring us into close contact with Springsteen, largely through the voices of E Street Band members , as do reproductions of set lists written by Springsteen, newsletters for band members , and ``you are there" photography included in the package. But fanzine-like fawning finally undermines his, and the work's, sense of authority.
Maybe unmitigated praise is mandatory copy for such books. But it doesn't do much for an artist whose body of work can easily withstand probing critical analysis, whose public personality invites a sweeping narrative , and whose biography mirrors the old-fashion ed American success story in which a vagabond protagonist triumphs through the confluence of talent, passion , and desire. Santelli's access to the beginning of the story, continued relationship with the band, clear prose , and respect for scholarship suggest he could be the writer to do it. But not here.
All of which means ``Greetings From E Street " is perfect for the unquestioning and non discerning Springsteen fan.
Jim Fusilli, a novelist and critic, covers popular music for The Wall Street Journal.