Connecting the Dots: An Interview with Ryan White, Author of Springsteen: Album by Album

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Eric Meola, the photographer who shot the iconic Born to Run album cover, has called Ryan White’s Springsteen: Album by Album, “the best combination of words and pictures that’s been put together on Springsteen.”

We at Stereo Embers Magazine couldn’t agree more.

White and the folks at Palazzo Press have created an essential Springsteen book – one that covers Springsteen’s life and work through the lens of insightful discussions of each one of his 18 studio albums and through a host of rare, fascinating, and, quite frankly, beautiful images of Springsteen in the studio, on stage, with his family, with world leaders and great musicians…

You name it, and Springsteen: Album by Album has something in it for you, including a terrific introduction by Springsteen biographer Peter Ames Carlin, detailed timelines of Springsteen’s life and times, and a crucial discography.

Please enjoy our conversation with author Ryan White, who was nice enough to talk all things Springsteen with us.

SE: Thanks for chatting us with us today, Ryan. Please discuss the first time you heard Bruce Springsteen’s music and why it had an impact on you.

RW: My parents weren’t particularly big music fans. They had a small stack of records and, growing up, there were a couple of Beach Boys records, Pet Sounds in particular, that I’d lay on the floor and listen to through headphones. But the radio was usually news radio, and we didn’t have cable until I was in middle school. However, when I was 10, we were living in an apartment complex in Ypsilanti, Michigan, and I had a friend and he did have cable. (And Intellivision, too.) And I was 10 in 1984, and Bruce was everywhere in 1984. So I remember “Dancing in the Dark,” and I remember “Born in the U.S.A.” and “Glory Days,” and they seemed fun, but he looked like the guys at my grandpa’s gas station and David Lee Roth doing karate kicks. Weird Al was singing “Eat It.” And again, I was 10.

I didn’t connect with Springsteen until the late-1990s, after I’d moved to Portland and I was living in a barely-furnished, 400-square-foot studio apartment near a record store. I bought The Ghost of Tom Joad because it was on sale. A lot of the characters on that record are on a journey, and I suppose I felt like I was. I’d also suppose I willfully ignored how poorly the journeys end for most of the characters on that record. Oddly, that’s the record that drew in me, and then I worked back and followed closely going forward.

SE: How did Springsteen’s biographer, Peter Ames Carlin, come to write the introduction to the book?

RW: Peter’s a good friend. He emailed one day asking me to send him everything I’d written on Springsteen. I pointed out he’d just written a great biography and secured the cooperation of Bruce himself—something no one had done in 25 years. I told him I didn’t think he really needed anything I’d written on Bruce. He told me to shut up.

He’d been contacted by Palazzo Editions, which produced the book, about writing it. He couldn’t, but he pointed them in my direction. About two weeks later, I was in the book business. About a month after I signed the contracts, the Oregonian laid about 50 of us off, and I was extremely happy to be in the book business. And especially the Bruce book business, because I’d done a lot of work for the book without ever thinking I’d be writing a book.

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SE: What does your book contribute to the canon of books on Springsteen?

RW: Can I cop out here and note that Eric Meola, the photographer who shot the Born to Run cover, called this book the best combination of words and pictures that’s been put together on Springsteen?

Honestly, that’s a tough one to answer, because I don’t know that I’m the one that gets to make the decision about what it adds to what I’ll admit was an intimidating collection of books. There was a moment where I was signed up to write it and then I thought, Now what do I do?

SE: Please describe your approach to writing the book. To me, it reads not only as essential guide to Springsteen’s albums but also as a biography of Springsteen told through the lens of his art. Am I on the right track?

RW: Yeah. I think that’s a very good way of looking at it. What I tried to do—and this might belong in the answer to the last question—was connect some dots. Bruce was already a weighty American figure by the time I got into him. How he achieved that authority was something that interested me, and was something I tried to tease out in the text. The album-by-album format was helpful there. There were only so many words I could get away with per album, and so they had to count and do as much work as I could make them do to get us where we needed to be. And the answer to the question of how is in the songs, it’s in the influences, and it’s in the reactions of the time to those albums, and to Bruce.

SE: One of the book’s best features is its compilation of terrific photographs. Please describe the process by which you selected and acquired the photos to accompany your prose.

RW: Here I’ll proudly tell you I did absolutely nothing. Palazzo handled all of that, and handled it masterfully. James Hodgson, the editor on the project, is the one responsible for the great timeline that runs through the book.

 

SE: One of the most exciting aspects of your book is the way in which you describe the development of Springsteen as a political artist. Would you please talk about how Springsteen’s politics evolved over the course of his career?

RW: Sure. There’s a lot working on that question. The politics of class are key. He grew up in a house where the men drifted from job to job, with a whole lot of nothing in between. For a guy who’s been so smart with his iconography, one of the great images of his career has never existed as anything but a description. It’s the vision of his father, sitting alone in the dark in the kitchen with a six-pack of beer and a cigarette glowing. The loneliness, the helplessness, and the struggle against those things are what fuel some of Springsteen’s best work.

There’s generational politics are at play. The 60s were when the kids decided they weren’t going to listen to their parents, and a great many of their parents had saved the world and so that wasn’t going to go smoothly. The Civil Rights movement was front and center. So too protests against the war in Vietnam. It was all in the air, and so it seeped into his music. And for years I don’t think he even noticed it. Probably not until people started talking about it after Nebraska. Then he was pulled into the political fray by George Will and Reagan and, to a lesser extant, Walter Mondale when they all tried to co-opt Springsteen’s popularity in 1984.

Politics had always been alive in his music, but it wasn’t partisan politics. It was politics as illustrated by consequences, by lives being lived and shaped by forces beyond one’s control. And it stayed that way for a long time, probably really until Magic. Even The Rising focuses on the personal, and complicated personal stories at that. I think what happened is he had kids; he felt like he had a little more skin in the game, that there was more reason to speak his mind. I think that happens to a lot of us. Happened to me.

SE: How would you describe Springsteen’s current politics?

RW: He’s a lefty, certainly. But I like to think his vision of what the country can be—a more empathetic, more just place—is shared by everyone. We just disagree on how to get there. I might be crazy, though.

SE: In the book, you give the series of six “classic” albums that Springsteen released between 1975 (Born to Run) and 1987 (Tunnel of Love) their just due. What, in your opinion, are his strongest albums and/or songs from this period and why?

RW: I’ve long said Born to Run is Springsteen’s most important album, and Darkness on the Edge of Town is his best. Steve Van Zandt has long argued the second disc of Tracks, made largely of Darkness outtakes, is his favorite—and that might only have recently been supplanted by the two-disc set The Promise, which is also all Darkness era stuff. Darkness era was pretty damn special. Nebraska is nothing short of a foundational document for what we call Americana these days. Here’s the amazing thing about that run of records: Born in the U.S.A. is the worst of the group. And it sold a gazillion copies. On each record there are multiple songs that anyone would be nuts to ignore.

All that said, I’m really, really into “Something in the Night” right now.

 

SE: I have another question about the same dozen years of releases. Would you please describe a few of your favorite musical moments (i.e. vocal performances, melodies, riffs, solos, etc.) from this period?

RW: I’m going to cop out and go short here, or we’ll be here all day. One answer: Springsteen’s guitar tone on the Darkness tour. You could build or destroy civilizations with that guitar tone, and he played wild and fast and so did the band. The pace of those songs was almost out of control—but never quite. I’m telling you, Darkness era. Everyone talks about it for a reason.

SE: Probably the best aspect of your book is your discussion of the second half (or post-Tunnel of Love period) of Springsteen’s career. Springsteen’s records from the past 25 years or so contain some of his finest material. Why do you think a lot of it, with the possible exception of The Rising, has gone overlooked by the general public?

RW: First, thank you. This goes back to an earlier question, but I thought I could do some work with those records. What more is there really to say about Born to Run and Darkness? That everyone talks about them for a reason? What kind of analysis is that?

There’s a lot to love about these recent releases, and I think the reason they’re overlooked is because Bruce has been around for as long as he’s been around. People feel the way they feel about those older records and, on a macro level, we’re not used to paying attention to new work from our legacy artists. Most people Bruce’s age put out new records so they can tour and play old songs. Or they have much smaller audiences and so the impact and the quality isn’t as celebrated.

 

SE: Your chapter on Devils & Dust is probably the best analysis of that record that I’ve ever read. Please tell us about its importance in Springsteen’s catalog.

RW: First, that record deserves whatever praise anyone wants to lavish on it because the tour it gave us was brilliant. I saw opening night in Detroit and then later in Portland and both shows were spellbinding. A friend named his dog—great dog—Matamoros (we call him Matty) after “Matamoras Banks.” It was that friend’s first Springsteen show.

Devils & Dust is interesting because of when it arrived. With the release of The Rising and the huge tour that followed, Springsteen had as big a public profile as he’d had since Born in the U.S.A. He had more authority than any other working artist. He took that and cashed a little of it in, hitting the road with a bunch of other bands on the Vote for Change Tour in support of John Kerry. And Kerry lost to Bush and everything about the country was howling and loud at that point.

Bruce comes back with a quiet(er) album. It’s not Nebraska or Joad—it’s far more musical than either—but it was a quieter protest. And the title track is haunting.

SE: Magic is a sneaky record. It has many terrific pop moments that almost hide the depth of its political lyrics. Why do you think Springsteen decided to release this record in 2007?

RW: Well, as he said on that tour, “Here’s to the end of eight years of magic tricks.” A very political record, a beautiful record musically and “Girls in Their Summer Clothes” is such a gem. But to answer your question, he had a record. And what we’ve seen the last 10 years is he’s not going to sit on music. “Gypsy Biker,” “Devil’s Arcade,” “Long Walk Home,” “Livin’ in the Future,” “You’ll Be Comin’ Down” … those are all reactions to George W. Bush’s America.

“Long Walk Home” to me is a key song, because it makes clear the idea that just because we’d gone back to the store and the stock market was up, there was a psychic hole the country hadn’t yet dealt with post-9/11, and we still haven’t dealt with it. We paper it over and pretend it’s not there and we get angrier with each other, and darker, and more distrustful. It is a long walk home, still.

 

SE: Would you please give your opinion of Wrecking Ball? It made our magazine’s list of the Top 100 Albums of 2010-2014.

RW: I like Wrecking Ball. Not as much as I like Magic, but Wrecking Ball’s a good record. I think of Wrecking Ball as something like a distant relation to Darkness. The themes carry forward. Wrecking Ball is pissed off. Pissed off is good. We could use more pissed off records.

SE: Would you please discuss what Tom Morello brings to The E Street Band?

RW: Energy. Inspiration. Bruce seems to have arrived at a place where he’s comfortable chasing whatever it is he feels like chasing. He obviously got something out that version of “Tom Joad” they first did in Anaheim in 2008. Morello works to varying degrees on record. I’m in the camp that likes him a lot as a guitarist, but his solo on “American Skin (41 Shots),” is almost too perfect. It’s smooth, and soars. Bruce plays lead guitar like he’s trying to strangle each string, and that sounds like struggle. “American Skin” is a song that needs that fight, and that fight’s been stripped in the studio.

But it’s fun as hell to watch Morello play live, and I think that’s what Morello brings—one more electric guitar, and four electric guitars is something to behold.

SE: Finally, how do you think Springsteen will follow up High Hopes?

RW: I have no idea. He could do a band record. He could strip everything down. He could go Seeger Sessions again. He seems to have arrived at that place in the sun where he can do whatever he wants—and will. I look forward to whatever it is.

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