At June’s start Marc Dolan’s Bruce Springsteen and the Promise of Rock N Roll was released by Norton, and at July’s start Lesley-Ann Jones’s Mercury, a biography of Freddie Mercury, will be released by Touchstone. Books like these are always a bit hard to review in any capacity, simply because both are, ultimately, propaganda: a biography’s existence automatically connotes the subject’s inportance (a worhwhile if idle q: is there any bio of a truly nasty person in history which doesn’t remotely attempt to ameliorate the nastiness? Is all biography ultimately an attempt to if not redeem someone at least a shot at contextualizing the badness in such a way that the yolk’s lightened or lifted?). Plus in the case of bios of artists the audience is always to some degree circumscribed: if you don’t like the music, chances are you’re not about dive into 300+ pages regarding either Springsteen or Mercury, or so I’d anyway imagine.
I do like the music of these artists, and the bios are each, in their way, interesting and readable. Dolan’s Springsteen is a bit harder to parse simply because it’s now part of a large collection of book-length considerations of Springsteen, his vision, and aspects of promise (this is the second Springsteen book with promise either in the title or sub-)(for the record, the multiplicity of titles isn’t necessarily a bad thing—shelves are devoted to Dylan and Elvis and the Beatles as well—it’s just worth noting). What Dolan does exceptionally well, better than anyone else I’ve read, is trace Springsteen’s development into what we now know him as—an artist whose work is ferociously rooted in mores and morals (and their decay)(or: passionately moral, morally passionate work, to lift DFW). The Springsteen we now know as the bard of the working class began as something wholly otherwise, a rollicking street guy channeling 50’s doo wop and Orbison and Elvis. That shift, and the bio details behind how it happened in and for Springsteen, is presented awesomely by Dolan.
Jones’s Mercury was, for me anyway, easier simply because I know less about Queen and Freddie Mercury himself—I was a kid when he died, and my exposure to Queen came through that most banal route, the scene in Wayne’s World. Of note again, though, is that Mercury’s been biographied pretty extensively. His is, to me, a real fascinating bio—born in Zanzibar, devoted through his life to Mary Austin (an early girlfriend) though he was gay, a phenomenal showman who was painfully shy offstage—and the book itself is a great overview of Mercury’s life, the music scene Queen came of age in, and the sort of band they were. However what’s most interesting about Mercury, especially in comparison to the Springsteen book, is that together they seem build a sort of way to understand artists and their relationship to art. Maybe this is a stretch, but I couldn’t stop thinking of this as I read each book.
Whereas Springsteen seems like someone who’s trying ultimately to craft specific things—someone who wants his music to address certain things, to deal with crucial elements—Mercury, in Jones’s telling (and she’d know, as she was friends with him)(she’s a journalist—this isn’t just some fluff rememberance thing), was devoted to, ultimately, his voice itself, the music, and, specifically, performing (he had extra teeth in his mouth, hence that sizeable overbite, but refused surgery for fear that anything might happen to the voice). This is not at all to say that Springsteen’s not deeply invested in his voice or the music or performing, nor that Mercury didn’t care about what his music addressed or dealth with. But it is (maybe falsely) a fascinating binary and one that, at least for me, raised real interesting questions regarding poetry. I’m honestly curious if anyone reading this has some idea if there could be such a division in poetry. Folks more taken with message than artifice? Folks more taken with presentation than content? Can you think of any poets clearly in one camp or another, or is the distinction altogether false? I haven’t any answer, I don’t think, but I can’t help thinking I’ll be reading poetry differently because of it, at least for awhile.