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"On the outside looking in:" Connecting with BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN @75 author Gillian Gaar

June 3, 2024

Seattle-based Gillian Gaar is one of the premier rock journalists of the rock’n’roll era. She’s been doing the work for forty years, publishing countless articles for periodicals like Rolling Stone, Mojo, and No Depression, and nearly twenty books, beginning with She's A Rebel: The History of Women in Rock and Roll in 1992. She's written liner notes for the likes of Judy Collins and Laurie Anderson. She also was a senior editor for the seminal Seattle music journal The Rocket, published by Backstreets magazine founder Charles R. Cross. Her most recent book, Bruce Springsteen @75, was published by Motorbooks in April, in advance of Springsteen's landmark birthday this coming September.

Motorbooks is a division of Quarto, a British publisher that specializes in large format “coffee table” style books, and was, as the name implies, originally focused on content dealing with cars and motorcycles. Bruce Springsteen @ 75 is part of a recent initiative launched in part by executive editor Dennis Pernu, who began a music-book program at the imprint in 2021 with Fender 75 Years. The program is designed to provide a retrospective view of artists who, in addition to their longevity, have both cross-generational and international appeal, charting the highs and lows of their careers by highlighting significant events in sequential order. So, while these books might not always satisfy hardcore fans, they should not be dismissed out of hand.

Bruce Springsteen @ 75  is the work of a writer who is most definitely not a lifelong fan, but the perspective of a “Bruce outsider” is valuable. They see things that longtime fans don’t notice, question things that are taken for granted, and can bring under-examined topics to the forefront, like Bruce’s From My Home to Yours radio shows on SiriusXM, or his friendship with former President Barack Obama and the podcast and book that resulted. Gaar knows how to conduct research, and it shows. There are tidbits scattered throughout the book that even the most dedicated fans may not be familiar with (details from former manager Mike Appel’s memoir, for example), from a variety of sources not often seen in a “coffee table” book, like dozens of magazine articles from the U.S. and abroad. And while she cites Dave Marsh’s groundbreaking work, there is not the overreliance on his pair of in-depth biographies from which previous publications have suffered.

Gaar had written an earlier book on Bruce for another Quarto imprint, Voyageur Press, with the somewhat unwieldy title Boss: Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band—The Illustrated History. This helped her in securing the opportunity to do the @ 75 book, which she was interested in writing because she already had done so much work on Bruce’s career and had read his Born to Run memoir, which she found revelatory.

"...His memoir," Gaar told me during our recent conversation about both her newest Springsteen book and her work in general, "which I was really impressed with - I think anyone who’s interested in rock music in the ‘70s and ‘80s would probably enjoy it even if they are not necessarily a Bruce fan. I was impressed with how... What really comes across is how thoughtfully he thinks about his work and his craft, and you don’t often hear rock musicians talking about creating things that way. I mean, you might expect it from someone like David Bowie, who obviously had this keen artistic sensibility, but you wouldn’t necessarily think of it from a rock and roller like Bruce, and yet you do get that. It showed how carefully he considered things, and chose what he was going to do next. ‘Well I’ve done this kind of music for long enough, I want to get into some other areas.’ And just how - you almost want to say [he was] just consumed by it. Because really when you think about it, he was one of the few people I’ve written about in depth - maybe the only one - who never really had a day job [laughs]. You know, throughout his whole life. You know, even Kurt Cobain worked as a janitor and he would get tired and just walk off his jobs and maybe get fired at times, but he has [had] them, you know. And I don’t think Bruce really had any other kind of job but music."

There are not any photos in Bruce Springsteen @ 75 that one could call rare, which is rather frustrating since that’s a big selling point for large format books. This is not Gaar’s fault, however. The task of locating, selecting and licensing photos was farmed out to a design company, which she says was “a relief” since “it’s hard tracking down images.”

And while the book is remarkably error-free, there are definitely some notable factual omissions. You won’t find coverage of career highlights like his memorable appearance at JazzFest in 2006, or of his support for the Jersey Shore music scene and dozens of guest appearances at seminal venues like The Fast Lane, The Stone Pony, and Big Man’s West. And there is no discussion of rehearsal shows and holiday shows at Convention Hall, or of his decades-long commitment to the Light of Day benefit series, either.

There are some offbeat inclusions in the book, as well. For example, a 2016 appearance on Desert Island Discs (a British radio show that’s been aired since 1942) in which Bruce chooses eight recordings he’d take with him to a desert island. “Well, it was just something people might not necessarily know about, and I've always been an Anglophile,” she explained.

However, it’s clear that Gaar has done some thinking about musicians and their careers, and about the music business in general, and is interested in how Bruce fits into that world. She’s concerned with how artists with lengthy careers maintain fan interest and how their artistic choices affect their relationship with them over time. Bruce has definitely made choices that have challenged and confounded some fans: touring with different band lineups, solo shows, and more recently, the Broadway gig.

"The show on Broadway - that was that kind of residency," said Gaar during her recent conversation with me. "I think also, he just liked the different setting. He liked to present the songs in a different way that was just him [by himself,] as opposed to when he goes out on the road with the band. I would think as long as his health is pretty good, he will probably continue to make those kinds of live performances because of what you get from doing a live show with a band like that. The interaction with the audience, but the band as well, which is different from a solo show; [as a performer] you get more out of it. So I don't know if he’ll ever completely leave that, but it’ll be interesting to see what he does with records, because he no longer has to put out any new records, but he's obviously a thinking individual who cares about a lot of things and probably has things he'd like to say to a larger audience, so I think that’s the impetus for continuing to write songs. But it must be kind of a relief that you don't have to worry about its chart position or something."

When it comes down to it, this is not an essential book for fans by any means. But you’re not buying this book for detailed analysis. It’s a “coffee table” book, an overview, a collection of thumbnail sketches. And it’s the work of a veteran, dedicated writer who takes her work seriously, and a great place to begin if you’re just starting to dip into Bruce’s career. Bearing all of that in mind, take a look; you won’t be disappointed.


You can click here to purchase a copy of Bruce Springsteen @75. You also can click here and here to learn more about Gillian Gaar via her social-media platforms.


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