Magic in the Night: The Words and Music of Bruce Springsteen

By Rob Kirkpatrick

Review by David Chiu

The mention of Bruce Springsteen’s name conjures up something that is almost mythological and larger than life,: Born in the USA; sold-out stadium shows; platinum-selling albums; the marathon concerts; New Jersey’s favorite son; the song “Born to Run”; “The Boss.” Yet when we talk about great songwriters in popular music, his name doesn’t come up as often as Bob Dylan, Lennon and McCartney, Paul Simon or Smokey Robinson. If we really take a closer look at the music of Springsteen, however, we’ll find that there is a consistent body of work that touches on subjects that are not only distinctly American in character, but also very universal and human.

Author Rob Kirkpatrick focuses on Springsteen’s role as songwriter in his recent book Magic In the Night. First published in 2007 as The Words and Music of Bruce Springsteen, this paperback edition, published in March, spans Springsteen’s works from his first album Greetings From Asbury Park, NJ to Magic in the Night. And perhaps incidentally, Magic in the Night is also a biography of the musician tracing the mainly ups and sometimes downs in his career, as well as the critical response to his music.

With the valuable insight and perspective of both a fan and a critic, Kirkpatrick dissects each Springsteen album and song to its simplest essence. The book chronicles Springsteen’s maturation as a lyricist: from the romantic and local characters from the Greetings and The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle, through the somber tones of Darkness on the Edge of Town and Nebraska; his thoughts about romance on Tunnel of Love; and contemporary concerns post 9-11 on The Rising. In between Kirkpatrick also documents the lyrical triumphs and ambitions of masterworks such as Born To Run and The River.  He also explores the impact of other people’s works on Springsteen’s creative process, from Southern writer Flannery O’Connor to filmmaker John Ford and his movie adaptation of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.

And while Kirkpatrick certainly knows Springsteen’s music as if it was on the back of his hand (Full disclosure: the author and I were former work colleagues), he is not so blinded to point out the Boss’ musical weak spots (i.e. 1992’s Human Touch album). While his examinations are very in-depth, Kirkpatrick also writes in a tone that is very conversational as if to engage readers who are not necessarily experts or fans of Springsteen’s works. The author displays a wry sense of humor evidenced in this anecdote: “When I told a girlfriend in grad school that I preferred the Human Touch/Lucky Town material to [The Ghost of Tom] Joad, she looked at me as if I’d just admitted that Birth of a Nation was my favorite film.”

Die-hard fans of Springsteen will likely agree with some or nearly all or Kirkpatrick’s points, or have their own differing and passionate opinions about certain songs or albums. But for casual fans Magic in the Night is an excellent guide to a legendary artist’s catalog so full of personal depth and complexity that it requires some navigating, but in the end yields so many rewards.