"It was a bomb. Nobody went," says Luerssen, who's written a new book about Springsteen with a title designed to cap similar efforts: Bruce Springsteen FAQ: All That's Left to Know About the Boss. "He wasn't putting that E Street sound out there. He was doing something totally different [supporting his folk album 'The Seeger Sessions']. It was one of the few thuds in his career. ...
"But now he's back in his element. At the Helsinki show [in July], he played for four hours and six minutes -- the longest show he and the E Street Band have ever played. He's going to be 63 next month, and he's just crushing it."
Takes a knocking, keeps on rocking -- that's why they call him the Boss.
Springsteen arrives in Chicago this weekend for two highly anticipated concerts in Wrigley Field after enjoying another banner year.
BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN & THE E STREET BAND
• 7:30 p.m. Sept. 7-8
• Wrigley Field, 1060 W. Addison
• Sold out
After the death of sax icon Clarence Clemons last summer, Springsteen announced in January on his website that he and the E Street Band would launch a world tour in March, just after the release of a new album, "Wrecking Ball." He then opened the Grammys with the band, performing the album's politically sharp single "We Take Care of Our Own."
"Wrecking Ball" is a solo outing -- an album full of songs about American economic angst as voiced by angry narrative personas -- and Springsteen has spent much of the year discussing their inspiration by and connection to the nation's current social woes, as well as maintaining a simultaneous connection to but distance from the most visible expression of discontent, the Occupy Wall Street movement.
In March, he gave the keynote address at the South by Southwest music conference in Austin, Texas -- marveling at the breadth of contemporary pop music and waxing eloquent on this year's centennial of Woody Guthrie, one of his lyrical heroes -- before unveiling the new songs and new tour in a special concert.
"Wrecking Ball" became Springsteen's 10th album to hit No. 1; only the Beatles and Jay-Z have slotted more albums at the top.
His cultural impact has been seen everywhere again, from being named MusiCares' Person of the Year for his charitable efforts on down to a curious production by a local theater company of short plays based on the songs from his 1982 album "Nebraska."
Get ready for more, too. As he winds his tour this fall through Wrigley, Fenway and other ballparks, Springsteen's song "Land of Hope and Dreams" will be used next month in a barrage of ads for Major League Baseball's postseason. So leading up to and during the playoffs, expect to see commercials showing Bruce and the band spliced with clips of players such as Phil Humber of the White Sox throwing perfect games, all the while the Boss' latest song will drill into your head with similar force.
Luerssen's book comes out next month, too -- one among several he's written about music (including fact books about U2 and Coldplay, with a Nirvana book on the way) but also one close to his heart, he says.
These "FAQ" books aren't standard biographies. They're mostly dispassionate, chronological, bullet-pointed compendiums of nearly every known fact about a musician's life and career.
"Bruce was a natural subject for this kind of approach, because there's so much information out there that it's helpful for fans to rein it into one stream," Luerssen says. "Bruce fans especially want to know all the tidbits. People get interested in the guy because he seems, real, he's got a conscience. There's thought behind pretty much everything he does. He doesn't let it blurt so much. He doesn't talk the talk as much as he walks the walk."
Diving into the minutiae of the Boss' life was eye-opening, Luerssen says.
"There are a lot of neat stories about the early band, when they played the lounge in Asbury Park [N.J.] and how he befriended these guys first back in 1969," he says. "He lived with these guys, all in a house together, him and Southside Johnny and these guys who eventually moved to a surfboard factory near the ocean.
"His first guitar was an exciting story -- his mom financed it, really went out on a limb for him. She was always his most ardent supporter. The love he got from her really drove him, almost as much as the flak he caught from his dad. His dad didn't support him. He wanted him to be a bartender, then a lawyer, something more practical. He kept resisting him, and his mother stood up for him. Learning about someone's life and the adversity he fought -- now he's so epic and big, but you think about how he got his start and it's easy to relate to and inspiring."
The Boss of Chicago
Some Chicago-related trivia from John Luerssen's Bruce Springsteen FAQ: All That's Left to Know About the Boss, due Oct. 16:
-- When Bruce was in the band Steel Mill (with longtime keyboardist Danny Federici and original E Street drummer Vini Lopez), he opened for Chicago's own Elvin Bishop Group at the Matrix on Jan. 22, 1970.
-- Springsteen helped give Southside Johnny Lyon his nickname in April 1971, after he showed up at a rehearsal in the New Jersey surfboard factory where Bruce had been living. Dressed like a veteran Chicago bluesman in a suit and fedora, Bruce mocked his pal, saying, "Hey man, it's Chicago Johnny." Lyon snapped back, "From the South Side."
-- Although he was raised in Maryland, E Street guitarist Nils Lofgren was born in Chicago in 1951.
-- In October 1995, Springsteen toured as a member of Joe Grushecky and the Houserockers, having produced that year's "American Babylon." Their October Assault tour touched down in just five cities and concluded at Chicago's Park West.
-- On "The Rising" tour's first leg in 2002, Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder (an Evanston native) joined Bruce and the band in Chicago for a rendition of "My Hometown."
-- On 2006's "Seeger Sessions" tour, Springsteen's Chicago area show -- like many on that tour -- was a bust. The amphitheater in Tinley Park was only half full.
-- Bruce's Sept. 20, 2009, concert in Chicago marked the first time he played a full album on the tour, playing "Born to Run" in its entirety. That concert also boasted two unique covers: the Ronettes' "Da Doo Ron Ron" and Bobby Day's "Rockin' Robin."