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  • Writer's picturePete Chianca

Review: 'Bridge and Tunnel Boys' a fascinating study of Billy Joel vs. Bruce Springsteen

If there’s a target audience for “Bridge and Tunnel Boys,” Jim Cullen’s new book on “Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel, and the Metropolitan Sound of the American Century,” I’m pretty sure it’s me. That is, someone who came of age just as his two subjects were moving from stages of burgeoning popularity into genuine superstardom, and who spent hours — and hours! — of his teenage years spinning their albums obsessively.

Coming from that perspective, it’s hard not to be fascinated as Cullen traces the ways Springsteen’s and Joel’s lives and careers have intersected — in more ways than you might think. He also looks at the ways they differ: “Springsteen comes off as a more extroverted, appealing figure than Joel, whose melancholy suffuses his life and work,” Cullen notes in the introduction, one of a series of keen observations about the ebb and flow of two very similar careers springing from equally similar backgrounds.

It’s those backgrounds that provide the backbone for the “Metropolitan Sound” of the subtitle, not to mention the name of the book: Referring to those living “on the periphery of Manhattan,” “Bridge and Tunnel Boys” is “not a nice term,” Cullen notes. But, he argues, it was the pair’s status as perpetual outsiders, albeit ones stationed just outside the gates of power, that helped shape the scrappy and uncompromising nature of their work.

As more of a “student” of Springsteen, the book didn’t open many new doors for me in terms of his history — but seeing how Springsteen’s situations played off Joel’s put them in a new light that couldn’t help but make them feel fresh. And knowing much less about Joel, I found myself engrossed by Cullen’s incisive trip through his particular peaks and valleys. (And he definitely had a few of the latter — the man really could have used a good accountant.)

It’s worth noting that Cullen deals with the critical elephant in the room right out of the gate, namely that a lot of people think that Springsteen is just better. “Bruce Springsteen is one of the most admired musicians — one of the most admired people — in American life. Billy Joel, well, not so much,” he notes in the introduction, going on to describe some of the “truly striking critical venom” Joel has suffered, much of it undeserved. (Or so Cullen makes the case, and I happen to agree.)

Cullen himself has some interesting critical takes that he reveals during his stroll through both artists’ catalogs, including declaring 1976’s “Turnstiles” to be Joel’s best album, and being surprisingly dismissive of what many consider Springsteen’s masterpiece, “Darkness on the Edge of Town,” calling it “one of the more uneven records in Springsteen’s body of work.” (!) But he clearly has a keen ear and a writer’s penchant for nailing down exactly what works and what doesn’t on each release — and why — making those sections a pleasure to read even if you don’t agree with him.

Unfortunately some of Cullen’s facts are off — he says at one point “The Stranger” won album of the year in 1978 (it was actually the “Saturday Night Fever” soundtrack), and he seems to be quoting lyrics off the top of his head: “I may be crazy, but a lunatic may be what you’re looking for,” he quotes “You May Be Right,” missing it by that much. But those are quibbles: He clearly gets the big picture about both artists, both the lows — his analyses of the problems baked into “Glass Houses” and “Working on a Dream” are spot on, for instance — and the dizzying highs, especially when it comes to “Born in the USA” and “An Innocent Man.”

In fact, Cullen’s analysis about just how the world was primed for the stunning success of those two albums is a highlight of “Bridge and Tunnel Boys.” Noting Springsteen and Joel were “weirdly normal” among their ‘80s contemporaries, Cullen writes that “to a misleading degree, both were understood as ‘regular guys’ — coded as white — and this in turn gave hope to a whole other set of people who valued hard work, tradition, and working-class values while rejecting the rest of the neo-capitalist package.” In other words, they gave us a way to be pro-American and anti-Reagan at the same time.

I’m oversimplifying, but that section of “Bridge and Tunnel Boys” was eye opening for this suburban kid who was in the right place at the right time to appreciate exactly what it was they were offering (just like Bruce Springsteen and Billy Joel were in the right place to offer it). It was an ah-ha moment for me in a book that’s full of them.

For more information, visit Rutgers University Press.



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