Over the course of the last two years, two of the bigger moments in Ryan White’s life have come via succinct digital notes—somewhat impersonal bits of digitized text on a screen, both of which changed the course of his life.
So, you want the good news or the bad first?
Let’s start with that second message: an ominous email received at 9:59am announcing a 10am meeting for the entire staff of The Oregonian. By 2pm on June 20, 2013, White knew he’d be out of a job two months later.
What’s the good news then? The curt text White received earlier that spring from Peter Ames Carlin (also an ex-Oregonian journo), asking him to send over everything he’d ever written on Bruce Springsteen. Mind you, Carlin had just written the definitive Springsteen biography—Bruce—the year before. Naturally, White wanted to know why he wanted anything to do with his music critic scribblings. He told White to shut it and make haste.
The rest of 2013 was spent feverishly focused on chronicling the 17-record discography of The Boss’ studio albums, slogging through the moments where White felt defeated and disillusioned—an unemployed dude in his basement writing a book on Springsteen, the epitome of the American success story whose music and lyrics embody the American dream.
White often references a 2009 Jon Stewart quote from The Kennedy Center Honors: "When you listen to Bruce's music, you aren't a loser. You are a character in an epic poem about losers."
With the support of Carlin and access to his files—seeing as Springsteen had just cooperated with Carlin on his book (the first time in 25 years he’d cooperated on anything)—White says he took “a pretty academic approach to the book,” looking back into archives, digging deep into bootlegs and listening—a lot.
White wanted to connect the dots: How had Springsteen become such an icon—“something of a square-jawed American avatar”? How had he carefully crafted narratives not only on his albums but throughout his life?
“If you're going to attack a birth-to-now creative arc, best to explore someone who's thought a lot about the story he's telling. And he clearly has,” White says. “He is arguably the greatest album artist of the album generation. As we sit now, in a post-album moment, his catalog is a good one to work back through.”
Speaking of albums, Springsteen put one out two days before the book’s contracted deadline—January's High Hopes, his 18th studio record—so White scrambled to fit it in. The result is his collection of critical essays across 288 pages, many of which are beautifully complemented by iconic photography (especially shots by the incomparable Eric Meola) including several previously unpublished photographs.
Now, who better to provide a visual soundtrack to Springsteen: Album by Album than White himself?
SPRINGSTEEN'S MUSICAL GENRE:
"Rock and roll, in all its messy, complicated glory"
WHITE'S STREET CRED:
"I type fast. Like really fast. Also: I was twice named one of the top writers in the country by the Society for Features Journalism. I spent almost 16 years at The Oregonian covering sports, music and culture. I’ve written for Sports Illustrated and Portland Monthly, The Dallas Morning News, The Washington Post, the Mercury and, a long time ago, for The Michigan Daily.
"This feels a lot like bragging, and that feels awfully uncomfortable. So let’s drop a Springsteen song that’s got a little swagger: 'Out in the Street' from The River. Here’s a good live version from 2009."
“Here’s a song I discovered working on the book: ‘Losin’ Kind,’ which was on the cassette of demos that would eventually produce Nebraska. It’s filled with despair and hopelessness and it’s gorgeous—with a killer final lyric.”
INSPIRATIONAL AND INFLUENTIAL:
“Lately it’s been ‘Darkness on the Edge of Town,’ primarily for the defiance at song’s end, where Springsteen digs in his heels and goes to work. I’ve been drawing a lot from that lately. This is a 2009 version shot in an empty Paramount Theatre in New Jersey.”
EARLIEST SPRINGSTEEN MEMORY:
“I was 10 in 1984, and 10 is when you start to discover ‘culture,’ and the culture in 1984 was dominated by Bruce (and Michael, and Prince, and Van Halen, and Madonna, and ‘Weird Al’). I remember ‘Dancing in the Dark,’ and I remember Bruce’s awkward dancing and how he pulled Courteney Cox onstage. What I didn’t know was that was a second run at the video. The first was terrible, and hilarious, and it’s on YouTube.”
JUST CAN'T LIVE WITHOUT:
“Wow. One song. One song I can’t live without. One song that I would take with me as comfort in the face of inevitable death on a godforsaken speck of land in the middle of an ocean. I’m stalling. One song. One song.
“I’d take ‘Land of Hope and Dreams’ because there’s just enough hope packed in there to keep you alive. This is from a 2012 Sandy benefit concert at Madison Square Garden.”
"I don’t feel the least bit guilty about either of these, both from the most recent tour, and both fun: 'Highway to Hell' and 'Stayin’ Alive.'"
“He should probably be embarrassed about that ‘Dancing in the Dark’ video, and putting the sound of an electronic checkout stand on the end of ‘Queen of the Supermarket.’”
“Are we talking local bands inspired by Springsteen? Because Casey Neill obviously carries some of that. Quiet Life, too. I love Sallie Ford’s new record and offer that with the disclosure that I wrote the press bio for her. Honestly, we could be here all day with this one. Having covered the local scene for almost six years, and not having written much about it in the last 14 months, there’s more to cover here than anyone wants to read. Looking forward to hearing Blitzen Trapper play Harvest this weekend [not once but twice, with the early all-ages show], though.
“I’ve long dug the version of ‘State Trooper’ Lost Lander does, though this particular recording gets a little fuzzy when they blow it out.”