Bruce Springsteen’s affinity for crafting his work with a literary scope, the undying passion he evokes from his fans, and his own self-awareness make analyzing his music fair game for everything from doctoral theses to heated barroom arguments.
But Peter Ames Carlin takes it a step further in his excellent-but-flawed biography Bruce that hit book stores Tuesday. The author of bios of Bob Marley and Paul McCartney visits The Boss’ hometown of Freehold, N.J., interviewing countless friends, family members, former and current band mates, ex-girlfriends, music industry executives, and Springsteen himself to tell the definitive story of his life.
The result is a detailed rendering of the man rather than the icon, with all his flaws and strengths. Far more effectively than Dave Marsh in his fawning earlier Springsteen bios and Marc Dolan in this year’s dull Bruce Springsteen and the Promise of Rock and Roll, Carlin presents a multi-dimensional portrait that helps you understand his subject beyond simply regurgitating stuff we already know, analyzing lyrics, or dishing dirt.
Best of all, the author tells the stories behind Hazy Davy, Wild Billy, Rosalita, Terry, and Sandy (turns out the female characters are based on the same person), and many of the other people and places that populate the songs that served as a soundtrack for so many of his fans’ lives.
Springsteen, 63, grew up in a profoundly dysfunctional home that was torn by tragedy, perpetual financial problems, and his father’s struggles with mental illness and alcoholism. Bruce was a weird kid, isolated and introverted, but with a contradictory desire to be the center of attention thanks to his doting grandparents.
Carlin delves into the high school-age Springsteen’s poems — passionate and filled with apocalyptic imagery — to show the nascent artist at work. From childhood on, the only thing he wanted to be was a musician and the author tracks him through early bands such as the Castiles, Steel Mill, the Bruce Springsteen Band, and Dr. Zoom and the Sonic Boom as he found his voice and his sound as an East Coast bar band legend.
Springsteen also gradually developed a narrative songwriting arc that allowed him to tell the stories of the hard-scrabble blue-collar people from his hometown in various musical genres — hard rock, folk, country, pop — that led to the blockbuster 1984 “Born in the U.SA.” album, which elevated him to cultural icon status and brought its own unique set of problems that are explored in Bruce.
The Springsteen we meet here is similar to the guy we’ve read about over the years, but several things are made clear:
Despite his common man image and all the superficial profiles that portray him as being an ordinary guy, Bruce Springsteen is nothing like most of the rest of us. He’s obsessed with his work so much it leads to crippling perfectionism, he possesses an endless drive and energy that contributes to a Herculean work ethic most of us can’t touch, and he can be freakishly single-minded. He also has long battled depression and spent years in psychotherapy.
He’s not a saint. He can be a demanding boss who expects his creative counterparts (producers, engineers, fellow musicians) to drop whatever they’re doing to work with him and usually on his terms. He is admittedly narcissistic and can come across as thoughtless. He also was a bad boyfriend to a few of his exes — tempestuous, controlling, and in one case with photographer Lynn Goldsmith just plain nasty.
That said, he’s a pretty good guy for the most part. Sure he might break up bands every now and then, including the great E Street Band, which created some bad feelings that are mined in Bruce, but he has his reasons and he treats his musicians and fans with respect. He’s not afraid to admit that he went through years of therapy to conquer depression and confront some of his demons. And he is sincerely committed to the plight of those less fortunate than himself, which makes laughable the “limousine liberal” charge that gets thrown at him.
Bruce is at its best chronicling his rise from bar band roots when he barely scraped by to the steady climb to superstardom. The book makes clear that these things don’t just happen accidentally — the discussion of how he was marketed pulls back the curtain on how a star becomes over-exposed — and by the time Springsteen was raking in serious money in the early ’80s he had earned it with 15 years of honing his craft, playing thousands of live shows, and writing hundreds of songs.
The problem with the book is that it ultimately feels like Carlin pulled some punches. Bruce is not authorized despite the cooperation of Springsteen and his people, including manager Jon Landau, and in the acknowledgements the author goes out of his way to say that nothing he wrote was pre-approved by his subject.
For some reason he never explores Springsteen’s relationship with Patti Scialfa, his wife of 21 years and the mother of his three children. We get relatively detailed breakdowns of his relationships with his girlfriends and first wife Julianne Phillips (in the latter case Springsteen bares his soul a bit in expressing regrets over the way that relationship ended), but virtually nothing about Scialfa. In the acknowledgments, Carlin notes that she “stayed out of it for the most part, but was welcoming all the same.” It seems obvious to explore what it is they see in each other and how their relationship has affected his music and his mindset, but the author mysteriously steers clear of that topic.
The book also suffers the same fate of many music bios: so much time is spent on the early years that recent events are compressed and treated in a clipped fashion. Other than quotes from previous interviews Springsteen gave in other publications, Carlin offers nothing from his subject about the deaths of original E Street Band members Danny Federici and Clarence Clemons, which seems odd.
This is not to detract from what ultimately is an engrossing read for Springsteen fans. There’s a grittiness and authenticity that runs through the pages and confirms an outsider’s impression that he’s a unique superstar whose talent for expressing the views of common folks is a gift forged through sweat, inspiration, and raw talent.
Contact Rod Lockwood at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6734.