As you read “Bruce” (Touchstone, $28) it quickly becomes clear that author Peter Ames Carlin understands something a lot of Bruce Springsteen biographers seem to forget: What a great personal story the man is.
It’s not your typical rock ’n’ roll account of sudden success, debauchery and fall from grace; instead, it’s a rags-to-riches tale of an outcast with an obsessive drive and an unyielding vision, one that, amazingly, he never loses – although it would have probably made his life easier if he had.
Springsteen’s efforts on his breakthrough album, 1975’s “Born to Run,” are a perfect example: Columbia Records was basically demanding a hit if he wanted to keep his contract, but radio-friendly ear candy was the last thing Springsteen had in mind. Instead, “he needed to create a work that reestablished rock ’n’ roll as a cultural force with the power to inspire and even create change in your life, in your town, in the world around you,” Carlin writes.
The fact that Springsteen had that goal at age 24 is impressive enough. That he pretty much achieved it is downright amazing, and that unmitigated determination provides a thread to Carlin’s book that makes it a fascinating and even inspiring read.
The insights Carlin brings to Springsteen’s sometimes familiar story are buoyed by personal interviews with, well, everybody: family, friends, band members, managers and most notably Springsteen himself, who provided an unprecedented amount of access and, according to Carlin, no conditions. The result is a portrait that feels like a complete, complex human being.
Springsteen’s early years are particularly well sketched, starting with the tragic death of his father’s young sister that hung over his family for decades to come. But if his troubled, often unemployed father and stalwart, doting mother helped shape his worldview, by the time Springsteen was starting to make his way as a young musician, his own personal drive had clearly taken over – along with a certain undeniable charisma.
“No one in the room expected this fusillade of power and finesse,” Carlin writes of an unscheduled 1969 appearance at Asbury Park’s Upstage Club, “especially with the visceral intensity he projected across the room.”
But that charisma came with a complicated undercurrent, particularly in his personal relationships, that Carlin doesn’t avoid. In probably the least flattering segment of the book, a young Springsteen slaps a girlfriend across the face, although he immediately breaks down in regret; later, he stops his truck and leads his companion in a slow dance through an Asbury Park snowstorm by the side of the road.
Page 2 of 2 - “The swirl of dark and light Bruce identifies at the core of so many of his characters exists within him too,” Carlin writes near the end of the book, an assertion more than illuminated by his reporting.
Factor in revealing interviews with band members and frank assessments of Springsteen’s battles with depression and embrace of psychoanalysis – Carlin credits Bruce’s 2003 start on antidepressants as a motivator for his last decade of extreme productivity – and you have an astonishing amount of fresh material. It’s amazing that there was this much left to tell.
If there’s one place “Bruce” stumbles, it’s in the breakneck pace of the book’s second half, once stardom arrives: The almost visceral detail of the fascinating early years gives way to an album-tour-album cycle that sometimes packs years into a few pages, and certain segments of Springsteen’s life – notably his marriages – get short shrift. “Bruce” actually could have been two volumes.
But Carlin makes up for it in a stunning last chapter that slows down the pace with intimate details, including conversations with relatives that are so personal and touching they make you feel like you’re in the kitchen during Springsteen’s song about his mother, “The Wish.”
And finally, there are the words of Springsteen himself, who plays Carlin an early version of his new “Wrecking Ball” album. “I’m always looking for new ways to tell the story that I’m interested in,” Springsteen tells the author. “The point is, you come back and keep coming back until people hear you.”
Carlin, clearly, has heard his subject well, and with “Bruce” more than does justice to Springsteen’s repeated triumphant returns.
Peter Chianca writes about Bruce Springsteen and other rock music topics for Gatehouse Media’s Blogness on the Edge of Town.