Book Review: Bruce by Peter Ames Carlin

Like perhaps most everyone, occasionally something strikes you that makes you think about those three or five people, dead or alive, you would invite to dinner if your could. Now anyone who reads this blog might well think that Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen are on the “must invite” list. To be honest, though, I ruled Dylan out a number of years ago. I don’t know how well I would relate to someone whose life has just been so far removed from real life. You know, voice of a generation and all.

Springsteen, though, still gives me pause. Has he likewise been so segregated from the hoi polloi that all we see is a veneer? One thing Peter Ames Carlin’s biography of The Boss, Bruce, suggests is that its subject is a pastiche of traits, some good and some not.

There’s some single-minded dedication. For example, while his band mates were working day jobs, Springsteen focused exclusively on music. There’s more than a bit of perfectionism, enough to at times drive producers and fellow musicians to the brink. There’s a seemingly endless supply of ideas and lyrics, so much so that by 1997 Springsteen had more than 350 unused songs on tape.

On the other hand, that single-minded devotion might reflect more than a little narcissism. The drive for perfection might compensate for nagging doubt and depression. And the innate ability to create might be elevated over the needs or feelings of others.

The fact that Bruce isn’t afraid to recognize and explores all these aspects of Springsteen takes it beyond the standard music biography. Given that Springsteen and friends cooperated in the writing of the book, it easily could have tended toward hagiography. It isn’t and it also it isn’t a hatchet job. Carlin takes the time to try to assess where the the sundry bits and pieces come from. At bottom, there’s little doubt it seems rooted in home and family.

Taking basically a chronological approach, Carlin spends a great deal of time exploring Springsteen’s youth and beginnings. We see the pedestal his grandparents were willing to place him on as well as his interactions, or lack thereof, with a distant, drinking and likely manic depressive father. We see  the development of his talents and devotion to music but also how he wanted girlfriends who would wash his clothes, cook and keep house so he could pursue that muse. (Managers would later take over some of that role.) We see the role being born and raised and living in New Jersey plays in him and his music.  As Carlin says in relation to Springsteen’s The River, the songs tend to be “snapshots of the real world as viewed through the hopes, labors, fears, joys, and struggles of the unheralded many.”

All this is essential to seeing the development of the man and his music. Here’s the Springsteen who refused to play a benefit for George McGovern because he didn’t think politics should be involved in music who became the Springsteen who endorses presidential candidates. It’s the Springsteen who won’t play arenas because of its impact on interacting with the audience who became someone who would sell out stadiums. It’s the Springsteen who was skeptical, if not dismissive, of promotional hype who ends up on the cover of Newsweek and Time magazines in the same week and seems to adapt to the MTV era.

The insight afforded is broad-based and shows the collision of the various aspects of Springsteen’s personality. Yes, Springsteen gave in to the hype machine for Born to Run. “But here’s the thing: it hadn’t required him to alter a note of his music,” Carlin observes. In fact, Springsteen’s singular devotion to his music seems to have made him a separate, almost solitary figure.

For example, during the tour for Darkness on the Edge of Town, Springsteen said of the E Street Band, “I could replace any of these guys in twenty-four hours” (although also saying that replacing sax player Clarence Clemons might take a bit more time). When Springsteen decides to break up the band in 1989 to strike out entirely on his own, he tells Clemons of the decision with a phone call when Clemons is in Japan touring with Ringo Starr’s first All Starr Band. Then, in late 1998, organist Danny Federici and bassist Garry Tallent, both original members of the E Street Band and who played with Springsteen even before that, learned Springsteen wanted to reunite the band through phone calls from an accountant giving them a low ball financial offer.

Perhaps it is a testament to Springsteen’s talent — and the other aspects of his personality — that the E Street Band not only reunited, they’ve toured the world repeatedly with him and recorded several highly successful albums. Yet this period is one area where Bruce is lacking. There seems to be less attention paid to the post-Born in the U.S.A. era than the early years. Perhaps that is just a matter of it being too early for proper perspective. Still, the amount of detail regarding recording sessions and songwriting is significantly diminished and the last 25 years get half the pages as what preceded it..

And while Carlin avoids falling victim to a trait too often seen in music-related works, he isn’t immune from seemingly strained descriptions of the music. For example, he describes one tune with phrases like “organ swoops,” “honk-and-scream” saxophone, “spider-finger blues” on piano and “speed freak fills” on the drums — all in one sentence. Admittedly, what struck me as most lacking may perhaps simply be personal preference. Springsteen attended Catholic school. He is frequently seen wearing crucifixes, although that may simply be style. His concerts evoke the atmosphere of a tent revival meeting. His songs are replete with references to sin and redemption. So although it seems an obvious avenue to explore, there is virtually nothing in the book about the role or impact, if any, of religion, in Springsteen’s music or life.

Bruce is just one in a raft of music memoirs and biographies this fall. Yet while demonstrating there certainly is a superstar persona within Springsteen, the book clear that he is human and fallible enough that I’d love to talk with him over dinner.

Sorry, Bob.

Bruce Springsteen isn’t a rock ‘n’ roll act. He’s a religion.

Former Springsteen manager Mike Appell,
quoted in Peter Ames Carlin, Bruce

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