Author digs deeper for fresh look at the Boss

New York TimesNovember 17, 2012 

ÒBruce,Ó a new biography of Springsteen by Peter Ames Carlin.

  • Nonfiction Bruce Peter Ames Carlin Touchstone, 494 pages

Bruce Springsteen has been, almost from the start of his career some 40 years ago, among the most dignified and articulate musicians in U.S. pop history.

So it was all the more shocking and funny when, in 1985, the cartoonist R. Crumb published a drawing of himself chasing a Springsteen fan with a club, shouting: “I hate Bruce Springsteen!! Shlockmeister!! Polluter of souls! Deceiver of the innocent! Pimp! Panderer! Sleazeball hustler!!”

The fan he’s pursuing speaks for the reader when he yelps: “Help! Police! He’s nuts!”

Crumb, who collects old-timey 78 rpm jazz and blues recordings, isn’t a Springsteen kind of guy. Chris Christie, the New Jersey governor and ardent Springsteen admirer, could pop the skeletal cartoonist into his mouth like a kipper. But Crumb’s anti-Springsteen rant caught something in the air. In 1985 the Boss was at the height of his post-“Born in the U.S.A.” fame, and he was badly overexposed. Even Springsteen began to feel, he told a journalist, “Bruced out.”

Among the best things about “Bruce,” a new biography by Peter Ames Carlin, is his portrait of Springsteen at this career crossroads. He dissolved the E Street Band – he wouldn’t record an album with its members again for more than 15 years, until “The Rising” in 2002 – causing bruised feelings.

He married, divorced and remarried, while almost simultaneously making what some consider the best of his mature albums, the heartsick and reverberating “Tunnel of Love” (1987). He licked psychic wounds, self-inflicted and otherwise.

Access to Springsteen

Carlin is a former People magazine writer and previously the author of biographies of Brian Wilson and Paul McCartney. His “Bruce” is the umpteenth Springsteen bio. Its special claim on our attention is that Springsteen has cooperated with him. This is the first time he’s given access to a biographer, we are told, in some 25 years. Springsteen had no control, Carlin says, over the book’s contents.

“Bruce” gets the bedrock story told. It appraises Springsteen’s lower-middle-class childhood in Freehold, N.J.

We witness the rental of a first guitar after Springsteen saw Elvis on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” “The first day I can remember lookin’ in the mirror and standin’ what I was seein’,” Springsteen told a Newsweek reporter in 1975, “was the day I had a guitar in my hand.”

Springsteen played in Jersey Shore bands before auditioning for John Hammond at Columbia Records in 1972.

He was in his wharf-rat phase and made two word-drunk early LPs before breaking through with “Born to Run” in 1975. A brutal legal battle with his manager delayed the recording of his 1978 masterpiece, “Darkness on the Edge of Town.”

Juicy nuggets

This material is well known. The Springsteen obsessive will hunt instead for smaller, juicier nuggets. On this front “Bruce” delivers. We learn, for example, that one of Springsteen’s early bands almost played Woodstock. We witness Janis Joplin drooling over him that same year.

He and his musician friends liked to play a cutthroat version of Monopoly for which they would add handmade cards to the Chance and Community Chest piles. If you drew the Race Riot! card, all your houses and hotels burned down.The Boss and his longtime manager, Jon Landau, came close to firing drummer Max Weinberg during sessions for “The River” (1980); Weinberg took drum lessons to stay in the band.

After Sept. 11 he was moved by how many of the brief profiles that ran in The New York Times under the heading “Portraits of Grief” mentioned his name. He reached out to many of those people’s families.

“Bruce” doesn’t read like hagiography. Carlin lingers on the sullen streak in Springsteen. He sometimes treated women badly, and reportedly struck one of them. He could be cruel to his band members, and was said to fine staff members for small infractions. “I could replace any of those guys in 24 hours,” Springsteen reportedly once said, referring to the E Street Band. “Except for Clarence,” he said about Clarence Clemons, his larger-than-life saxophonist.

“Replacing Clarence would take some time.”

Carlin lingers, to hilarious effect, on Springsteen’s diet as a young musician. “His idea of a meal,” one observer recalls, “was Ring Dings, Devil Dogs and a Pepsi.”

He lingers too on his subject’s increasingly outspoken left-leaning politics. He gets the following origin story: “I came home one day and asked my mother if we were Republican or Democrats,” Springsteen tells the author. “She said we were Democrats, because they’re for the working people.”

Springsteen is a great American artist who deserves a great American biography, a book to rival those Peter Guralnick has composed about Elvis Presley. “Bruce” has its nice moments, and it’s far from a disaster, but it’s not that volume. It has a distant quality. It has no consistent graininess or depth of argument about, or real feeling for, Springsteen’s work. There’s little about his family life. His band members don’t quite come to life.

This book’s footnotes are whatever the opposite of scholarly is, many of them completely daft.

Carlin gets across why Springsteen has meant so much, for so long, to so many people, however. He quotes a thumbnail review of “Darkness on the Edge of Town” that ran in Rolling Stone. It can stand in for my sense of this man’s career: “Springsteen aims for moon and stars; hits moon and stars.”

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