A Fortnightly Review
by Peter Ames Carlin
By PETER KNOBLER.
BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN HAS been an American icon for almost 40 years. He has sold more than 100 million records; he has the lyric ability to bring lives to life, the musical gift to create rock arias and anthems, and the stamina to prove it all night. More than any rock ‘n’ roller in history, Springsteen has touched people to the core – without their actually knowing much about him. They thought they knew, they were encouraged to think they knew, but they didn’t know. Bruce, Peter Ames Carlin’s impressively detailed hagiography, does its best to illuminate Springsteen’s character but often succumbs to the rock writer’s classic temptation and confuses access with insight, mistaking soot for soil.
Carlin has plenty of documentation. He was granted access to the Springsteen family, and the details of its history and heritage are meant to illuminate some of Bruce’s darker impulses. The death at age five of Douglas Springsteen’s sister Virginia had a profound effect on the man who would grow up to be Bruce’s father, and by implication contributed to Bruce’s own darkness and that of their relationship. Carlin was also shown Springsteen’s high school composition notebooks, and gathered set lists from one of Bruce’s early bands, Steel Mill, as well as film outtakes and a load of authorized and bootleg audio familiar perhaps, if at all, only to Bruce zealots. He has accumulated recollections and testimonials from the New Jersey locals who peopled Springsteen’s world before Bruce grew beyond it, and there is a vibrant energy in his relating of the wild times kids in and around Bruce’s bands had down the shore.
Carlin takes the reader through detailed recreations of various moments of the boy and man’s creativity. One is made to feel as if one is indeed present at the creation of some outstanding cultural moments, the comings and goings of musicians and friends and business acquaintances from the time he was in high school to the most recent tour, the recording of each Springsteen album, the hiring and firing of personnel, the wooing and losing of women. Springsteen himself, while not authorizing or collaborating, cooperated with the writer. One walks through Bruce’s life with Bruce. It’s very seductive.
THE ACCUMULATION OF detail is prodigious. Want to know the make and model car Springsteen’s first wife, Julianne, drove in high school, and where she was headed? MG roadster, Macadam Boulevard to downtown Portland, Oregon. When Janis Joplin played the Asbury Park Convention Hall on August 23, 1969, and let it be known through her manager that “Janis really wants to fuck Bruce,” what did Bruce say? “I’m gettin’ the fuck outta here!” What did Springsteen say to cause Father Gerald McCarron to walk out of a benefit performance for St. Rose of Lima elementary school, which Bruce had attended in Freehold, NJ? “Father, can I sing a song about cunny-lingus in your school?” It’s all here.
However, at crucial moments, when it comes time for the writer to make sense of the man’s life, Carlin absents himself. He recounts the sudden absence of a wedding ring but is not able to penetrate the veil of privacy and discover the keys to the Springsteen character that contributed to the failure of Bruce’s marriage. And he had the access. Springsteen tells him, “The emotions of mine that were uncovered by trying to have an adult life with a partner and make that work uncovered a lot of things I’d avoided and tried not to deal with previously.” This is a key revelation. What were those “things”? Carlin does not pursue them, apparently unable to successfully encourage Bruce to be more expansive, and unwilling or unable to illuminate the topic on his own.
When Springsteen goes into psychotherapy, Carlin quotes Bruce telling interviewer Jim Henke, “I crashed into myself and saw a lot of myself as I really was. I questioned all my motivations. Why am I writing what I’m writing? Why am I saying what I’m saying? Am I bullshitting? Am I just trying to be the most popular guy in town? I questioned everything I’d ever done, and it was good.” This is where a biography should begin! What are the answers to these vital questions? Carlin doesn’t say, he doesn’t even venture a guess. He gives the reader facts and then recounts a fortieth birthday concert at Tim McLoone’s Rum Runner bar in Sea Bright, NJ, where members of the E Street Band played, as Carlin writes, “in lockstep, with Bruce leading the way back to the glories of the past and the natural yearning to re-create moments that can never be relived.”
Carlin’s writing is often florid and overwrought. On Springsteen’s guitar work: “The sound razored the smoky air…his fingers spidering the frets…[riffs] going off like fireworks across a murky summer sky.” He describes a tune with a “hurricanic climax,” a cross-country drive in a “two-car flotilla.” He tries very hard.
It’s a common problem. Springsteen is an inspiring performer, writers have forever tried to capture in words the feeling of his concerts, and Carlin takes his shot: “A chorus that describes both the essence of faith and the heart of the place Bruce’s songs had yearned for, questioned the existence of, and kept right on chasing”; his voice “imploring the skies for some sign of hope.” Springsteen’s writing process: “to keep throwing the sledge against the stone until the earth cracked open and God’s wisdom beamed out.” Mush.
Springsteen, on the other hand, is often revealed to be pleasantly plain-spoken. This is not a revelation – Springsteen’s stage persona is extremely down-to-earth – but in comparison to the purpleness of the prose surrounding him, Bruce comes directly into focus when he says, “I was always ambivalent about whatever I was doing…Always, if I’m here, I can’t be there. If I’m making this music, I can’t make that, you know.” That sounds like the Bruce we know because it is the part of Bruce that he has shown us, and a strong part of who he actually is. Of the E Street Band’s first international trip: “We had four shows, got sandblasted, and scooted home. You’re dealing with men who had never been anywhere. We couldn’t find any cheeseburgers!” Springsteen is an able conversational counterpuncher.
And there is also silence. Carlin recounts a story in which Bruce bonds with his son by holding a book in his lap, “and then, after a minute or two of silence, [turning] the page so they could look at the next picture….” His wife, Patti, watching this, said, “‘You’re not reading it to him!’ Bruce shrugged. ‘This,’ he explained, ‘is how Springsteen men read.’”
And yet, when Bruce says, regarding his becoming a gym rat and developing his body, “I was a big fan of meaningless, repetitive behavior….There are probably other psychological reasons behind it, but…it was the perfect match for me. The Sisyphean aspect of it just completely suited my personality,” Carlin does not pursue that lead. Another insight unexamined.
SENATOR AND FORMER presidential candidate John Kerry says, “There’s an authenticity about Bruce that’s just incontrovertible…I think it’s because he’s so true to who he is, and people know it.” But who is he? Is he the egalitarian liberal who sang the radical anti-private-property verse of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land” at President Barack Obama’s first inaugural, or is he the guy who allowed his band to be low-balled when offered contracts for a highly anticipated and financially rewarding “reunion tour”? “Ha-ha-ha, that’s right! Stick it to ‘em! That’s how it’s supposed to work! Go for it!” he told Garry Tallent, with whom he had been playing music for 30 years, when the bassist rejected Bruce’s management’s offer and threatened to sit out the tour. Stick it to whom? Bruce was paying the bills! Carlin, to his credit, lays out the facts of these negotiations, but when it comes time for an opinion on what Bruce’s initial unwillingness to properly compensate his band says about his character, he is again nowhere to be found.
The major revelation of Bruce is that in 1983 Springsteen’s friends thought he was suicidal. Bruce Springsteen. Beloved by millions, internationally influential, rich beyond imagining. Suicidal. Why? What were the issues? At least Carlin asked. Springsteen told him, “Things come from way down in the well. It’s in your DNA, in the way your body cycles. You’re going along fine and then, boom, it hits you…So I found a psychiatrist within days of getting to Los Angeles, then when I got back east I found another guy in New York City.” He started taking antidepressants.
Springsteen’s DNA caused to him be suicidal? What does this mean to a biographer who is plumbing the soul of his subject? Does he actually believe the Springsteen DNA was altered by the early death of Bruce’s aunt Virginia? “Even now,” Carlin writes, “Bruce has a difficult time talking about what inspired his journey.” Perfectly understandable, but Bruce is Carlin’s work, not Springsteen’s. What were the discoveries Springsteen arrived at? What were the revelations he reached? How did his analysis affect the course of his life? This is the central moment of the book and it passes in a paragraph. “Bruce continued to write and record more songs,” writes Carlin, and then we’re on to a discussion of song structure and recording technique. One comes away impressed with the book’s quantity of facts but unimpressed with its intellectual depth or vision.
And about those facts.
FROM 1972 TO 1979 I was editor-in-chief of Crawdaddy, “the first magazine to take rock & roll seriously.” I wrote Bruce’s first profile, in December 1972. Crawdaddy is credited with “discovering” Springsteen for the rock press. In late autumn 1972, the magazine received a call that Bruce Springsteen was playing Sing Sing prison, and would we like to attend. Springsteen’s first album had yet to be released, though we had heard it was coming. The uprising at Attica was only fifteen months past, so this was a way of getting inside a maximum-security prison and seeing one of those “new Dylans” at the same time. My associate editor Greg Mitchell and I were the only members of the press to accept this invitation. The day was a revelation.
In the car with Bruce on the way up to the prison, his manager, Mike Appel, compared him in one breath to Wordsworth, Bob Dylan, Keats, Byron, and Shakespeare. Inside, the Sing Sing stage crew loved Clarence Clemons. Big, black, and free, he was everything they wanted to be. The sound system was barely functional so the band played rhythm’n’ blues, specifically Buddy Miles’s “Them Changes”:
Well my mind is going through them changes
I feel just like committin’ a crime!
Bruce cranked his beat-up blonde Telecaster, Clarence swung his horn like it was a fat woman, and the crowd began to move. Rumbling down the aisle like the law was after him came a short, squat, bald black man with bunched muscles. He crossed down front and hit the stage at a gallop. The convict jammed his right hand into his work shirt and pulled out…a saxophone! And he was electric! The man could wail!
All of this was written contemporaneously in Crawdaddy and is sourced and quoted in Carlin’s book…except he gets the song wrong. Bruce the book says quite specifically, “Bruce called for a twelve-bar blues in the key of C.” Seems like a small detail, but Springsteen’s choice of that song and that lyric revealed a playfulness, wit, and social awareness that Carlin apparently missed. And Carlin misstates the facts with detailed assurance. Carlin misstates the name of an opening act at the Main Point club in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. He also makes mistakes of fact in his three-page note on sources. If he can’t get the facts of his sources right, one has to wonder about the veracity of the facts that came from those sources. Carlin’s work is built on these facts, it’s overflowing with them, and knowing this makes me less willing to accept them.
Carlin opens his book with a discussion of how Bruce came to be called The Boss. According to the legend Carlin perpetuates, Springsteen created the nickname himself. Steve Van Zandt, Bruce’s running partner and co-bandleader at the time, says no one took it seriously until Steve himself started using it. Hearing this story, Springsteen doesn’t confirm, saying, “I’ll leave you with that.” In fact, that’s not actually how it happened.
I was at 914 Sound Studios in Blauvelt, New York, the night Bruce became “The Boss”. It was not originally a loving nickname. The guys in the band were having a bad day, they had done 14 different takes of the track to “Jungleland” till 4 am the night before and not one was up to Bruce’s standards. In my years hanging with the band they had always appeared to be friends making music together, yet that night Bruce had been riding them hard and they began saying, “Yes, boss,” in that snarky way of employees yielding to unwelcome authority. It had been going on all day. “Yes, Boss. Yassir, Boss.” You could tell from the way the band was taking to it, repeating the phrase gleefully whenever he asked for anything, that clearly the nickname was going to stick and Bruce didn’t like it. It sounded particularly unsettling to me coming from Clarence, for all the obvious racial reasons.
The nickname has taken on a life of its own. The respect for Bruce among band members, and their recognition that, like it or not, he truly is the boss in exactly the way they were chafing against, ultimately trumped the momentary power drive. Now it’s a very effective marketing tool. But even the most intense Springsteen fans don’t know its root, that being called “The Boss” was originally an insult.
Peter Knobler is a writer living in New York City. A Mayor’s Life: Governing New York’s Gorgeous Mosaic, his collaboration with David N. Dinkins, was published in August 2013. Knobler is currently writing his first novel.
More: Bruce Springsteen on ‘Desert Island Discs’ (BBC, 18 December 2016).