If you’ve ever witnessed an extended Bruce Springsteen guitar solo in concert and realized it was as much exorcism as celebration; if you’ve been flabbergasted by folks who treat a subdued, introspective in-concert rendering of “Mansion On the Hill” as an opportunity to talk loudly or head to the refreshment stand for yet another beer; if you realize that the late career, Bush-era masterpiece “Magic” is as good an album as “Born to Run,” and a better one than “Born in the U.S.A.”; if you heard, from the beginning, the sense of moral outrage and humanitarian disgust at the heart of the oft-misinterpreted “anthem” that is the song “Born in the U.S.A.,” and wondered how anyone hearing it could miss the point – then Peter Ames Carlin’s “Bruce” is for you.
There have been abundant biographies, philosophical exegeses, fan tributes, socioeconomic discourses and cultural theses penned in the name of Springsteen. Invariably, these have been, at least, worth reading. Occasionally, they have come across as absolutely essential – Dave Marsh’s “Born To Run” and “Glory Days” sitting at the top of this short list. But if ever again a disbeliever confronts me with the standard “Just what exactly is the deal with this Springsteen character you’re always babbling on about like a religious zealot?” it will be Carlin’s “Bruce” that I’ll thrust forward by way of response.
Why? It’s simple. Carlin is the biographer who has gone the deepest into Springsteen’s character. He’s the only one to cogently posit a desperate need to claw one’s way out of the darkness and toward something resembling the light as the central motivating factor in Springsteen’s career arc.
Carlin, more than any other writer, offers us a Springsteen for whom making music is an act of existential self-affirmation. In the process, he rescues Springsteen from the unfortunate popular conception that he’s some sort of simpleton who writes proletarian anthems and bar-room rockers for white people to drink beer to. Perhaps to some portion of his audience, that’s all Springsteen is. But the development of the music over the years, and the way the biographical data fills in around and complements that music, suggests a much more fleshed-out portrait. Carlin’s Springsteen is an infinitely more complex man and musician, a figure wrestling with demons planted during childhood, and haunted, even in the midst of massive success, by, as he puts it himself in “The Promise,” “the broken spirits of all the other ones who lost.”
Carlin greatly benefited from first-person access here – not just to Springsteen’s oldest friends, bandmates, ex-lovers and former business partners, but to the man himself, who agreed to be interviewed as long as the author conceded to a single caveat – that he refrain from making Springsteen appear as some sort of saint. Carlin held up his end of the agreement. Though he’s clearly a fan, the author does not shy away from the ugly underneath, and presents many anecdotes in which Springsteen emerges in less than heroic form.
More than any previous Springsteen biographer, Carlin is hip to the aspect of Faulknerian tragedy at the heart of Springsteen’s art and family history alike. The book begins with a recounting of the death of Virginia Springsteen – sister of Bruce’s father, Douglas – who was struck and killed by a truck at the age of 5. Her death left a desolate emptiness in the core of the family before Bruce even entered it. Douglas Springsteen never seemed to get over the loss. Bruce’s grandparents didn’t either, and the fact that the young boy spent much of his childhood living with those grandparents cast a deep pall over his experience. His grandparents doted on him, but also placed no restrictions on him, offered little in the way of guidance, and emerged from their fog of grief only to suggest that there was little reason for young Bruce to even bother attending school, when he was fully capable of entering the work force as his father had done immediately after completing ninth grade.
Springsteen maintained a nourishing relationship with his mother Adele, but his father appears as a Kafka-esque presence in “Bruce,” an unsmiling and stoic figure who worked various factory jobs by day and spent his nights seated at the kitchen table in the dark, chain-smoking, drinking beer and staring into the middle distance – “with the eyes of one who hates for just being born,” to borrow a Springsteen lyric. His son’s obsession with music did not assuage Douglas Springsteen’s misery; by the time Bruce was a long-haired ’60s teenager regularly gigging around Freehold, N.J., the two were at loggerheads.
Many of Springsteen’s strongest songs detail the father/son dichotomy in the family home. The postcard-from-hell that is “Adam Raised A Cain” does so perhaps most viscerally: “Daddy worked his whole life for nuthin’ but the pain/Now he walks these empty rooms lookin’ for something to blame/But you inherit the sins, and you inherit the flames/Adam raised a Cain,” the singer howls in imagery clearly gleaned from his own unpleasant experience in Catholic schooling. It’s easy to see in Carlin’s portrait that, for Springsteen, music was much more than an opportunity to meet girls and escape a dire economic reality – it was the only means available to him to transcend the darkness and death he felt surrounding him at home.
All wasn’t misery, of course. Springsteen attempted to be a happy kid, tried to fit in, played baseball, made an effort to turn off his brain and sit still in class.
“But no matter how sweet the boyhood moments,” Carlin writes, “Bruce still had his old man’s fragile psyche to deal with.” “You couldn’t access him, you couldn’t get to him, period,” says Bruce, recalling his many attempts to talk to his father. “You’d get 40 seconds in, and you know that thing that happens when it’s not happening? That would happen.” “When dinner was over and the dishes were done, the kitchen became Doug’s solitary kingdom. With the lights out and the table holding only a can of beer, a pack of cigarettes, a lighter and an ashtray, Doug passed the hours alone in the darkness.”
Of course, Carlin’s “Bruce” doesn’t concern itself only with the dysfunctional father-son relationship – the book moves with agility and insight through its subject’s formative musical years, his evolution into an in-demand virtuoso lead guitarist, bandleader, songwriter and Jersey shore “bum” living only for the next gig, and the one after that. The early years, the formation of a partnership with manager Mike Appel, the hard work that finally yielded an audition for Columbia’s legendary John Hammond, the years of tireless road work and faltering commercial success that made the making of “Born to Run” into a desperate last stand with the threat of being dropped from his record label dangling over Springsteen’s head – all get their due.
The bulk of “Bruce” thoroughly covers the significant milestones in Springsteen’s transition from revered cult figure into stadium-filling superstar, among them the falling out with Appel; the lawsuit launched by Springsteen to retain the rights to his music, and the attendant existential crisis that led to the masterpiece “Darkness on the Edge of Town”; the creation of “The River,” and following it, a success that finally yielded financial security; the dichotomy between the stark “Nebraska” and its more polished counterpart, the massively successful “Born in the U.S.A”; and each tour and album cycle that followed. Carlin does an excellent job of presenting Springsteen’s personal evolution alongside his growth as musician, songwriter and public figure.
Yet, at the heart of the story remains the image of Douglas Springsteen seated at his kitchen table in the dark, staring out the window in search of God knows what. It’s his father, and so many like him, that Springsteen struggled so desperately to escape, and then spent the rest of his career writing about.
The image of that man whose dreams have been crushed beyond recognition informs Springsteen’s political consciousness, his need to speak for those who’ve been denied the right to speak. As Carlin makes clear, the failure to communicate with his father pushed Springsteen to seek communication on a mass level, and ultimately, to reconcile the loner in himself with the need for community, connection, family, civic involvement. With connection came commitment – to the ideals the music always represented for him; to his band mates; to consistent charity work; to marathon concert rituals even as a 63- year-old man; to bountiful campaign stops in key states supporting Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012.
Carlin’s “Bruce” is a complex and often troubling tale, but ultimately, it’s a story of triumph over adversity, of a poor kid from New Jersey whose ability to rise above family tragedy, isolation, alienation and lingering despair in order to become a voice “for all the other ones who lost.”
By Peter Ames Carlin
494 pages, $28
Jeff Miers is The News’ pop music critic.