It should come as no surprise to anyone, given my passion for music, that I grew up in a home where music was a constant. In my mind’s eye, I can still see the endless milk crates of vinyl my parents possessed: hundreds upon hundreds of full length albums and their smaller single counterparts, spanning the typical to the collectible (the purple vinyl of Prince and the Revolution’s soundtrack opus Purple Rain immediately stands out). As the child of young parents who saw nothing wrong with taking me to an Alice Cooper show in utero – the Alice Cooper show of the Toronto riot, no less – I was nurtured by melody and cut my writer’s teeth on the lyrical genius of Roger Waters, Kate Bush, and many more.
“Message keeps getting clearer
radio’s on and I’m moving ’round the place
I check my look in the mirror
I wanna change my clothes, my hair, my face
Man, I ain’t getting nowhere
I’m just living in a dump like this
There’s something happening somewhere
baby, I just know that there is…”
Dancing In The Dark
As an 80s baby, by the time I could coherently recall the sonic landscape of my world, Bruce Springsteen was a hit artist, an icon whose mega-hit “Dancing In The Dark” was a regular occurrence on car rides. There was no appreciation of the journey that came before seven singles slammed the radio airwaves and established him forever as a household name. He was simply “The Boss” and tragically, because of this ubiquitous presence, he’s always remained more casually on my radar.
When offered an opportunity to review the latest biography on Springsteen (full disclosure: I received a complimentary advance copy from the publisher), I accepted, although I seldom read artist biographies. It’s not for a lack of desire to know more about the person behind the compositions; anyone who knows me well is aware of how suddenly I can begin to spout trivia about music and lesser-known details of a songwriter’s life (although I have yet to hit that disturbing fanaticism of “Beliebers”, who somehow know/care about the room number their obsession was born in). My trouble lies within the fact that most biographies of celebrities fall into two spheres:
a) The “artist can do no wrong” version, wherein every detail is carefully sanitized, spun or stricken from the record to present the subject in an almost holy light; or
b) The “dish and dirt party”, wherein the biographer sets out to annihilate all vestiges of decency the artist may possess, creating a work no more reliable than the trashiest tabloids.
There is a third sphere, a rarer breed to be sure: the balanced approach, wherein the artist is given a strong voice and the biographer, like the best of journalists, strives to report the facts and offer very little in the way of interpretation. It is this humanizing sort of book that attracts my attention and, in hearing that this was the first such book about Springsteen where the man himself had taken part via in-depth interviews, I approached Peter Ames Carlin’s Bruce with the cautious optimism that perhaps this, like the Ann Powers/Tori Amos collaboration on the latter’s life and career, would be a worthy account. I am relieved and pleased to report that Carlin has crafted a tome that falls within this smaller sphere of quality.
“You’re born into this life paying
for the sins of somebody else’s past
Daddy worked his whole life for nothing but the pain
Now he walks these empty rooms, looking for something to blame
You inherit the sins, you inherit the flames
Adam raised a Cain…”
Adam Raised A Cain
Bruce traces back the story of the iconic rocker before the mere awareness of his conception, opening with a deconstruction of the family tree’s challenges and struggles. Carlin’s access to the Springsteen and Zerilli families allows him to set the stage of Freehold, New Jersey in a manner that frames every recollection and quoted lyric firmly in the perspective of Springsteen. That understanding is perhaps critical in appreciating the humanity of the songwriter and the darkness lurking beneath the often bombastic live shows of his lengthy career. To hear of Bruce and his family’s memories of his upbringing and youth is to better accept that the working man storytelling feel of his songs and his charitable work stems from a genuine place, not a sort of publicity posturing, as many of today’s celebrities are wont to do.
“Hot soup on a campfire under the bridge
Shelter line stretchin’ ’round the corner
Welcome to the new world order
Families sleepin’ in their cars in the Southwest
No home, no job, no peace, no rest
The highway is alive tonight
But nobody’s kiddin’ nobody about where it goes
I’m sittin’ down here in the campfire light
Searchin’ for the ghost of Tom Joad.”
The Ghost Of Tom Joad
Bruce also succeeds because of Carlin’s obvious music critic background, which slips into each era as the biography wanders from the creation of each album to reviewing it, pointing at key songs and waxing poetic on each tune’s virtues or – rarely – its failings. While more casual music fans may find these stretches of the book a little dull, those who enjoy a good analysis of an album will find themselves either nodding in agreement or wanting to rebuke the author for his assessments. This critical eye is ultimately a boon, as it often allows Carlin to note smaller stories and details that a fan would find revealing within the scope of understanding Springsteen’s body of work, thereby offering an almost Director’s Commentary of each album.
The greatest asset that Carlin’s book possesses – aside from the participation of the man himself – is its willingness to honestly and fairly present a historical narrative of the life and career of someone who is larger than life. Springsteen is neither condemned nor exalted; he is simply allowed to be. One strong example of this balanced approach is the recounting of a lawsuit filed by two former employees regarding lousy working conditions and a belief in a deserved “bigger share of the pie”. While we are afforded Bruce’s perspective on the matter, we are also given the accounts of the employees and others who observed the events, with Carlin ultimately drawing no conclusions. Springsteen’s fervent desire for perfection during recording cycles is presented both as the often infuriating practice it could be and the product of a man who’d grown up with inherent self doubts and later, industry-inflicted terror of failure. The wealth of perspectives on Springsteen – from family to friends/bandmates to former employees to The Boss himself – paints a sincere picture of the man behind the haunting truths of tunes like “The Ghost Of Tom Joad”.
“‘If God gives you nothin’ but lemons, then you make some lemonade
The early bird catches the fuckin’ worm, Rome wasn’t built in a day
Now life’s like a box of chocolates
You never know what you’re going to get
Stupid is as stupid does’ and all the rest of that shit
Come on pretty baby, call my bluff
‘Cause for you, my best was never good enough.”
My Best Was Never Good Enough
The book’s only failing – and it doesn’t detract enough from the tome to bring its value down – is Carlin’s occasionally questionable writing style (or perhaps editorial choices). While granted, I am not privy to the limits of his access to information, I found the post-Born In The U.S.A. era of Springsteen’s career to feel rather rushed in comparison to the first ten years and his childhood. Later albums lacked a certain depth of reflection upon their genesis that I’d come to enjoy in the earlier chapters, so much so that I felt compelled to listen to each album while it was being discussed, reveling in the little details between the gritty lyrics. I also found the opening chapters detailing Bruce’s family to sometimes be a little jarring and confusing as they jumped from one period of time to another. The number of names and characters quickly introduced was off-putting at first. I also question Carlin’s decision to mention the mental health concerns of Doug Springsteen in detail, only to predominantly skim this potential genetic inheritance until the very last chapter, with a quick soundbite from Bruce about antidepressants and his moods. An opportunity feels lost here, in terms of putting a compassionate and understanding face on mood disorders, and in the end, the brief blip feels like a sensationalistic move. Having read this book, I feel Carlin is capable of better handling of the subject matter, and as a social worker, I was disappointed.
Bruce is a biography that is truly meant to be enjoyed alongside the music, and I strongly recommend cuing up each album as it is discussed. It affords fans a new appreciation of Springsteen’s work via immersion. For years, Springsteen has been seen as a voice for the working classes, amplifying their struggles and the core experiences of the human condition itself. With this biography, Carlin sets out to ensure that, unlike times past (one of which, the Reagan appropriation of “Born In The U.S.A.” as an anthem, was previously mention in OTM’s analysis of music and politics), there is no longer room for willful distortion of Springsteen’s work.
Set out on the road, Bruce as your map in hand. After all, fans like us? Baby, we were born to run.