Most biographies of great artists get a little boring once the central figure becomes famous. The point of reading an artist’s biography, beyond the mere gossip factor, is to learn how that book or that song or that painting that you love came to be, and so often the answer lies in the artist’s struggle to forge beauty out of the miseries of his or her childhood and early adulthood. Typically, once the artist has spun his or her particular straw into gold, the rest is a page-filling mush of award ceremonies and meetings with other famous people — or in the sadder cases, a downward spiral into madness, drug addiction, and a lonely death.
The opposite is true of Peter Ames Carlin’s Bruce, the new authorized biography of rock icon Bruce Springsteen. The early pages of Carlin’s book, focusing on Springsteen’s hardscrabble childhood in Freehold, N.J., come off as oddly generic. The book begins, rather melodramatically, with the 1927 death of young Virginia Springsteen, who would have been the singer’s aunt, in a traffic accident, and proceeds, paint-by-numbers style, through Springsteen’s troubled relationship with his depressive father, his eccentric upbringing in the “topsy-turvy environment” of his grandparents’ home where he spent much of his early life, his problems in school, and his almost inevitable identification with Elvis Presley when the hip-swiveling crooner changed rock ’n’ roll forever on The Ed Sullivan Show.
Part of the problem in these early chapters is that by working so closely with Springsteen, who is quoted liberally throughout the text, Carlin defaults to his subject’s version of events, which tends to tread lightly around the privacy and feelings of his family. A bigger problem is that Carlin, a former People magazine staffer who has written biographies of The Beatles’s Paul McCartney and The Beach Boys’s Brian Wilson, has little feel for working-class life and resorts to gauzy sentimentality where good, straight reportage would suffice.
The biggest problem with this part of the book, though, is how unsurprising it all is. Show me a talented musician who had a happy, stable childhood, and I’ll show you a kid who went to Julliard and now plays violin in the symphony. The opening chapters of Bruce, with its misfit kid from the wrong side of the tracks who talks his mom into buying his first guitar on credit, read like a comic-book rock star creation myth, just the sort of pabulum peddled by People magazine writers when they want to explain to Middle America how some scruffy-looking bar band frontman came to write a song that everyone is suddenly humming. “Sometimes he played to the mirror,” Carlin reports breathlessly of the teenage Springsteen, “watching his hands on the guitar’s neck and reveling in the instrument’s potential to serve both as a shield against his shyness and a bright to carry him to the center of everything.”
The dullness of the early chapters makes the excellence of the rest of the book, which focuses on how the adult Springsteen battled his creative demons, the music industry, and fame itself to create music that is both true to his artistic vision and accessible to the broadest possible audience, all the more startling. Here, Springsteen’s commentary, which earlier acts as a buffer between the reader and the starker truths of his childhood, becomes invaluable, showing the singer as not merely a preternaturally gifted musician and bandleader but also as a canny judge of the delicate relationship between artist and audience. It doesn’t hurt that Carlin, who seems to view working-class life in mid-century America through a veil of liberal piety, has a crystal clear vision of how rock albums get made.
From the beginning, Springsteen was an uneasy amalgam of two distinct kinds of musicians: the bar-band bawler and the sensitive, bearded singer-songwriter. His first album, Greetings from Ashbury Park, N.J., with its word-drunk story-songs like “Blinded by the Light” and “Spirits in the Night,” emphasized the latter of these two, earning the then-scrawny, bearded Springsteen comparisons to Bob Dylan but disappointing sales. After a second album also failed to ignite, Springsteen faced the first of many do-or-die moments in his career. In short order, he fired the weakest links in the still-fledgling E Street Band, hired a new producer, and spent months obsessively writing and recording (and re-recording and re-re-recording) new songs. “He began to think of the album as a musical novel,” Carlin writes, “the individual songs fitting into a larger, unified story. And like a novel, the chapters — or songs, in this case — had to dovetail, contrast, and ultimately enhance one another.”
Still, after 14 months of work in the studio, six of those months recording the title single alone, when Springsteen heard the first acetate recording of the completed album, he hated it so much, Carlin reports, that “he jumped to his feet, snatched the acetate from the turntable, and stalked out to the hotel courtyard, where he flung it into the swimming pool.” But after several panicky phone calls and a late-night drive back to New York City from rural Pennsylvania where his band was then touring, “Bruce shrugged of the last six torturous hours with a wave of the hand. ‘Then again,’ he said, ‘let’s just let it ride.’”
A month later, Columbia Records released the album recorded on that acetate as Born to Run, Springsteen’s breakout album, which peaked at #3 on the charts and put the scruffy bar rat on the covers of Time and Newsweek in the same week. The single he had labored so many months on became his first Top 40 hit, and, all these years later, its signature line, “Tramps like us, baby, we were born to run,” is still bawled out by bar-band wannabes the world over.
When Born to Run came out I was nine years old, and later on, with my teenage head full of British blues-rock from the likes of Led Zeppelin and The Who, Springsteen didn’t appear on my musical radar until Born in the U.S.A. made him unavoidable in 1984. Like most of America, I missed the angry political undertones of the title track and saw only the cheesy, made-for-MTV image of newly buff and clean-shaven Bruce doing the white-man shuffle onstage with pre-Friends Courteney Cox in the “Dancing in the Dark” video.
The whole thing seemed so cornball and jingoistic that for the next decade or so I turned the dial whenever a Springsteen song came on the radio, until by chance a girlfriend lent me the 1996 compilation CD of songs inspired by the movie Dead Man Walking, which kicks off with Springsteen’s haunting title track. On the advice of this same girlfriend, I ran out and bought Springsteen’s Nebraska, which remains one of my favorite albums to this day.
So for me, a relative latecomer to the mythos of Bruce Springsteen, it came as something of a shock to learn that many of the bombastic, Jersey head-banger tunes on Born in the U.S.A. emerged from the same burst of songwriting creativity that produced the spare, ghostly compositions on Nebraska. In fact, as Carlin reports — and, surely, as any halfway serious Springsteen head already knows — many of the songs from both albums originated in demo recordings Springsteen and his guitar tech, Mike Batlin, made in a single marathon session in the singer’s bedroom, which Springsteen then copied onto a blank tape cassette he’d bought at a drug store.
Some of the songs from that long night in Springsteen’s bedroom, including “Born in the U.S.A.” itself, were re-recorded with the entire E Street Band playing at full, synth-blaring volume. Others, though, didn’t work as well with the full band, and after a few days trying to recapture the intimacy of the original demo recording, Springsteen turned to his sound engineer Toby Scott, and, pulling out the original cassette he’d been carrying around in his pocket for weeks, said: “Tobe, can we master a record off of this thing?” After painstakingly fixing the recording mistakes his boss had made, Scott managed to do exactly that, and the result was released as Nebraska. Then, having released one of the most quietly disturbing records in the annals of popular music, Springsteen went back to work with his band creating the album that would forever fix him in the cultural firmament as America’s blue-collar heartthrob.
This is all the stuff of rock legend, and while Bruce is too often a workmanlike affair, Carlin does a fine job of showing how the shifting winds of intra-band personalities and music-business realpolitik shaped the music that helped shaped a generation of American musical history. For the most part, though, one comes away from Bruce happy that Carlin had the good sense to get out of the way and just let Bruce be Bruce. The man could be a cad, especially to women, and his treatment of his bandmates, many of whom starved along with him in the early years, is at times callous, but overall Springsteen comes across as one of those rare great talents who is genuinely comfortable in his own skin.
That magic night in January 1982 when he sang the songs of his two best albums, Nebraska and Born in the U.S.A., into a home taping system in his bedroom is clearly the high water mark of Springsteen’s career, but reading Bruce one is impressed by how in the decades since he has avoided the fate that befalls so many aging rockers who end up touring as tribute bands of their younger selves. “I was always interested about how do I take this music and bring in adult concerns without losing its vitality, fun, and youthfulness,” he tells Carlin, speaking of the years after his greatest success in the mid-1980s:
So I thought, okay, we’re growing up together, me and my audience. And I took that idea seriously. So my usefulness as a thirty-eight-year-old is gonna be different than my usefulness as a twenty-seven-year-old. And I was always looking for ways to be useful.
In the nearly 30 years since Born in the U.S.A.. Springsteen has reinvented himself in album after album, now a poet able to see through the eyes of a man dying of AIDS in “Streets of Philadelphia,” now a national healer singing the soul-stirring “The Rising” after the 9/11 attacks, now a friend of presidents who lends his reputation as a straight-shooting spokesman for the working class to help elect a young senator from Illinois named Barack Obama.
And, hey, the guy’s only 63. Who knows what he’ll come up with next?
“Experience has fallen in value. And it looks as if it is continuing to fall into bottomlessness.””It is no longer intelligence coming from afar, but the information which supplies a handle for what is nearest that gets the readiest hearing.” -Walter Benjamin, “The Storyteller.” Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn.When it comes to a reputation for difficulty, the book business is second only to the restaurant business… and no one has yet figured out how to run an online restaurant. The ascendance of e-commerce – along with the consolidation of corporate capital, the real estate bubble, and a host of concurrent factors – has over the last 15 years profoundly altered the reading lives of Americans. The changes are not exclusively for the worse; in the small town where I grew up, for example, it’s become a hell of a lot easier for a high-school sophomore to get his hands on a volume of, say, Angela Carter. But, as the recent documentary “Indies Under Fire: The Battle for the American Bookstore” suggests, the mercantile landscape grows increasingly inhospitable for independent booksellers. A recent spate of high-profile bookstore closings underscores the point (via Ed).Why does this matter? After a Joshua Ferris reading at an independent bookstore the other night, a friend of mine proposed that our cultural lives are forged by a confluence of information and experience. Information – that Rolling Stone gave the album Born to Run five stars, for example – is a perfectly reasonable way to get a handle on a work of art. But to experience “Born to Run” exploding off the Delaware Memorial Bridge at night, in the summer, with the windows down and a person you love in the passenger’s seat, is to find it seared forever in one’s soul, like Marcel’s madeleine.The corporate book-purveyor, armed with the best market research money can buy, directs information toward consumers. If I want to find out what Barnes & Noble thinks New Yorkers are likely to want to buy, the downstairs tables at the Union Square B & N can’t be beat. And there are fine books on those tables. But as Walter Benjamin observes, “The acquisition of books is by no means a matter of money or expert knowledge alone.” The experience of the Barnes & Noble – quality controlled, wood-veneered, perfectly odorless – disappears as soon as one is out the door.A great bookstore, by contrast, is a staging ground for experience. The experience of the zealous clerk. The experience of the comely fellow browser. The experience of seeing Gordon Lish’s first book of stories nestled against Eudora Welty’s in a teetering pile, and reading the first page of “For Jerome” in situ, and feeling that private excitement of the mind. The experience of entering something larger than oneself… the republic of letters. As public libraries downsize stacks in favor of internet kiosks, this last experience, so important for so many of us, is increasingly the preserve of the independent bookstore.Here in New York, the indie isn’t dead – far from it. Passionate owners and managers and employees understand that they’re not just making sales, but making room for an experience. As a way of thanking them, and celebrating the arrival (finally!) of spring – and in the spirit of Walter Benjamin – I herewith offer a highly selective walking tour of my favorite bookstores in New York. “I have made my most memorable purchases on trips, as a transient. Property and possession belong to the tactical sphere. Collectors are people with a tactical instinct; their experience teaches them that when they capture a strange city, the smallest antique shop can be a fortress, the most remote stationery store a key position. How many cities have revealed themselves to me in the marches I undertook in the pursuit of books!” -Walter Benjamin, “Unpacking My Library,” trans. Harry Zohn.Stop 1: Gotham Book Mart (16 East 46th between 5th Avenue and Madison Avenue)If my wanderings these days took me further uptown, I’d probably have some more stores to single out. As it is, I’ll start with the Gotham Book Mart. This venerable institution, featured in a sexually charged scene in Don DeLillo’s Cosmopolis, is also John Updike’s favorite bookstore. This is, as far as I know, all that these two men have in common. In addition to fantastic selection of used & new 20th century literature, the Gotham boasts rare memorabilia, antiquarian treasures, and the best selection of literary magazines you’ll find anywhere… period.Stop 2: The Strand (828 Broadway at East 12th.)Having got your fill of midtown, amble down Broadway past 14th St. Now we’re really in book country. The Strand, another New York institution, advertises “8 miles of books,” but it feels more like 16. A recent redesign has stripped away some of the flyblown, foxed, and watermarked pleasures of shopping in The Strand, but the vertiginous sensation of being surrounded by millions of cheap books remains… a feeling like playing hooky with a slight fever. Be sure to troll the Parisian dollar stalls outside, as great finds abound. Half-price review copies are great if you’re looking for contemporary fiction. The Strand remains a wonderfully terrible place to go searching for a specific book… I never leave empty-handed, but generally spend several hours and several dollars discovering volumes I wasn’t planning to buy.Stop 3: St. Mark’s Bookshop (31 3rd Avenue at 9th Street).Continuing downtown, forgo the cramped Astor Place B & N in favor of St. Mark’s Bookstore. You can’t turn around in this fantastic shop without elbowing a brilliant intellectual… they’re drawn here by the shelves full of recondite critical theory, post-New York School poetry collections, and cutting-edge art books… and by the feeling of rubbing elbows with the East Village denizens who penned them. Pick up some Slavoj Zizek, enjoy the condescension of an existentialist clerk… and be sure to wear your plastic-framed glasses. You’ll emerge feeling 15 IQ points smarter.Stop 4: The folding tables on W. 4th St. (W. 4th between West Broadway and Mercer)Okay, not strictly a bookstore, but what’s better than lollygagging on a sidewalk on a sunny day and discovering W.G. Sebald? Prices are negotiable, and the guys who sell the books make even the most hardcore bibliophile look minor league.Stop 5: Oscar Wilde Books (15 Christopher Street between Greenwich Ave. & Waverly Pl.)The country’s oldest gay and lesbian bookstore has been serving the West Village for more than 40 years. For founder Craig Rodwell, a “gay and lesbian bookstore” was not a clearinghouse for erotica, but rather a bookstore whose shelves spoke to the lives of the gay community. The store has been central to advocacy efforts for gay rights and, in the 80s, recognition of the growing HIV/AIDS crisis. Many a young poet has worked the register here, and a recent program invited authors like Michael Cunningham to spend an afternoon clerking, offering patrons a unique chance to chat informally with their favorite writers. Or was that Three Lives I’m thinking of? (154 W. 10th at Waverly Place)Stop 6: Unoppressive, Non-Imperialist Books (34 Carmine St. between Bedford and Bleecker Streets)This tiny shop on Carmine St. seems to run largely on remainders. Thus, prices are low, low, low. The sensibility is well-represented by the name. Here’s the place to find Zen esoterica, punk rock poetry, and various books from the political left. And you don’t have to worry about your money going to right-wing PACs. Much like…Stop 7: Housing Works Used Book Cafe (126 Crosby St. between Prince and Houston) Having worked up an appetite, stop into this gorgeous loft space on atmospheric Crosby St., and buy soup or a knish or coffee… for a great cause. This bookstore, staffed by volunteers, stocked with donations, sends 100% of its proceeds to its parent organization, Housing Works, which provides medical care, job training, housing, and other services to New Yorkers with HIV/AIDS who have faced homelessness. It’s truly an amazing project, and boasts some of the best literary programming in the city… like a recent reading/concert featuring Jonathan Lethem in conversation with George Saunders. Free! Of course, I’m biased, as Housing Works signs my paychecks.Stop 8: McNally Robinson (52 Prince St. between Mulberry and Lafayette)McNally is maybe the most lavishly appointed bookstore in the city. Here, much attention has been paid to the aesthetics of the literary experience. Book displays feature small presses that produce beautiful books, like Coach House Books or Archipelago Books. The fiction section used to be arranged nationally (French, German, English, etc.), but is now, alas, alphabetical. Still, it’s hard to leave McNally without something lovely. If you’re not sure what to read, a friendly and knowledgeable staff is eager to share its favorite titles.Now, across the Brooklyn Bridge to Stop 9: BookCourt (163 Court St. between Pacific and Dean)BookCourt is not only my neighborhood independent bookstore, it’s the very model of a neighborhood bookstore. The selection of books and periodicals is large enough to meet everyone’s interests, and well-curated enough not to be overwhelming. Displays are tailored to the neighborhood’s reading habits… the BookCourt top 10 is always strikingly different from that of any bookstore in Manhattan. Benches on the sidewalk out front offer a comfortable place to crack open one’s latest purchases.Stop 10: Freebird Books & Goods (123 Columbia St. between Kane & Degraw)This ur-used bookstore is where I took in the above-mentioned Joshua Ferris reading, and so I’ll defer to Mr. Ferris for a description: “There’s creaking hardwood floors, a pleasant dog on a thrift-store recliner, and the inimitable smell that comes of old comforting books long shelved back to back. It’s my favorite used bookstore in New York because it gets everything right: the big plate-glass window, the bell on the door, the enviable view of Manhattan, and the always well-stocked fiction section. Plus, a palpable feeling that you’re in a place where books, no matter how old, are alive and well. […] Open Mic, special guests, and food and drinks, including Moxie soda (oldest in America) and corndogs. Freebird is the kind of place that reminds you of why you read, why you wander New York streets in search of something, and why you know it when you find it.” (via TEV)And now my feet are tired and it’s time for a beer and a corndog. But if you want to keep exploring, you should check these out, too (commenters, please feel free to add to this list):Community Bookstore and Cafe of Park Slope (143 7th Avenue Brooklyn, between Carroll and Garfield Streets)Spoonbill & Sugartown (218 Bedford Avenue Brooklyn, between North 4th and North 5th Streets)Nkiru Books (68 St. Marks Place Brooklyn between 5th and 6th Avenues)