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?
Even as much of the Eastern U.S. is lashed by a massive storm, we have new books this week, skewing mostly to non-fiction, including Kurt Vonnegut’s collected letters, Richard Russo’s memoir Elsewhere, James Wood’s collection of essays The Fun Stuff, and Peter Carlin’s authorized biography of Bruce Springsteen. On the fiction side is Emma Donoghue’s Astray.