Sunday, December 2, 2012

Review: Bruce, by Peter Ames Carlin

Bruce Springsteen is another of my musical heroes. But I don't keep up on the latest music news like I used to, so I wasn't aware that there was a new book about him in the works until I saw a copy of it in a bookstore a few weeks ago. I quickly requested a copy from the library, and once it arrived I dove right in.

Peter Ames Carlin's biography Bruce is advertised on its dust jacket flap as "the first in twenty-five years to be written with the cooperation of Bruce Springsteen himself." That cooperation is apparent throughout: The book can boast original interviews with not just Springsteen himself, but also most of his family; current and former (and, sadly, deceased) members of not only The E Street Band but of pretty much every band Bruce has ever been a part of; management teams; crew members; journalists; childhood and family friends; and more.

However, as Carlin notes in the Acknowledgments section,
This was never an 'authorized' book in the technical sense. (I had no contractual relationship with Bruce, Thrill Hill Productions, or Jon Landau Management; they had no control over what I would eventually write.)
It took until page 472 for him to confirm my suspicions that the book might not be authorized. Beyond the fact that the cover would have proudly announced that fact if it had been, there was simply too much evidence throughout that seemed out of place in an official biography, too many anecdotes where Springsteen, frankly, comes off poorly. These aren't tales of drunken or drug-fueled binges: It seems that Bruce pretty much never did drugs, and his drinking, when it was there, never rose to the level of abuse, or even of public drunkenness. (Quite a change from almost every other rock star biography!) Rather, the book tells tales of Bruce's immaturity (which seemed to last quite a long time, well into adulthood), his anger, and his tendency to manipulate, particularly lovers and bandmates.

Indeed, the line between "lovers and bandmates" is a fuzzy one. Not just in the obvious example of Patti Scialfa, who joined the E Street Band in 1984 for the "Born in the U.S.A." tour (after having first auditioned for one of Bruce's bands back in 1971!) and who later became Bruce's second wife and mother of their three children, but in the example of nearly everyone who's ever played in a band with him. Many of their interviews reveal a similar mixture of fierce dedication to, admiration for, and frustration with Bruce the man (though pretty much everyone can't praise his musicianship and dedication to his craft enough). These relationships are complicated. There is a deep an abiding love between them all, but Bruce also is clearly their employer (their "boss"), as he has occasionally been known to make clear - as when once, on the "Darkness" tour, he discovered two of his band members doing cocaine: he exploded and threaten to fire anyone who would do that again. "'I could replace any of those guys in twenty-four hours.' The he thought for a moment. 'Except for Clarence [Clemons]. Replacing Clarence would take some time'" (262).

And Clemons himself makes a similar point, speaking about the time when Springsteen took a break from / broke up the E Street Band after the "Tunnel of Love" tour:
'It's like being married to someone. You have certain expectations of someone because you love them so much. But the these things happen, and he probably doesn't even notice. So I felt like I put all this out for the situation and didn't get much back.' (433)
Bruce's attitude toward his girlfriends could be equally capricious. As Joyce Hyser reminisced, "'His whole thing in those days was, "When I want to see you, you need to be here, and when I don't, you need to be gone"'" (290). His failed first marriage, to the actress Julianne Phillips, gets a somewhat cursory treatment, apart from generally positive memories for friends; neither Bruce nor Phillips speaks to Carlin on the record about it beyond vaguely complimentary memories of each other, and Carlin does not pry further. Bruce's relationship with Patti is presented as complicated at first (as would be expected), but quite solid once their first child was born. Scialfa did not contribute much of anything to the book (she "stayed out of it for the most part, but was welcoming all the same" [472]).

It's hard to imagine these days, when Springsteen has become something like a national musical treasure, that there was a time, even after fame had begun in earnest after "Born to Run," that the band's fortunes - not to mention its future - were gravely in doubt, due to the lawsuits between Bruce and his manager Mike Appel. Forbidden from recording, the band played gigs to get by - but just barely get by. This ancedote was frighteningly telling:
When [Gary W.] Tallent checked out a Springsteen/E Street tribute band playing in a bar near his apartment in Sea Bright, he learned that the tribute bassist made three times more for playing Tallent's parts than Tallent earned for creating, recording, and then playing them around the country. (230)
What's truly impressive about the book, however, is the insight it gives you into Springsteen's creative process, his dedication to his songwriting, and how hard he and his bands have always worked to get to the sound that he has in his head and that he wishes to create both on record and on stage. You get a good sense of his fanatical dedication in the Thom Zimny-directed documentaries included in the large "Born To Run" and "Darkness On The Edge Of Town" box sets, but the book's career-long span really drives this point home. Which is why this comment from Bruce on the spontaneously recorded "We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions" album seems so shocking:
'It's fascinating to record a song when the musicians don't know it,' he told USA Today's Edna Gundersen. 'If people learn their parts too well, they consciously perform rather than flat-out play.' (424)
That "perform" is telling, I think. When the E Street Band is on stage, it's a performance. There's lots of spontaneity, of course, perhaps moreso than nearly any other band; but that spontaneity has its bedrock in an excruciating amount of rehearsal, not just of the music, but of the stagecraft. And given some of the information we learn about tensions among the band members (well, really, between individuals and Bruce), particularly at the start of tours after there have been (Bruce-induced) breaks, I have to wonder if at times the camaraderie and good humor they demonstrate on stage ("night after night after night," as their bandleader is fond of intoning) isn't occasionally a bit of performance as well.

But then I read this from Clarence, and I wonder again:
'Bruce is so passionate about what he believes, that if you're around him, you have to feel it. It'll become part of your passion.... I believed in him like I believed in God. That kind of feeling. He was always so straight and so dedicated to what he believes, you become a believer simply by being around him. People see him and think, "This is how it's supposed to be, this is how it's supposed to happen." You dedicate your life to something. And Bruce represents that.' (433)
Bruce is a solid read throughout, interested more in biography than in analyzing lyrics (there are plenty of other books for that purpose). You learn about Springsteen the artist as well as Springsteen the man, from an author who, while clearly admiring his subject (and perhaps even idolizing him, a bit), nevertheless isn't averse to pointing out the lows as well as the highs. The last couple of chapters, on the most recent decade, are generally less enlightening than the rest of the book, but I suppose that's to be expected when writing of a subject who's still alive. The bulk of the book enjoys and exploits the benefits of hindsight, from Bruce, from the other interview subjects, from Carlin himself; the last few years are probably still too recent in everyone's memory to allow for much reflective thought yet.

Overall, Bruce is a nuanced, comprehensive portrait of a vital artist, as well as of his circle of friends and fellow artists. I've been a Springsteen fan for thirty years or so, but I still learned a lot from this book.

Bruce
by Peter Ames Carlin
Touchstone, 2012
ISBN-10: 1439191824
ISBN-13: 978-1439191828
512 pages, $28.00