Never weary of the boss
The special claim of ‘Bruce’ is that Bruce Springsteen has co-operated with a biographer for the first time in a quarter century, writes Dwight Garner
Bruce Springsteen has been, almost from the start of his career some 40 years ago, among the most dignified and articulate musicians in American pop history, a worthy heir to Woody Guthrie and Hank Williams and Elvis Presley and Bob Dylan, with a bit of James Brown’s showmanship thrown in for axle grease.
So it was all the more shocking and funny when, in 1985, the cartoonist R Crumb published a drawing of himself chasing a Springsteen fan with a club, shouting: “I hate Bruce Springsteen!! Shlockmeister!! Polluter of souls! Deceiver of the innocent! Pimp! Panderer! Sleazeball hustler!!”
The fan he’s pursuing speaks for the reader when he yelps: “Help! Police! He’s nuts!”
Crumb, who collects old-timey 78 rpm jazz and blues recordings, isn’t a Springsteen kind of guy. Chris Christie, the New Jersey governor and ardent Springsteen admirer, could pop the skeletal cartoonist into his mouth like a kipper. But Crumb’s anti-Springsteen rant caught something in the air. In 1985 the Boss was at the height of his post-‘Born in the USA’ fame, and he was badly overexposed. Even Springsteen began to feel, he told a journalist, “Bruced out.”
Among the best things about Bruce, a new biography of Springsteen by Peter Ames Carlin, is his portrait of Springsteen at this career crossroads. He dissolved the E Street Band — he wouldn’t record an album with its members again for more than 15 years, until ‘The Rising’ in 2002 — causing bruised feelings.
He married, divorced and remarried, while almost simultaneously making what some consider the best of his mature albums, the heartsick and reverberating ‘Tunnel of Love’ (1987). He licked psychic wounds, self-inflicted and otherwise.
The revelations in Carlin’s biography include details about the decades of psychotherapy Springsteen has undergone, and the antidepressants he began taking in 2003. His superb run of live shows over the past decade seem, in retrospect, like the grooviest Celexa ads of all time.
Carlin is a former People magazine writer and previously the author of biographies of Brian Wilson and Paul McCartney. His Bruce is the umpteenth Springsteen bio to come down the pike. Its special claim on our attention is that Springsteen has cooperated with him. This is the first time he’s given access to a biographer, we are told, in some 25 years. Springsteen had no control, Carlin says, over the book’s contents.
Bruce gets the bedrock story told. It appraises Springsteen’s lower-middle-class childhood in Freehold, NJ, and his brooding father who worked menial jobs. We witness the rental of a first guitar after Springsteen saw Elvis on The Ed Sullivan Show. “The first day I can remember lookin’ in the mirror and standin’ what I was seein’,” Springsteen told a Newsweek reporter in 1975, “was the day I had a guitar in my hand.”
Springsteen played in Jersey Shore bands with names like The Castiles, Child and Steel Mill before auditioning for John Hammond at Columbia Records in 1972. He was in his wharf-rat phase and made two word-drunk early LPs before breaking through with ‘Born to Run’ in 1975. A brutal legal battle with his manager delayed the recording of his 1978 masterpiece, ‘Darkness on the Edge of Town’.
This material is well known. The Springsteen obsessive — I rate myself at about an 8.1 out of a possible 10 — will hunt instead for smaller, juicier nuggets. On this front Bruce delivers. We learn, for example, that one of Springsteen’s early bands almost played Woodstock. We witness Janis Joplin drooling over him that same year.
Springsteen nearly named one of his early groups, the author writes, the Intergalactic Pubic Band. He and his musician friends liked to play a cutthroat version of Monopoly for which they would add handmade cards to the Chance and Community Chest piles. If you drew the Race Riot! card, all your houses and hotels burned down.
Robert De Niro stole his “You talkin’ to me?” riff in Taxi Driver from Springsteen’s stage patter. The Boss and his longtime manager, Jon Landau, came close to firing the drummer Max Weinberg during the sessions for ‘The River’ (1980); Weinberg took drum lessons to stay in the band.
Springsteen originally intended to give what became his first Top 10 single, Hungry heart, to the Ramones. After Sept 11 he was moved by how many of the brief profiles that ran in The New York Times under the heading ‘Portraits of Grief’ mentioned his name. He reached out to many of those people’s families.
Bruce doesn’t read like hagiography. Carlin lingers on the sullen streak in Springsteen. He sometimes treated women badly, and reportedly struck one of them. “His whole thing in those days,” an old girlfriend tells the author, “was, ‘When I want to see you, you need to be here, and when I don’t, you need to be gone.’ ”
He could be cruel to his band members, and was said to fine staff members for small infractions. “I could replace any of those guys in 24 hours,” Springsteen reportedly once said, referring to the E Street Band. “Except for Clarence,” he said about Clarence Clemons, his larger-than-life saxophonist. “Replacing Clarence would take some time.”
Carlin lingers, to hilarious effect, on Springsteen’s poor diet as a young musician. “His idea of a meal,” one observer recalls, “was Ring Dings, Devil Dogs and a Pepsi.”
Springsteen had, the author writes, “the gastronomic sophistication of a feral dog.”
He lingers too on his subject’s increasingly outspoken left-leaning politics. He gets the following origin story: “I came home one day and asked my mother if we were Republican or Democrats,” Springsteen tells the author. “She said we were Democrats, because they’re for the working people.”
Springsteen is a great American artist who deserves a great American biography, a book to rival those Peter Guralnick has composed about Elvis Presley. Bruce has its nice moments, and it’s far from a disaster, but it’s not that volume. It has a distant quality. It has no consistent graininess or depth of argument about, or real feeling for, Springsteen’s work. There’s little about his family life or children. His band members don’t quite come to life.
Carlin strains for bad jokes. There are too many hacky sentences. We read about Mike Appel, Springsteen’s early manager: “He turned naysayers into fools and made the powerful lick his hand.” And there’s this about a few days Springsteen spent in Japan with his first wife, the actress Julianne Phillips: “It was all true love and lollipops in the land of the rising sun.” This book’s footnotes are whatever the opposite of scholarly is, many of them completely daft.
Carlin gets across why Springsteen has meant so much, for so long, to so many people, however. He quotes a thumbnail review of ‘Darkness on the Edge of Town’ that ran in Rolling Stone. It can stand in for my sense of this man’s career: “Springsteen aims for moon and stars; hits moon and stars.”
Peter Ames Carlin
Simon & Schuster
2012, pp 400