Rock Reads: Bruce by Peter Ames Carlin

Reviewed by Anthony Kuzminski

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In late 1991, Bruce Springsteen was in the presence of his lifelong friend and confidant, Steve Van Zandt. Despite the fact that nearly ten years had eclipsed since they had worked together in a studio, Springsteen always welcomed and encouraged Van Zandt's thoughts and advice. He had decided to play Van Zandt two albums; the end results of nearly two years of work, which he would release the following spring. Unlike The River from a decade earlier, these were two records birthed out from different mothers. Upon hearing Human Touch, Van Zandt turned to his friend and told him "trash" the Human Touch recordings and re-record them with the E Street Band. This is one of several eye-opening stories coming to light in the new Peter Ames Carlin book, Bruce the first book sanctioned by Springsteen in more than twenty-five years. Carlin had unprecedented access to not just Springsteen, but those closest to him as well- his family, former band mates and all members of the E Street Band. Bruce a nearly 500-page biography that does more than write about the magnificence of Springsteen's music, but takes the reader down the dim and dusty roads that helped forge not just artistry but more importantly his makeup as a human as well.

Aside from Elvis Presley, I am not sure if there is another American rock star who has more written about them other than Bruce Springsteen. Over the last forty years, Springsteen has been put on a pedestal by the press for good reason. His concerts and records often do not just take us down roads of salvation but the man himself has spoken up and written songs about those who have no voice. In a day and age where the playing field of politics has been muddied beyond recognition, Springsteen still speaks for everyone from the Vietnam Veteran, the Mexican immigrants, 9/11 survivors to disenfranchised Americans. Because of the dedication to his craft, he is an easy study and one people do not simply want to write about but yearn to write about. As a result, there are currently two thousand books on Amazon about Bruce Springsteen. When the Bruce bug bit me a few decades back, I read any book or magazine I could find on him, which lasted until around 2005. By this time, new books stopped informing me not because of journalistic laziness, but because they have nothing left to share. When I read the most recent biography by Marc Dolan earlier this year (my first Springsteen bio in half a decade), I realized that despite time and distance, once again, there was little left for me to learn about the man and his myth- it's simply all been done before. Then comes Bruce which does not merely grip the reader and never let go, but it also manages the impossible, sheds new light on Springsteen's legendary music and the mysterious man wielding his pen and guitar. It is important to note, that Bruce does not supplant Dave Marsh's books so much as paint a fuller picture. The pictures Marsh painted were biblical with steep legends and mystery behind his musical powers. Bruce Springsteen is a human, full of faults just like all of us. In Bruce, we learn of the hard work, the constant gigging and more importantly, the desire to work on his craft as a songwriter and refining it every step of the way even when the end results as less than satisfactory. He also dives into prickly subjects such as his divorce, the lawsuit of two former roadies and his reluctance in the 1990s to allow outsiders guide his records. These sections of the book are the most fascinating with many around Bruce (and with significant time) realizing how things could have been different. The mini E Street reunion in 1995 was wrought with tension between the once unbreakable band of brothers and then in 1999, Springsteen was not sure a reunion would work, wanting to book ten shows. These behind-the-scenes anecdotes provide the reader the rougher roads of rock n' roll but it also shows how much work has to go into building and maintaining relationships.

The book opens with documenting the early family history of the Springsteen's and the events that led up to Bruce's birth are surprisingly transfixing. We learn how the death of a child cast a gloom over his father's family until Bruce emerged in 1949. The events in the book are not family tree exercises but are there specifically to drive the narrative. Early family histories in biographies tend to be tedious, because they seem to follow a basic script; the family was poor, desired to be rich and said future rock star became hell bent on making it. While Springsteen's story contains ingredients of all the aforementioned, a cinematic arc reveals itself much later on in the body of his work. Most people who have a hand in their biographies overemphasize their upbringing for emotional reasons rather than narrative ones. Carlin makes Springsteen's upbringing not just attention grabbing, but gripping in ways few books have been. Carlin captures Springsteen's childhood and youth with details never before known. He discusses the relationship to his grandparents, the dynamic between his siblings and the moment when music took over his life. The most engrossing details have to do with his development as a musician with his first band The Castilles and later with Earth, Child and Steel Mill. Carlin does not simply recount dates and players; he immerses the reader into the music, the formation and dissolution of each group. I have several bootlegs from Bruce's early career that I listened to when I first obtained them, but for the better part of a decade, they have sat on a shelf collecting dust. Carlin's book swept me up so intensely, I pulled them out and heard things I had overlooked originally. The Steel Mill and Bruce Springsteen Band recordings don't just give us a glimpse of what was to come, but there's plenty of songs ("Redemption" and "You Mean So Much To Me" particularly) that I was reminded that should be more than myths but living and breathing entities in his catalog.

The pre-Born To Run years with manager Mike Appel are rich. Reading the book you full realize that without Mike Appel, "Bruce Springsteen" would not exist. Jon Landau deserves much credit for his work with Bruce from 1975-1986, but one has to wonder if he would have gone to the lengths and had such blind faith in anything the way Appel did in Springsteen. Steve Van Zandt and Garry Tallent are two key and unfiltered interviewees who do not hold back. Van Zandt in particular delivers a bounty of information and foreshadows how the greatest E Street Band book may yet to be written. Most of the members of the E Street Band (including the late Clarence Clemmons) were interviewed for the book. Even when there are conflicting details in their stories, Carlin wisely footnotes these differences. In my experience, most journalists would choose the more controversial of the two viewpoints and move on. There are road stories that for the first time give us a sense of the rock n' roll lifestyle the E Street Band took part in. He also discusses the deep bond Springsteen always felt for Van Zandt (and his continual attempts to bring him back into the fold of his music), his personal relationships from the women who influenced many of his early songs to his two marriages. Most impressive, is the exuberance Carlin provides on his classic 1975-1985 period where Springsteen created his most complete recordings. His prose and interweaving of key stories from people who were there made me fall in love with these records all over again, no simple feat. Key to these years is the stories observers provide including Van Zandt quitting the band on the first day of recording The River; Max Weinberg potentially being replaced and the intricacies of recording Nebraska. This last one will cause readers to shake their heads in disbelief when they learn the history of the four-track tape deck Springsteen used to record the record.

I have not had anything written on Bruce Springsteen in more than a decade hold my attention the way Bruce has and yet, it falls shy of being definitive. While the early years and his ascent into rock royalty are documented with meticulous zeal, something happens around 1988 and the book zooms through the last twenty-plus years of his career. It is possible he had a deadline, which is a shame. Springsteen's 1990-onward career is ripe for a deep dive and yet no one has take up the task. This period is rushed with only one-hundred pages dedicated to eight records, eight concert tours, three children and the death of two members of the E Street Band. The material within is still outstanding, but this is a rare biography that easily could have been seven or eight hundred pages and would have been every bit as engrossing. If this section had been fleshed out with a deeper introspection into his lesser-known works then the book would have been definitive. Despite the truncated nature of the last twenty years, Bruce captures a great American story about a man whose surroundings, family history, hard work and love of rock n' roll took him to heights few have ever seen. Peter Ames Carlin uses a tiny paintbrush, which allows him to comb over minute yet important particulars that deepen and validate Springsteen's career. For the first time, we have a chronological tale of his early bands, their members, his girlfriends, key family events and all of the fine points and grandeur of his forty-year career all housed in one book that defines Bruce Springsteen as both man and artist. There's no shortage of interesting rock n' roll biographies at this moment in time, but Peter Ames Carlin's Bruce will seize Springsteen newbie's and make fans with hundreds of shows under their belts sit back in awe all over again.

Anthony Kuzminski is a Chicago based writer and Special Features Editor for the antiMUSIC Network. His daily writings can be read at The Screen Door. He can be contacted at tonyk AT antiMUSIC DOT com and can be followed on Twitter

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