For Christmas my daughter bought me a copy of Bruce by Peter Ames Carlin, the first biography of Bruce Springsteen in 25 years to have been written with the co-operation of the singer. Books of this genre tend towards the adulation of the dedicated fan, notably, in Springsteen’s case, Dave Marsh’s Born to Run: The Bruce Springsteen Story (1979) – the work of an unabashed partisan and friend whose wife has for some time been a member of Springsteen’s management team.
Which raises the question – why do we read books like these? Is it to bask further in the warm glow cast by the star we adore? Or is it a prurient interest in what dirt the writer might have dug up from the subject’s personal life? Carlin’s book steers a fairly steady course between these extremes: it doesn’t read like hagiography, and it’s not an authorized biography (though Springsteen did meet with and talked to Carlin on the phone a few times). Carlin writes, ‘Bruce Springsteen made it clear that the only thing I owed him was an honest account of his life. He welcomed me into his world, spoke at great length on more than a few occasions, and worked overtime to make sure I had all the tools I’d need to do my job.’ Yet, despite his access to Springsteen, members of his E Street Band, his family and past lovers, Carlin has not been blinded by standing so near the light.
So then there’s a further question: will a long-term Springsteen fan like myself learn anything new here? The major events of Springsteen’s life have been so thoroughly explored by journalists in magazines like Uncut, in documentaries and interviews, and by fans on the Web that it might seem there would be little to add. Furthermore, Springsteen’s songs are often read as a memoir written in verse, the lyrics mining his life whilst brilliantly mythologising it.
The answer to the question, surprisingly, is yes. Carlin’s account does offer new insights, and will be read with interest who loves Springsteen’s work, though some of the personal history that inspired his lyrics was already revealed in the personal introductions to each album’s worth of songs which Springsteen wrote for the magnificent edition Songs, published in 2003 and now out of print (another gift from my thoughtful daughter).
Carlin focuses his account on Springsteen’s early life and the early stages of his musical career, with 21 of the 27 chapters devoted to the period up to 1989 during which he painstakingly built and established his legend. As for the rest – well, Carlin reveals aspects of Springsteen that differ from the one we think we may know. It’s a portrait of a man who in recent years has overcome personal doubt and insecurities with anti-depressants and psychotherapy, who is more than a little narcissistic and can sometimes be bad-tempered, and who at times in the past has treated women badly, his band members heartlessly, and driven everyone around him mad with his perfectionism. Well no-one’s perfect.
Carlin explores Bruce’s antecedents at some length in the opening chapter, telling how Joosten Springsteen left Holland for New York in 1652, and sometime in 18th century a branch of the family drifted out to the farmlands of Monmouth County, New Jersey. Right into the 20th century, Springsteens worked as farm labourers and, as industrialization came to New Jersey, as factory workers in Freehold, the town where Bruce was born in 1949. On his mother’s side were Irish immigrants from Kildare who migrated to America in 1850, settling in Monmouth County and working the fields. This was the working life that Bruce has placed at the heart of many of his songs.
Bruce makes clear that material deprivation was indeed a fact of life in a childhood where neither heat, hot water, nor the certainty of a roof over the family’s heads could be taken for granted. Until Bruce was six years old the family – Bruce, sister Virginia and parents Adele and Douglas – lived with Doug’s parents in their rundown home of peeling paintwork and crumbling ceilings. In Songs, Springsteen speaks of how later, after the success of Born to Run, he wanted to write about his own experience:
I was the product of Top 40 radio songs. Songs like the Animals’ ‘It’s My Life’ and ‘We Gotta Get Out of This Place’ were infused with an early pop class consciousness. That, along with my own experience – the stress and tension of my father’s and mother’s life that came with the difficulties of trying to make ends meet – influenced my writing. I had a reaction to my own good fortune. I asked myself new questions. I felt a sense of accountability to the people I’d grown up alongside. […] Most of my writing is emotionally autobiographical. You’ve got to pull up the things that mean something to you in order for them to mean anything to your audience. That’s how they know you’re not kidding.
Indeed, traced through Carlin’s account in Bruce, is a portrait of a young man who, from his late teens, had developed a very clear sense of what he wanted to achieve through a career in music: to weave lyrics rooted in his own experience into the various currents of American popular music – blues and folk, rhythm and blues and doo wop, rockabilly and rock – to create music that spoke to the lives, work and dreams of ordinary Americans.
Speaking of the recording sessions for The Wild, The Innocent and the E Street Shuffle that began in May 1975, Springsteen observed (in Songs) that:
I was drawing a lot from where I came from. I’m going to make this gumbo, and what’s my life? Well, New Jersey. New Jersey is interesting. I thought that my little town was interesting, the people in it were interesting people. And everyone was involved in the E Street shuffle: the dance you do every day just to stay alive. That’s a pretty interesting dance, I think. So how do I write about that? I found it very compelling, and I also wanted to tell my story, not somebody else’s story.
One of the elements of that story concerned his troubled relationship with his father, and Carlin builds a disturbing picture of Bruce’s father, whose crushed life and conflicts with his son was to be the subject of many songs and concert monologues:
Douglas Springsteen spent most of these years huddled inside himself, handsome in the brooding fashion of actor John Garfield, but too lost in his own thoughts to find a connection to the world humming just outside his kitchen window. Often unable to focus on workplace tasks, Doug drifted from the Ford factory to stints as a Pinkerton security guard and taxi driver, to a year or two stamping out obscure doo-dads at the nearby M&Q Plastics factory, to a particularly unhappy few months as a guard at Freehold’s small jail, to occasional spurts of truck driving. The jobs were often bracketed by long periods of unemployment, the days spent mostly alone at the kitchen table, smoking cigarettes and gazing into nothing. […] When dinner was over and the dishes were done, the kitchen became Doug’s solitary kingdom. With the lights out and the table holding only a can of beer, a pack of cigarettes, a lighter, and an ashtray, Doug passed the hours alone in the darkness.
According to Carlin, Bruce’s life was changed the day he picked up a guitar after seeing Elvis Presley on television. Another key moment was hearing ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’ on the car radio in 1964. The following Christmas, his mother borrowed $60 to buy Bruce a shimmering black and gold electric guitar. By 1965, Springsteen was playing in bands that performed in bars and beach clubs along Jersey Shore. For seven years he played in bands with names like The Castiles, Child and Steel Mill, before auditioning for John Hammond at Columbia Records in 1972. It was a tough, but essential apprenticeship, performing a repertoire that leaned mostly on Top 40 radio hits with an emphasis on the harder-edged singles by the Stones (‘Satisfaction’ and ‘The Last Time’), the Kinks (‘All Day and All of the Night’), Ray Charles (‘What’d I Say’), the Who (a furious ‘My Generation’), and Hendrix. At the same time, Bruce was honing his guitar technique, for which he was gaining a local reputation, and beginning to write a few of his own songs with ‘thump and snarl’ and ‘fist-in-the-air lyrics’.
But Bruce was already seeking a new direction, searching for new sounds. Enraptured by Van Morrison’s Street Choir album , he decided that Van’s meld of rock, blues, jazz, Celtic, and gospel music should be his new band’s defining sound:
The swing of old-fashioned rhythm and blues; the lockstep funkiness of James Brown; the seemingly endless possibilities that went along with a larger lineup of musicians, sounds, and inspirations. Asbury Park overflowed with musicians capable of playing all of it…
So was born Dr Zoom and the Sonic Boom, an outsize band ‘whose real mission revolved around fun and just the right touch of strangeness’. Soon renamed the Bruce Springsteen Band, the band would appear in either nine-piece or five-piece (Bruce, Steve Van Zandt, Gary Tallent, David Sancious, and Vini Lopez) configurations.
Bruce, Carlin writes, was consciously straining toward the creation of a music that would describe his neighbourhood ‘in a dying city’ struggling through the aftermath of riots and economic depression:
Long segregated along racial lines – the African-American community and other non-whites lived almost exclusively on the town’s tumbledown west side – Asbury Park’s beachside businesses were notorious for keeping African-Americans from all but the lowest-echelon jobs. Tensions had been on a low boil for years, but the combination of a heat wave, cutbacks in social programs, and a jobs shortage touched off days of on-and-off rioting that burned significant pieces of the west side before turning on the city’s business district. The wave of destruction, and the racial and social conflicts that remained unresolved, reduced Asbury Park to a scorched shadow of its once-prosperous self.
Yet Asbury Park still burst into life on Friday and Saturday nights, down by the boardwalk, in bars and nightclubs. The songs on the first two albums reflected that community through characters that were part real, part imaginary.
Carlin spends a lot of time in this book detailing the twists and turns in Springsteen’s relations with record companies, producers and publishers. Not surprisingly, he tells at great length the story of Bruce signing up with – and eventually spending two long years fighting a protracted legal battle to extricate himself from his contract with – his old buddy and New Jersey musician turned music publisher Mike Appel. Caplin quotes Springsteen:
Mike was for real. He loved music. His heart was in it. … That’s part of what attracted me to him, because it was all or nothing. I needed somebody else who was a little crazy in the eyes because that was my approach to it all. It was not a business. … It was an idea and an opportunity, and Mike understood that part of it very, very well.
It was Appel, after all, who got Bruce his Columbia Records contract. Two albums – not particularly successful in commercial terms – followed. But whenever Bruce listened to the first two albums he wasn’t satisfied:
All he could hear were the things he wished he’d done differently. The overstuffed lyrics, the stilted sound, the distance between what he needed to say and what came out of the speakers.
Springsteen’s notorious perfectionism is revealed in Carlin’s account of the grim and tortuous process of recording the next two albums – Born to Run and Darkness on the Edge of Town. It was a saga of ‘unplayable parts, unfixable mistakes, and unmixable recordings’, hours and hours, days and weeks of driving himself and members of the the band to exhaustion, and frustration: ‘the hardest thing I ever did’.
This is the period when Jon Landau enters the story – first with his historic review of a Springsteen show in Boston in May 1974 in which he exclaimed that he had seen ‘rock and roll future and its name is Bruce Springsteen’, adding:
Springsteen does it all. He is a rock’n’roll punk, a Latin street poet, a ballet dancer, an actor, a joker, bar band leader, hot-shit rhythm guitar player, extraordinary singer, and a truly great rock’n’roll composer. He leads a band like he has been doing it forever.
Landau’s endorsement was critical for Springsteen’s standing with CBS – the ‘rock and roll future’ line was appropriated by CBS in marketing Springsteen. More importantly, it led Springsteen to seek out Landau as a sounding board for his ideas as he prepared his next album. Born to Run made Springsteen a star, and Landau’s contribution was so great Springsteen decided he would be the man to guide him through his career as manager and producer – not just his right-hand man, but his right hand.
Carlin describes in some detail the Born to Run campaign run by CBS ‘like a D-Day invasion, with multiple forces poised to attack in calibrated waves’. Central to the campaign were the posters that featured Springsteen, back to the viewer, ‘bearded, curly-haired … looking like a poet biker in his black leather and jeans’, Elvis button on his sleeve, clutching a weathered Fender and a pair of Converse sneakers hanging from the guitar neck’.
Carlin describes the album cover, with Bruce leaning on saxophonist Clarence Clemons’ shoulder, as ‘the visual union of Elvis, Dylan, and Marlon Brando, with a touch of Stagger Lee looming over his shoulder for bad-ass measure’.
Carlin tells the familiar story of Springsteen being conflicted over the hype – it just got in the way of the reality and authenticity of what he was trying to express. For Springsteen the problem was exemplified by his arrival in London in November 1975 to find the capital plastered with posters on which Columbia had featured Landau’s ‘future of rock ‘n’ roll’ quote. Before the show at the Hammersmith Odeon, he ripped down all the posters he could find.
Carlin describes how Bruce gave in to some of the marketing pressures, compromising on aspects of the packaging and selling of Born to Run, though he did resist the idea for a shorter, radio-friendly edit of the single. At this point, too, he rejected stadium shows, even though the album’s success meant that the theatre venues that he’d barely filled months before were incapable of holding the audiences that now craved to see and hear him.
Despite the hype, in Carlin’s words, ‘Born to Run lived up to every promise ever made about Bruce Springsteen’:
From the breezy opening moments of ‘Thunder Road’ … the album stood as a summary of the previous twenty years of rock ‘n’ roll, a portrait of the moment, and the cornerstone of a career that would reflect and shape the culture for the next twenty years, and the twenty to follow. ‘It was the album where I left behind my adolescent definition of love and freedom,’ Bruce wrote. Born to Run was the dividing line.’
There follows the tortuous story of Springsteen’s infamous legal battle to escape from his contract with Mike Appel, a struggle that signified Bruce’s determination to retain complete control of his work. It would be two years before he was able to record a follow-up record.
When that album – The River – finally appeared, Springsteen was doing it again: passing on songs that he deemed too pop, too lightweight. ‘Because the Night’ and ‘Fire’ were tossed to others to make into hits – almost, even, ‘Hungry Heart’. Steve Van Zandt and others finally persuaded him out of that one, and it became the breakthrough single that lifted The River to the top of the album charts in autumn 1980.
Carlin rightly describes The River as an album that combines ‘the simple joys of rock ‘n’ roll’ while tracing ‘the human toll of economic and social inequity’. The River was also the album where Springsteen first attempted to write about the commitments of home and marriage. In the title song, Springsteen takes the story of his brother in law and sister Ginny who had fallen on hard times during the recession of the late ’70s, and turns it into something mythical:
The story of a young couple bound – by an accident of teenage conception, social expectations, and the absence of opportunity – to the same working class grind that had consumed the lives of their parents, and their parents’ parents. [It was] a word-for-word description of the life that Bruce’s sister Ginny had lived since her accidental pregnancy, at eighteen, and early marriage.
In his book, Carlin traces Springsteen’s growing commitment to questioning the American dream. In the words of ‘The River’, is it a dream, a lie, or something worse? He quotes Bruce as saying that, as a child, he heard little talk of politics in his neighbourhood, but does recall coming home from school one day and asking his mother whether they were Republican or Democrat: ‘She said we were Democrats, because they’re for the working people.’ Now he was reading American history, and had been particularly affected by Joe Klein’s Woody Guthrie: A Life and Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, both of which, like the unedited version of Guthrie’s ‘This Land Is Your Land’ which Springsteen had begun performing in his shows, offered a portrait of the underside of the American dream.
Bruce had also read Born on the Fourth of July, the memoir of the maimed Vietnam vet and anti-war activist Ron Kovic, and now began performing benefits for the Vietnam Veterans’ organization. It was around this time, too, that – as Ronald Reagan took over the American Presidency – Bruce began to feature at his concerts spoken introductions to certain songs that drew attention to the America of the vulnerable and downtrodden, combined with personal reminiscences of his own blue collar upbringing.
This is, perhaps, the abiding impression left by Carlin’s survey of Springsteen’s career: the sense of a man who has, right from the outset, formed a clear perception of where he stands in relation to music and his life and times:
I had an idea, and it was an idea that I had been working on for several records … through Nebraska, The River, Darkness, and right there on Born to Run. I was a strange product of Elvis and Woody Guthrie …I was fascinated by people who had become a voice for their moment. Elvis, Woody Guthrie, Curtis Mayfield, Bob Dylan, of course. I don’t know if I felt I had the capacity for it or just willed my way in that direction, but it was something I was interested in. Probably because it was all caught up in identity. You cannot figure out who you are if you don’t understand where you came from, what were the forces that work on your life as a child, as a teenager, and as a young man. What part do you have to play? How do you empower yourself?
With the trio of albums that began with The River and continued with Nebraska and Born In The USA, Springsteen’s reputation as the ‘blue collar troubadour’ was sealed. Carlin’s account demonstrates very clearly that there has been nothing happenstance about this. Each step of the way (perhaps only with the exception of a period in the 1990s) Springsteen has had a clear sense of his course and has kept to it. Steering between the poles of majestic stadium anthems and the quiet reflections on the American social fabric revealed on albums such as The Ghost of Tom Joad, he has become the embodiment of the American experience.
So much so, according to Carlin, that reading the New York Times obituaries of those killed on September 11, Springsteen was struck by how frequently his name was mentioned. Thomas H Bowden Jr, of Glen Ridge, NJ, was ‘deeply, openly, and emotionally loyal to Bruce Springsteen’. Christopher Sean Caton, of Glen Rock, NJ, was a Kiss fan as a boy. ‘But he soon moved on to Bruce Springsteen.’ After his death, his sister ‘found 35 ticket stubs to Springsteen concerts in his bedroom’. And on it went. Springsteen was so moved, Carlin writes, that he called up many of the victims’ families to offer his condolences.
More than any other contemporary artist, he had made himself synonymous with the cause of the common man; a fellow traveller on the same path trod by Woody Guthrie, John Steinbeck, Mark Twain and Pete Seeger.
And always there is that dedication to precise storytelling. On albums like Nebraska and Tom Joad Springsteen’s voice disappears into the voices of those he has chosen to exemplify the American story. In ‘Galveston Bay’, for example, off the Tom Joad album, Springsteen gets to the nub of the ironies and deadly tensions pursuant on American men being sent by their government to fight men in Vietnam required to do the same. The song originally had a violent ending, Bruce noted in Songs, but it began to feel false. ‘If I was going to find some small window of light, I had to do it with this man in this song.’
The song asks a question. Is the most political act an individual one, something that happens in the dark, in the quiet, when someone makes a particular decision that affects his immediate world? I wanted a character who is driven to do the wrong thing, but does not. He instinctively refuses to add to the vioolence in the world around him. With great difficulty and against his own grain he transcends his circumstances. He finds the strength and grace to save himself and the part of the world he touches.
In the last decade it seems as if Springsteen has become, in the words of political analyst Eric Alterman quoted by Carlin, ‘sort of the president of an imaginary America – the other America, so the rest of the world could admire the country the way they wanted to, without having to accept the fact that Reagan or George Bush spoke for America’. By the late 1990s, as Carlin points out, Bruce had moved away from earlier reservations, and become increasingly explicit about his politics. But, writes Carlin, while his sensibility flowed largely from New Deal liberalism, his working-class idealism came with bedrock principles on the virtues of work, family, faith and community:
None of which would be considered partisan had the collapse of American liberalism in the late 1970s and 1980s not included a large-scale redefinition of mainstream values as being conservative. That Bruce neither accepted nor acknowledged the politicization of traditional values could be seen in his own work ethic and the symbolic communities he formed with the E Street Band and the fans who bought his records and attended his shows. And even when his songs decried ruling-class greed and the fraying of the social safety net, they still cam bristling with flags, work, veterans, faith and the rock-sold foundation of home and family. […]
Just as he’d synthesized gospel, rock ‘n’ roll, rhythm and blues, folk, jazz and carnival music into a sound that echoed the clamour of the nation, Bruce’s particular magic came from his ability to trace the connections that hold the world together, even when it seems to be on the verge of flying apart.
Bruce offers a solid and interesting account of the arc of Springsteen’s career. But, for all its emphasis on contracts, tours and recording sessions, it lacks argument or deep analysis of Springsteen’s work. The man himself offered more in the incomparable Songs. Carlin’s work is certainly very different to another book I have just begun reading – Ian Bell’s Once Upon a Time: The Lives of Bob Dylan. Now that’s a different kettle of fish entirely, consisting exclusively of sceptical analysis directed, not to reconstructing Dylan’s life (for Dylan is ‘a writer who turned himself into a character to give voice to other characters’) but to trying to work out ‘who the hell he really is’. But more of that in future.
If there is a recurring implicit theme in Carlin’s book, it is the question of integrity. From the start, Springsteen has set himself the alchemist’s task of transforming the lives of working class Americans into the gold of poetry and myth. More than that, he has consciously set out to remain true to his roots: a difficult – some might say impossible – task given that he is a fabulously rich and famous celebrity. But, on the evidence here, he has largely conducted himself with shrewdness, humility and generosity, never forgetting where he came from. He’s still riding that train in the company of saints and sinners, losers and winners, fools and kings, whores and gamblers, lost souls, the broken-hearted and sweet souls departed whose dreams will not be thwarted, whose faith will be rewarded:
You’ll need a good companion for
This part of the ride
Leave behind your sorrows
Let this day be the last
Tomorrow there’ll be sunshine
And all this darkness past
Big wheels roll through fields
Where sunlight streams
Meet me in a land of hope and dreams
Hear the steel wheels singin’
Bells of freedom ringin’