The definitive biography on the genius and sadness of Bruce Springsteen
Published 09/12/2012 | 06:00
On November 16, 1990, Bruce Springsteen played two concerts in Los Angeles. They were his first scheduled live performances in two years and the singer was unusually nervous, repeatedly asking for quiet so he could concentrate.
At the end of one song, a fan shouted out, "We love you Bruce!", Springsteen paused and said: "But you don't know me."
This exchange neatly encapsulates the Springsteen paradox: he is a rock colossus who ranks alongside Elvis Presley and Bob Dylan, but he retains an easy intimacy with his fans: they think they know him, but the real Bruce remains elusive.
Peter Ames Carlin's new book is the first in 25 years to have been written with the co-operation of Springsteen. Previous biographies have tended towards closely argued adulation, but Carlin has not been blinded by his access to Springsteen, the members of his E Street Band, his family and past lovers.
Springsteen's lyrics can be read as a memoir written in verse; the songs mine his life but they also shamelessly mythologise it, and Carlin has to sift what is real from what is, in Springsteen's words, just a brilliant disguise.
He takes us back to when Springsteen was growing up in New Jersey, just another working-class alienated kid whose life was changed the day he picked up a guitar after seeing Presley on television.
There is a wonderful vignette of Bruce's taciturn, hard-drinking father, Doug, using a broom-handle to pound the ceiling beneath his son's room to stop him practising.
"It wasn't the lectures, criticisms and occasionally heated arguments that cut into Bruce's skin," Carlin writes, "it was the vacancy that swam into his father's eyes whenever he came into the room . . . only emptiness stared back."
It was music that filled this void. There is a terrific set-piece on the life-changing audition that Springsteen had in May 1972 with the legendary Columbia record executive John Hammond, the man who had signed Billie Holiday and Dylan.
"So you're the man who is supposed to have signed Bob Dylan," Springsteen's abrasive then-manager Mike Appel said to Hammond as he introduced his charge: "Now I wanna see if you've got any ears 'cause I've got somebody better than Dylan."
Springsteen was mortified but he knew that Appel was the man to take him to the promised land of success.
Carlin charts Springsteen's path to greatness: the break-out success of Born to Run (1975), the mega-stardom of Born in the USA (1984), and the decade-long creative rebirth that began with his 9/11-inspired album The Rising (2002) and has led to Springsteen being discovered by a new generation of fans and courted by everyone from Arcade Fire to Barack Obama.
Carlin creates a convincing portrait of his subject as a man whose writing is imbued with empathy for those let down by the American dream but who is himself alive to his talent, alert to ambition, and willing to do whatever is needed to follow his muse.
There is little sex or drugs in this rock-and-roll tale: there are seven entries in the index under "drugs and alcohol, disdained by".
When he sees an unnamed band member holding a cocaine spoon up to the nose of another member he snarls: "If. I. Ever. F******. See. This. Again. They're gone. On the spot. I'll fire them."
A former girlfriend suggests that "Bruce was afraid of being happy because it would screw up his creative force", while Carlin's account of the break-up of the E Street Band reveals how brutal and painful the event still is, even 20 years later.
Later, Springsteen was to re-form the band, and the past decade has been hugely productive with five albums in the past seven years, a fact Carlin suggests might be related to Springsteen's use of antidepressants from 2003.
This anti-depressant-taking, therapist-visiting, more than a little narcissistic and occasionally bad-tempered Bruce is not the Springsteen we think we know, and that is what makes this book such a compelling portrait.
The book's greatest failing is it is rather poorly paced: by page 319 of 463 pages, we have only reached 1984 – it is as if Carlin was gently cruising through the 1970s and early 1980s before putting the pedal down hard and hurtling through the 1990s and 2000s.
That quibble aside, he has written a wonderfully insightful and richly detailed biography, one that can justifiably claim to be both impartial and definitive.
Sarfraz Manzoor is the author of Greetings from Bury Park
Bruce Springsteen plays concerts in Cork, Limerick and Belfast next July