Thursday, November 1, 2012

Observing the Boss

Peter Ames Carlin writes a landmark biography of Springsteen

The following review has been posted on the Books page of the History News Network.   

Of the dozens of books written about Bruce Springsteen -- including one by yours truly -- this unauthorized biography is the most important. In large measure, that's because Peter Ames Carlin is the first author since rock critic Dave Marsh to get access to Springsteen, as well as his family, friends, lovers, and business associates, for a book-length study. Marsh's Born to Run: The Bruce Springsteen Story (1979) and multiple sequels are the work of an unabashed partisan whose wife has long been involved in managing Springsteen's career. Carlin, by contrast -- author of the highly regarded Catch a Wave: The Rise, Fall and Redemption of Beach Boys' Brian Wilson (2006) -- is an avowed outsider. He spent years researching the book before the Springsteen's organization decided he was legit, and unlocked previously shuttered subjects and people. That vote of confidence has proven well-founded.

There had been buzz in the publishing business a couple years ago that Springsteen himself would be writing a memoir, which seems to have abated. Whether or not that happens, this book, which includes interviews with ailing or dead people central to Springsteen -- among them his mother Adele and longtime sidekick Clarence Clemons -- will be the standard work for those who consider themselves serious fans.

The major events of Springsteen's life have been so thoroughly raked over by journalists, scholars, and fans that it appears there would be little to add. But one aspect of Bruce that stands out is Carlin's coverage of Springsteen's early life. (I met Carlin at a conference last month, and spent an afternoon with him in Freehold, New Jersey, ground zero of the Springsteen legend.) I'd long suspected that the powerful mythologizing instinct surrounding Springsteen and his followers has somewhat exaggerated the humility of his origins, particularly since at least parts of his hometown have a leafy suburban character. But Bruce makes clear that material deprivation was indeed a fact of life in a childhood where neither heat, hot water, nor a secure ceiling could be taken for granted.

Perhaps more importantly, Springsteen's psychic life was haunted by shadows -- of the aunt who died as a child in a bicycle accident; of a father who struggled with manic-depression; of a mother and aunts who experienced downward mobility when their father was imprisoned for embezzlement during the Great Depression, and who may have been involved in organized crime. Spending the first years of his life principally in the care of paternal grandparents with little interest in the rhythms of middle-class life (they didn't really see the point of sending him to school), Springsteen's childhood was one of odd hours, silent companionship with taciturn relatives, and peers who, while generally not hostile, nevertheless regarded him as Different. Under such circumstances, a desire to belong competed with a singular intensity that focused around rock & roll music, the cultural explosion that coincided with his childhood and which represented the most obvious avenue of personal expression in a family that afforded few others.

There's no explicit interpretive argument here of the kind one would expect in a formal academic study (one that would be called Springsteen instead of Bruce), but a recurring implicit theme threads the narrative: the problem of the democratic genius. Whether or not he belongs in a pantheon that includes Elvis Presley or Bob Dylan, even observers who are not particularly fond of Springsteen or his music would concede he is impressive as an autodidact and a celebrity who has largely conducted himself with shrewdness, tact, and generosity. But in positioning himself in the tradition of an Everyman tradition that stretches from Walt Whitman through Woody Guthrie, the fabulously rich and famous Springsteen has attempted to thread a needle that neither of these heirs ever experienced, and which has posed a seemingly endless prospect of contradiction, if not hypocrisy, even within the capacious boundaries of a capitalist system that Springsteen has always accepted, if with strong reservations. Springsteen's singularity was apparent to some early in adolescence; it became unmistakable by the time of Born to Run, when he was a mere 25 years old. With the release of Born to in the USA in 1984 (I'll note that three quarters of the book is over by the time a reader gets to this point), this tension has been the defining issue of his career.

No one has been more aware of the dilemma of the democratic genius than Springsteen himself. He has occasionally acted in ways that blur the line between principle and petulance, illustrated here when he lashes out at an employee who presents him with gourmet food, a roadie who solves a logistical crisis by cleverly using limousines to transport equipment that could be moved no other way, or  his childhood Catholic school, where where he performs a benefit concert but insists on singing a song about the joy of oral sex, an act that seems more vengeful than playful.  Though they never dominate the narrative, we encounter a series of girlfriends who lament their status as the second most important relationship after his muse (former wife Julianne Phillips maintains impressive discretion, and is rewarded by an ex- who emphatically blames himself for the failure of their marriage). We also meet band members who wince, chafe, and occasionally express the anger that results from a good life that depends on a Boss who belabors decisions, likes to play his cards close to his vest and will fine those who break his rules. "I was driving [everyone] crazy because I knew I could," he has said of the making of Born to Run, in an expression of calculated self-insight that has marked recent Springsteen pronouncements. "I was a dangerous man to be around."

In his exchanges with Carlin, which apparently involved reporting back what others have said for a reaction, Springsteen consistently downplays such conflicts, or expresses surprise when the recollections of others differ from his own. But he rarely insists on his version of a story as the right one. The man we meet in these pages is a three-dimensional human being, who I'm sorry never to have met but less sorry that I've never worked for or depended upon, even as I acknowledge that his standards of decency are a good deal higher than most, and perhaps virtually all of those in a comparably elevated position.

"Trust the art, not the artist," Springsteen said many years ago, and I have taken this truism to heart along with many other, more arresting assertions he has made in the last forty years. At this point in my life, I know his art like the back of my hand (even as I occasionally make discoveries about both). I never took for granted that I really knew Bruce Springsteen, at times genuinely happy for a sense of mystery that made my world bigger. But I'm glad to meet the figure who appears in Carlin's portrait, who inhabits a world that's recognizably my own, even if it's lived at a distance. It's good to get an account of him from an author who managed to sidle up to the bar and strike up a conversation.