By Karsten S. Andersen
“Bruce” by Peter Ames Carlin is one of the most talked-about Springsteen biographies ever put to print, and Greasy Lake must be the last publication with even the slightest interest in the protagonist to review it, and chances are, if you read this, you’ve already read a few other reviews. Heck, you probably already read the book and formed your own opinion.
Still, this column simply wouldn’t be complete without a piece on what is not only the most talked-about Bruce book, but also the most important one since Dave Marsh wrote his “Born to Run” book more than 30 years ago.
And now I already revealed that I liked it. A lot. Is it as good as it could have been and perhaps should have been? No, but it’s absolutely the best Springsteen biography that I have read, which, glancing at my two full shelves of all-Bruce books, actually says a lot.
If you have read the two books by Dave Marsh, “Born to Run” and “Glory Days” (later merged into one volume as “Two Hearts”), you know the basic Springsteen story. Very few books have added a whole lot to that. Sure, they’ve told it a little differently and added the missing years, albeit with very little true insight.
Enter “Bruce” by Carlin and that all changes. Even more than Marsh’s books, it relies on first-hand accounts from everybody from Bruce’s family to his bandmates and other associates, and, most importantly, from Bruce himself. Tons of interviews have been conducted. Carlin even hung out with Bruce on several occasions. The result is what appears to be the truest and most detailed portrait of Bruce Springsteen as a human being as we are likely to get until Bruce decides to write his own book.
While Dave Marsh’s books have been criticized for painting a somewhat rosy picture of Bruce, Carlin’s book reveals his flaws as well as his strengths. Much has already been said about the book’s disclosure of Bruce being on antidepressants, and we also learn that he’s not always the hearty pal to his band members and other employees as we may have thought.
But if you don’t like to read negative things about your hero, don’t let the above facts deter you. The reader is not left with an overall negative impression of Bruce at all. We may see him as more human, but that’s hardly a bad thing; on the contrary.
Perhaps the biggest strength of the book is its recounting of how Bruce became Bruce: his childhood and the years in Asbury Park before he became a star. Those first 25 years of his life take up almost half the book, and it’s not a page too much. With unprecedented detail and sense of authenticity, Peter Carlin writes about Bruce’s school years, his close relationship to his grandparents, his rebellion against his father. We even hear about his parents’ background, and not just because Carlin wants to demonstrate how much he knows, but because it actually matters to the story of how Bruce turned out. And reading these chapters, you don’t get the feeling that you’ve read it all a hundred times before. It’s the difference between reading a summary of a great novel and actually reading the novel. Reading Carlin’s book, it all falls into place: what it was like back then; what really happened and why; and what effect it had on the events that followed.
When all this is said, it is also undeniable that the second half of the book doesn’t maintain the same level as the first. Maybe it’s because once Bruce got his breakthrough and became a star, his life and career simply became less interesting and less dramatic. Or maybe the story is too well known to captivate us. But those things can’t be the whole explanation. What we would have given to hear about the breakup of the E Street Band, the “other band” tour, the confused Nineties, the superstardom of the mid-Eighties with as much detail and insight as the Steel Mill years! But we don’t. We do get lots of new information and it’s at a much higher level than in your average Bruce biography, but we’re still left wanting more. Could it be that the sources, who for the most part are still working with Bruce, became more protective of him and less inclined to share the goods as we approached the more recent times? Or was it just Carlin who couldn’t invest the same amount of energy and interest in the later decades if he was ever going to finish his project?
Those are just speculations, and whatever the case, it doesn’t deflect from the fact that this is the best Bruce Springsteen biography out there. And not just because of what we learn. All the interesting information in the world couldn’t make it a good book if the writing were bad. But that’s the thing. Peter Carlin writes so well, it’s hard to put the book down. The language flows like the lyrics of a favorite Bruce song, and altogether, the book is a joy to read on every level. Buy or borrow it, it doesn’t matter. If you have any interest in Bruce - and you wouldn’t be here if you didn’t - just read it. Now.