BY JOHN B. MOORE
It looks like the Saint Bruce image gets a bit of a makeover with the release of the new Springsteen biography Bruce (Touchstone Books, recently republished in paperback). His halo gets a bit of tarnish and the wings a bit more tattered and to be honest, it’s actually a nice look for the working class hero who has had a lot to live up to an unrealistic reputation as the “Tom Hanks of Rock” for the past four decades.
You’d have to build a few extra bookshelves to accommodate all of the Springsteen books that have been churned out over the years, but just about all tend to fall into one of three categories:
The Dave Marsh Hero Worship Books. Music critic Marsh has been part of Springsteen’s inner circle since the late 70’s, so he certainly has the access to the singer and his band mates, but he also has a massive motivation not to rock the boat, so his books tend to be little more than glorified fanzines letting us know why we should all be constantly genuflecting to the God of New Jersey.
The quickie bios. Usually surfacing around the time the singer puts out a new album, these are churned out by authors who have likely never been to a Springsteen show, let alone interviewed the subject of their books. These paperback affairs are put out by obscure publishing houses and rely on little more than past magazine interviews and a slew of psych 101 observations from the authors for fodder.
Springsteen as college thesis. There are a surprising number of books that have written recently by professors delving into the lyrical content from New Jersey’s favorite son. While certainly interesting to Springsteen obsessives like me, they tend to be too weighted down with minutia for most of the record-buying public to care about.
But with Bruce, Peter Ames Carlin – a former writer for People, and author of books about Paul McCartney and Brain Wilson (separate books, not the same one. That would just be crazy.) – has done a brilliant job of finally offering an honest, objective look at one of the most influential musicians to come out of the U.S. in recent memory. As detailed throughout Bruce, The Boss has a bit of an ego (I know, shocking considering his nickname) and at times in the past would behave like a petulant child when things weren’t going his way. There is one anecdote in particular that best highlights this behavior, when early on in his career, a young Springsteen, upset after a particular weak gig, chucking his after-show meal at his road manager for daring to introduce the band to chicken cordon blue, rather than the traditional after show dinner of fried chicken.
Carlin also reveals for the first time the massive rift Springsteen caused to the long loyal E Street Band, many who had been with Springsteen long before they could draw a crowd, when he decided to break up the group in the early 90’s to go solo, at one point bringing many of the members in one by one to re-audition for him. The hurt is still evident among many in the since-reunited band.
But by exposing the warts, Carlin is able to finally offer a complete picture of a brilliant, yet sometimes conflicted perfectionist who wanted nothing more than to make the best music possible; a pretty impressive mindset especially in contrast to our country’s current obsession with “good-enough” music and musicians.
With access to band mates, family, friends, fellow musicians, current and former managers, and Springsteen himself, the author does a Yeoman’s job of offering a full picture of the musician from his childhood in working class Freehold, NJ up to his current role as the reigning king of rock – still living not too far from his hometown, but in an slightly bigger house.
The fact that Springsteen agreed to sit for interviews for this book may go to show that he was growing a little tired of the Saint Bruce portrayal as well.