He wrote the book that he wanted to read about a favorite rocker
By Jon Ferguson, Staff Writer
Peter Ames Carlin became a Bruce Springsteen convert in 1978, after hearing the album "Darkness on the Edge of Town."
More than 30 years later, this author of an acclaimed biography of Paul McCartney decided Springsteen should be his next subject.
"I kept looking for the book that I wanted to read about Bruce Springsteen, beyond the Dave Marsh books from the '70s ("Born to Run: The Bruce Springsteen Story") and the '80s ("Glory Days: Bruce Springsteen in the 1980s"). And it wasn't poppin' up," Carlin said in a telephone interview from his home in Portland, Ore.
Carlin spent much of three years filling that void by working on "Bruce," his take on the Springsteen story that was released last fall. Deeply reported and thoughtfully written, the book balances Carlin's roles as both fan and journalist.
Carlin's admiration for Springsteen's music helps him capture the almost-religious fervor that moves the musician's fans to cast him in messianic terms.
His instincts as a journalist, however, allow Carlin to draw back and write about Springsteen as the complicated and not-always-endearing man that he is.
It addresses Springsteen's sometimes misogynistic attitude toward women, his often troubled relationships with the members of the E Street Band, and his battles with depression.
The author had access to Springsteen's family, friends and musical associates; two years into the project, Springsteen himself agreed to participate.
"Not only did I have lots of sources telling me things from their perspectives, but now I had Bruce's sense of things," said Carlin, calling him "a wonderful and very complicated interview."
"He's warm, he's outgoing, he tells great stories. He's very, very, very thoughtful about his work, his career and his experience in life. But you can sense when he's steering away from something or doesn't want to engage in certain things, and it's difficult to get beyond that."
Carlin did not get to interview Patti Scialfa, a member of the E Street Band, Springsteen's wife since 1991, and the mother of his three children. The book contains little about Springsteen's personal life from the time he married Scialfa.
"From what she's told other people ... she wasn't at the point where she wanted to talk in depth about her husband, who is also her boss, and their family life. It was disappointing to me. I wanted to try and understand her a bit better," Carlin said.
Overall, "Bruce" is front-loaded, as Carlin describes Springsteen's childhood and early stabs at music-making in painstaking detail. The book is best when it takes the readers through the challenges Springsteen faced and conquered as he progressed from the Jersey Shore bars in the late 1960s and early 1970s to the arena and stadium shows that became the norm in the mid-1980s.
In contrast, the last 25 years of Springsteen's life race by in a torrent of words and images.
Carlin makes no apologies for the book's structure. He says his original manuscript was much longer and he sometimes wishes his biography of Springsteen could have been expanded to two volumes.
But he understands the constraints that were placed on him, and he's happy -- extremely happy -- with his book.
"Is the recording of 'Radio Nowhere' as powerful in the narrative of 'Bruce' as the recording of 'Born to Run'?" he asks. "Hmmm, probably not. He recorded 'Born to Run' with his back against the wall, with his whole life up for grabs.
"In retrospect, would it be cooler or more rewarding to do the full-on, two-volume story? Yeah, in a lot of ways, sure. In a perfect world, I would have more time and space, but it comes down to the inevitable triage you go through."
And the Springsteen story isn't finished yet, as the rocker regularly records and still specializes in playing insanely long shows. So Carlin might get another crack at writing his story.
He certainly sees no sign that Springsteen intends to slow down.
"It keeps him alive," he says of Springsteen's career. "It keeps him young. It keeps his heart pounding. So why stop?"n