Friday, January 18, 2013

Bruce by Peter Ames Carlin: A review

The broad outlines of Bruce Springsteen's life are fairly well-known to his fans, of whom I consider myself one. He has been written about often in the press over the past 35 to 40 years as he made his way from a skinny, scruffy, struggling New Jersey teenager in thrall to rock 'n' roll and trying to live that religion to, today, his position as cultural icon and folk hero. It's been a bumpy ride, but no one could claim that the man has not remained true to his faith.

Peter Ames Carlin has written about other rock musicians, including Paul McCartney, so he knows the form. He had the advantage of having Springsteen's cooperation and of having his blessing in contacting all the musicians and business associates who have known him as well as friends, lovers, and family members. Carlin has taken full advantage of that access and has produced a pretty exhaustively researched book that reveals the man, warts and all, and explores the roots of his music.

It is a tribute to Springsteen that virtually all of the people contacted by Carlin spoke to him very candidly about the man, realizing perhaps that Bruce really didn't care what they thought or what they said. The two notable exceptions to this openness were his first wife, Julianne Phillips, and his current wife of more than twenty years, Patti Scialfa and that seems to have been their choice. Other than that, it was apparently pretty much no holds barred.

Carlin begins the tale by looking at Springsteen's family history. That's appropriate since everything that he is, as well as what his music is, seems deeply embedded in family roots. The writer traces the immigration from Holland of his father's family and from France of his mother's family and of their attempts to build new lives for themselves in this country. The course of those lives was often touched by tragedy. In the case of Bruce's father, it was the death of his five-year-old sister when he was just a baby. The child was playing in the street and was run over by a truck, an event which sent her family into a spiral of sadness and melancholy from which they were never able to fully recover. In their grief, the parents often neglected Doug Springsteen, Bruce's father, a fact which had implications for his entire life and which ultimately touched the lives of his children.

Bruce's mother's family history was much happier in many ways, although it, too, was touched by tragedy, but she grew up with a joy in life that she was able to pass on to her children.

Bruce grew up in a household where his father never seems to have had long-term employment, but went from job to job. He was burdened by depression and ended every day sitting silently in a dark kitchen with a beer and a cigarette. He had no appreciation for his son's music and this was the source of constant conflict as the young man was growing up.

As a child, as a teenager, and as an adult, Bruce Springsteen seems always to have been a loner, marching to the beat of a drum that others simply couldn't hear. As a child and as a man, he has stubbornly insisted on doing things his way. His perfectionism has often driven the musicians who worked with him to the brink of insurrection, but after all, he is the Boss, and what he says goes. And so they do take after take after take as they try to get the songs just right.

In his early years, like most rock musicians, Bruce had a checkered history of working with many bands. A group would come together and work for awhile, then break apart and another group would form, and this went on for years. But as time went by, a coterie of musicians began to coalesce - Steve Van Zandt, Danny Federici, Garry Tallent, Clarence Clemons, finally Max Weinberg and Roy Bittan, and lastly Nils Lofgren. The E Street Band was coming together. Interestingly, Patti Scialfa had auditioned for Bruce and Steve years earlier when they were forming a band, but she was underage and they passed on her because she would be unable to travel with the group. Several years later, she was ready to be a part of E Street.

I admit my eyes glazed over a bit with the long narration about one band after another in the early years. They all began to run together in my mind, but that background was necessary to see just how the E Street Band came together and, of course, it is that band which has been so much a part of Bruce's life and so important in interpreting his music. His relationship with band members has not been without its ups and downs and occasional fractures, but always they seem to be drawn back together by their love of the music - and maybe by their love of each other. They are truly "Blood Brothers."

One of the things that we often take for granted about rock musicians is their partaking of and often succumbing to drugs and booze. You won't find that here. Springsteen is positively abstemious by comparison and he always demanded decorum of his band members. Carlin tells of his once walking into a tour bus and finding a couple of the band members doing cocaine. He exploded and told them that if he ever caught any of them doing that again they would be fired on the spot! He told his manager that he meant it and that he could replace any one of those guys with ease. Although he admitted it might take a little longer to replace Clarence.

No, cocaine and booze hold no attraction for Bruce Springsteen. His drug of choice has always been rock 'n' roll.

    

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