The last time Bruce Springsteen cooperated with a biographer, it was for Dave Marsh’s “Glory Days” (1987), a sequel of sorts to his book “Born to Run” (1979). While those books served their purpose and did a fine job of delivering information about Bruce’s albums and historic live shows, Marsh did little to hide the fact that he was a friend of Springsteen as well as an unabashed fan. As a result, both books came up a little short in the balanced column.
While Carlin had hoped to receive at least some participation from Bruce for his book, he knew the odds were slim and was quite prepared to carry on and, in his words, “Do the outside journalist thing and speak to everyone who would speak to someone who didn’t have that connection to Bruce.”
In a recent phone interview, Carlin told me that he received a call that took his project to the next level. “In early 2011, after about 18 months of talking to people around Bruce, I got a call from his manager, Jon Landau, saying, ‘Let’s have a drink and talk. I think we’re ready to cooperate with you now.’”
Carlin says that neither Springsteen nor his management attempted to retain any control over what was written or how his research was used. “They were extremely open and shared everything that I asked for, in terms of information, access and archival material,” he told me. “Eventually, Bruce got involved in a very big way. We spent a lot of time talking and I spent a lot of time just watching him do his thing. I sat in on rehearsals and recording sessions.”
Carlin draws the reader in early in the pages of “Bruce” with an account of Springsteen’s early life abundant in first time information. “There are a lot of haunting and strange facts about his early childhood,” Carlin says. “Everybody knows that he had a troubled relationship with his father, but it wasn’t because Doug (Springsteen’s father) drank a lot - which he did to an extent - it was because he was manic-depressive.”
Carlin says that the elder Springsteen’s undiagnosed illness turned his – and, at times, the family’s life – into a kind of torture. “As a child, all Bruce wanted was an emotional connection to his dad, but his dad couldn’t do that for him because he was so busy dealing with his own ghosts. Bruce took that incredibly personally, and it really shaped his personality.”
For the first time, we learn how Bruce made the transition from awkward child to rock ‘n roll-loving teen to Freehold, New Jersey hero to regional draw to recording artist to reluctant rock hero to stadium-filling ‘rock evangelist’ to legend and icon. Those steps came with a price, mostly paid by Bruce, but others are still accounting for the cost. In “Bruce,” you hear from those people too, and Carlin says Springsteen insisted that those accounts remain.
“The one instruction that he gave me was this - and it came very near the end of the process,” Carlin told me. “He said, ‘Look. If you found out anything about me that you didn’t put in the book because you thought it might make me uncomfortable – go back and put it in.’ I said, ‘Really? What about this? And this? And this?’ Each time, he said ‘Put it in. That goes in.’ The one guy I talk to who was intent on trashing Bruce the most was Bruce.’”
Former and current band members, managers and even former girlfriends were interviewed for “Bruce,” and they reveal a tireless artist determined to follow his heart even it means leaving friends in his wake. For example, E Street Band drummer Max Weinberg reveals that he has never gotten over Bruce’s 1989 disbanding of the group, despite the fact that they have played more or less consistently over most of the last 15 years.
“The Big Man” – Clarence Clemons, in an interview with Carlin conducted shortly before the sax legend’s death in 2011 - paints a loving portrait of his friend and boss, tinged with occasional heartbreak. His memories are wondrous, powerful, hilarious, happy, sad, angry and real.
At the center of “Bruce” lies the music. Carlin’s book eclipses previous Springsteen biographies with a linear narrative of what was written, recorded and performed accompanied by the stories behind the blood, sweat and tears that line his staggering body of work.
“Bruce” takes you behind the scenes for each phase of Bruce’s recording career and will have you digging the albums out to listen again with a fresh perspective. In the process, Carlin provides tantalizing glimpses at Bruce’s massive unreleased canon. “We talked about unfinished albums that he feels strongly about but he just didn’t use at that moment in time,” Carlin said. “I hope very much that they will be released and I expect to start seeing that stuff eventually.”
Springsteen’s habit of writing and recording far more than he could use has left him with an archive of unreleased songs estimated to be in the neighborhood of 350 to 400. In the book, E Street guitarist “Miami” Steve Van Zandt, shares his frustration at Bruce’s habit of “giving away his best stuff or not releasing it.”
I asked Carlin if he felt that Bruce was happy at this stage of his life. “He’s a remarkably complex guy,” he responded. “You don’t write an album like “Nebraska” (1982), or those other records that he’s made, full of songs about the darkness of life, unless you have a lot of that inside of you in the first place. On the other hand, he also writes these great, affirming anthems and beautiful songs about the possibilities in life – the promise and hope – because that’s a part of him too.”
“What makes him happy?” Carlin continued. “Music is his life force and has been since he was 14 years old. It was the thing that kept him alive through a lot of very dark moments. The joy that he gets from being on stage - playing music and affecting other people - is off the charts. That’s why, at his age, he’s not only continuing to work, he’s doing it at a level that might be beyond people half his age. It’s the one thing that defines him.”
“The Big Morning Show with Mike Dow” can be heard each morning on Big 104 FM – The Biggest Hits of the ’60s, ’70s & ’80s - airing on 104.3 FM, 104.7 FM and 107.7 FM.