Biographer Peter Ames Carlin's "Bruce" marks the first time someone has attempted to write a serious, honest account of Bruce Springsteen's life with the Boss' cooperation. Dave Marsh, a writer and Springsteen insider, has written a number of bios over the years, but they've been the kind of unabashed idolization that might satisfy devotees but can't be taken seriously by anyone trying to understand Mr. Springsteen as a person.
Touchstone/Simon & Schuster ($28).
Mr. Carlin had firsthand, unsupervised access to band members, sound engineers and stage crew, and, in the end, Mr. Springsteen himself, and walks away with a story that rings true. Mr. Carlin says that in exchange for cooperation, Mr. Springsteen insisted that the only thing the writer owed him was an honest account. Mr. Carlin seems (as much as any outsider can judge) to do just that, with a story of a singer who is more complicated than fans might realize, and more driven than might be healthy.
The book provides an authoritative and entertaining account of Mr. Springsteen's life from birth through the fall 2011. The most fascinating parts deal with his formative years growing up in an odd, on-the-fringe family in working-class Freehold, N.J. Mr. Springsteen has incorporated his dysfunctional relationship with his father into his music and stage patter from the beginning, but it takes a detailed account of the elder Springsteen's sitting silently in the dark, drinking and smoking, night after night, to drive home the scars that must come from growing up in a house with a living ghost. It's a nightmare that dogs Mr. Springsteen throughout his professional career and sends him into decades of therapy to deal with fears of ending up like his father.
The portrayal of Mr. Springsteen's early years as a musician are just as engaging, as the rocker starts to come out of his skinny, adolescent shell and show the first sparks of showmanship and talent that would set him apart from all the other kids with guitars wandering the Jersey shore. Mr. Carlin's re-creation of those early years shows that the future was not always so certain -- while Time and Newsweek were issuing their dueling covers of the Boss in October 1975, Mr. Springsteen and the band were touring in a old converted city bus, sleeping on metal bunks, and wondering when, and if, they'd get paid.
The second half of the book focuses heavily on Mr. Springsteen's professional career and relationships. E Street band members are startlingly honest, revealing their hurt feelings and resentments over years of slights, both genuine and perceived, and Mr. Carlin gives a fascinating picture of a band that's not always comfortable with itself, and often uncomfortable with the boss. Given that some of them are still on the road with Mr. Springsteen, their openness shows they either respect him so deeply they cannot lie about his history or, as the book seems to indicate, long ago understood that he doesn't really care what they think.
The one thing missing from the book is any real description of the joy and majesty (OK, OK, I've been a rabid fan since 1975) of Bruce Springsteen in concert -- the intense power and draining emotion that goes into each and every show. The records have been great, good and sometimes middling, but the concerts have always been about more than the music -- they're quasi-religious events where, for decades, average men and women come to be rebaptized in the faith of rock 'n' roll. (Sorry. I have a replica Fender Esquire in my living room and a framed "River" tour poster on the wall next to my writing desk.)
The Springsteen that comes out in Mr. Carlin's pages is, as he puts it, both selfless and selfish, driven to give all to his audience while being perversely narcissistic at the same time. For a fan reading "Bruce" (and face it, this book appeals mostly to fans), it's a little like having the curtain pulled back on the Great and Powerful Oz and finding a regular guy pulling the levers. But thanks to Mr. Carlin's book, the regular guy is just as, if not more, interesting than the larger-than-life public personae.
Peter McKay (peter-mckay.com) is a writer living in Ben Avon. His syndicated column Homemaking appears Saturdays in the Post-Gazette.