Book review: ‘Bruce’ tougher than the rest

By Will Hermes
San Francisco Chronicle

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"Bruce" by Peter Ames Carlin

The record industry may be in serious decline, and more musicians may have to reckon with AARP status, but rock-star bios and memoirs show no evidence of slowing down.

Written with the subject’s cooperation, Bruce, by People magazine writer-turned-biographer Peter Ames Carlin, is a deeply researched, nearly 500-page brick that aims to be Bruce Springsteen’s definitive biography, updating and fleshing out an astonishing cultural story and illuminating a remarkably private personal life.

Bruce profiles a hugely talented and furiously driven human being who uses antidepressants and is not free of character flaws. Who knew, for instance, that the Boss could be a lousy boss?

Carlin is good with family roots, which he traces back to 1652. In a scene that opens the book, Bruce’s paternal grandparents, Fred and Alice, lose a young daughter, a death that will cast a shadow over their grandson.

Looming largest among the elders is Bruce’s father, Doug, a troubled, disapproving figure (and eventual song subject) who drinks alone at the kitchen table, waiting for his wayward son to return home at night. Images stick: The young Springsteen rummaging through garbage cans with his grandfather for old radios to repair, and decades later, as a grown man and superstar, sitting uncomfortably on his chastened dad’s lap backstage.

But music-making is the narrative meat. Carlin goes deep into Springsteen’s formative years with bands Child and Steel Mill, when he was a hippie-style guitar hero interested in Allman Brothers-style jamming and prog-rock sprawl.

He is shown inventing “Bruce Springsteen” in fits and starts. In one memorable scene, an outdoor Steel Mill show is shut down in 1970 by New Jersey cops in riot gear, a lesson in the limitations of revolutionary-chic pop that Carlin posits as a philosophical-aesthetic turning point.

The legendary early derring-do of Springsteen and his E Street Band gets richly reprised: the singer-songwriter’s signing by industry vets John Hammond and Clive Davis, the epic shows, and the pivotal bromance with critic-turned-manager Jon Landau, who famously declared in a review, “I saw rock and roll future and its name is Bruce Springsteen.”

In most bios, Springsteen’s previous manager Mike Appel is merely a fast-talking hothead who signs him to breathtakingly unfair contracts. Appel gets his due here as a wildly devoted if flawed champion who helped the singer reach his first plateau of mass popularity before their relationship crashed and burned.

Business apparently isn’t Springsteen’s strong suit. He laid off the E Street Band in late 1989, a mishandled event Carlin shows from various points of view. “My whole life dedicated to this band,” thought sax man Clarence Clemons, who was interviewed before his death last year, “and I get a f-- phone call?”

There’s surprisingly little on Springsteen’s relationship with wife-bandmate Patti Scialfa or ex-wife Julianne Phillips. Others provide romantic character witness, mostly positive. But it’s testament to the potency of Springsteen’s dude-saint persona that it’s kind of shocking to hear he slapped a girlfriend once, and publicly humiliated another (rock photographer Lynn Goldsmith) onstage during a concert.

Mainly chronicling uneven solo recordings, the ’90s section lags. But things pick up after 9/11, when Springsteen re-emerges as a fully politicized entertainer-cum-cultural-worker, stumping for presidential candidates and ministering to a huge fan base.

Perhaps the artist’s most fascinating era, it flies by too fast here, rushing into the present and the astonishing 2012 Wrecking Ball tour ­— shows that have been part seance for lost bandmates, part activist rally and part rock ’n’ roll tent revival.

Carlin deserves applause for the most complete Bruce bio to date. But Springsteen is still on fire at age 63; his story, clearly, isn’t over yet.

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