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book review

Bruce Springsteen in performance in Los Angeles in 1985.CP

When it comes to Bruce Springsteen, I honestly thought I was well past the point of being surprised. It's not a function of age (God forbid), so much as one of exposure.

Having been a fan for almost three decades, I have, at various points, completely immersed myself in Springsteen culture and scholarship. From Dave Marsh's essential, if hagiographic, Born to Run: The Bruce Springsteen Story in 1984 to Robert Coles's intensely cerebral Bruce Springsteen's America to Christopher Sandford's prurient Springsteen: Point Blank, along with dozens of other books, hundreds of articles and more music than I could listen to in a solid year, I thought I had the bases more than covered.

As a result, my expectations for Bruce, the new biography by rock writer Peter Ames Carlin (author previously of biographies of Paul McCartney and Brian Wilson), were fairly low. Within the first couple of chapters, though, my understanding of Springsteen's work, his life and his psychology were utterly upended. I devoured the rest of the book with renewed enthusiasm, a passion and vigour I don't recall feeling since those days of 1984 when Springsteen was a promising mystery to a small-town 13-year-old.

It's not just that Bruce is the first Springsteen biography written with the support of and access to Springsteen, his family, bandmates and business associates since Marsh's follow-up to Born to Run, Glory Days, in 1987, though of course that access shapes the whole. (The book, it should be noted, is not an authorized biography; given some of the content, Carlin clearly had free rein.)

More significantly, Carlin comes at the Springsteen story fresh, taking none of the accepted gospel for granted. This emerges most strikingly in his approach to the story. Rather than beginning with Springsteen's birth or the start of his career, Carlin goes back a generation. The book opens with the death of five-year-old Virginia Springsteen, elder sister to then-two-year-old Douglas. Had she lived, Virginia would have been Bruce's aunt. Instead, her loss created a fissure in the Springsteen family, and her mother in particular, an emotional rent inflicted on Doug, "whose DNA [already] came richly entwined with darker threads," which would in turn be visited upon his son.

The relationship between Springsteen and his father, Doug, has – in most recountings – formed the axis around which the narrative of Springsteen's life and art turn. It has always been depicted largely as one of animosity and anger, a lack of understanding on the father's part, a desperate desire to connect with him on the part of the son, and an eventual conciliation once Bruce became a father himself in the 1990s. Carlin, with nothing invested in this approach (and with, remember, unprecedented access ), takes a different tack, depicting a family haunted by loss and by internal ghosts, a father suffering and struggling himself (rather than judgmental and scornful) and a son burdened with the same darkness finding his own way free. It's a nuanced, sympathetic approach, genuinely surprising but utterly convincing.

That nuance extends to other father figures in the book, most particularly Springsteen's first manager, Mike Appel, from whom Springsteen separated in an infamous, acrimonious legal confrontation after the release of Born to Run. Appel emerges as a rounded, conflicted character, rather than as the straightforward villain as the traditional, simplistic Springsteen narrative often characterizes him. The approach feels revelatory rather than mythic.

Carlin isn't inherently opposed to mythmaking, however. In depicting the epochal first meeting between Springsteen and his future saxman and onstage foil Clarence Clemons, he acknowledges both the myth – that the towering Clemons pulled the door of the Student Prince off its hinges on a stormy night, walking into legend, saxophone case in hand – and its detractors. "Asked directly, and only a few months after Clemons's death, about the Student Prince door question, Bruce turns solemn. 'It did. That's for certain.' And what of the people – the band members – who insist it didn't? 'They would be wrong.'"

In addition to the power of its approach, Bruce impresses simply for its scholarship. The chronicle of Springsteen's developmental years in the Jersey shore scene, for example, are more richly detailed than any I have read previously, and Carlin's account of Springsteen writing Born to Run (as distinct from the oft-told saga of recording the song) is electrifying, worth the cost of the book on its own.

As one might expect, Bruce doesn't maintain this level of insight and cohesion for its entire length. The time period covered by the book ends earlier this year, but the analysis of the past decade is fairly superficial. Nowhere is this clearer than in one of the last chapters of Bruce, which focuses on the author's conversations with Clarence Clemons in early 2011. The saxman's perspective – his love of playing, his obvious love of Springsteen, his lingering anger over the firing of the E Street Band in the 1980s and his rancour at the band not being named to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame – are underpinned by the knowledge that this interview is one of the last Clemons gave before his death, from complications following a stroke, in June, 2011.

Bruce will, of course, be of interest to Springsteen fans (who will no doubt flinch, as I did, when Carlin botches the occasional lyric, or fails to hit some of the obvious touchstones), but its appeal should be wider than that. Bruce Springsteen is one of the most significant artistic and cultural forces of the past four decades: Carlin's insightful, powerful biography is for anyone who wonders why.

Robert Wiersema's books include Walk Like a Man: Coming of Age with the Music of Bruce Springsteen.