Though Peter Ames Carlin’s new Springsteen book Bruce isn’t technically an authorized biography, since Carlin didn’t give Springsteen the right to approve what he wrote, the Boss did cooperate with Carlin—the first time he’s cooperated with a biographer since Dave Marsh published Born to Run in 1979 and Glory Days in 1987. (Marsh’s two books were combined into a single volume titled Two Hearts, with a new concluding chapter, in 2003.)
Bruce is not a great literary achievement: it reads like a giant booklet from a box set, and Carlin is not particularly articulate when it comes to describing the sound of Springsteen’s music or especially sharp regarding historical and aesthetic context. Carlin also keeps his distance from Springsteen’s inner life; he spoke extensively with Springsteen’s band members, producers, and other insiders, and the dominant perspective in the book is that of a band member. We spend time with the Boss, we experience his history, but he remains, sometimes frustratingly, an enigma.
If Bruce is short on new insights into Springsteen’s life and work, it’s useful as a single-volume introduction that presents a gently evenhanded updating of the conventional wisdom regarding Springsteen’s career. Though he’s ultimately a very sympathetic biographer, Carlin at least points to where the bodies are buried throughout Springsteen’s six-plus decades of life and, in general, asks the right questions about how they got there.
The reappraisal starts with Springsteen’s father, whose emotional coldness and skepticism about rock music have been made legend by Bruce himself via onstage storytelling. Douglas Springsteen, who died in 1998, appears in Carlin’s book as a pitable figure, held captive to his own depression. He warmed in his last decades of life, and in Bruce we read multiple times about how, once his son attained musical success, Douglas declared that he was never again going to tell anyone how to live his life. On the other hand, Springsteen’s mother Adele—who’s still living, at 90—was unfailingly supportive; Bruce sometimes performs a song called “The Gift,” written about his first electric guitar, a Japanese model that Adele strained to afford for her beloved son.
Though Bruce’s musical talent was immediately apparent, Carlin’s biography is a reminder of just how much time Springsteen spent paying his dues, and how gradual was his ascent to iconic status. Bruce started young, but had played in a number of different bands on the Jersey Shore bar circuit before his debut album, Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J., was released when he was 23 years old. The follow-up, The Wild, The Innocent & the E Street Shuffle, was released less than a year later; while both albums were critically acclaimed, both fell short of Columbia’s sales expectations.
The early years of Springsteen’s career were defined by his relationship with his first agent and producer, Mike Appel; Bruce’s stormy (and litigious) break from Appel was an elemental drama that shaped his professional life until the end of the 1970s. The reappraisal of Appel is one of the most significant elements of Bruce: in Marsh’s books and most subsequent accounts, Appel was a villain who tricked the naïve and trusting Springsteen into a lopsided contract that he then refused to release his client from, despite Bruce’s wishes, once real money started to land on the table.
A public melting of the frigid relationship between Springsteen and Appel began in 2005, when a 30th-anniversary edition of Born to Run was released and Springsteen gave interviews crediting Appel for his role in the album’s creation; in turn, Appel acknowledged the contributions of Jon Landau, the rock critic who joined that album’s production team and has managed Springsteen’s career ever since.
Bruce continues that perestroika, with Carlin recounting how Springsteen was drawn to Appel for his limitless enthusiasm about music generally and Springsteen’s music specifically. We’re reminded that Appel fought to get Springsteen an audition with legendary talent scout John Hammond, then put a second mortgage on his house to get Bruce and the band through the lean years in the early 70s. On the other hand, Carlin shifts from the label to Appel much of the blame for the poor production of Springsteen’s first two albums; though digital remastering helped immensely, the E Street Band still sounds distant and compressed on both records.
The painstakingly recorded Born to Run (1975) corrected that error, with a vengeance. Carlin devotes ample attention to Springsteen’s breakout album, which generated unprecedented hype—Springsteen landed simultaneously on the covers of Time and Newsweek—and then lived up to it. The band also got an upgrade in that era, with explosive but eccentric drummer Vini Lopez making way for first the jazzy Ernest Carter and finally the crisp and professional Max Weinberg; keyboardist David Sancious went solo, replaced by Roy Bittan, whose piano became key to the soundscape of Born to Run.
Darkness on the Edge of Town (1978) is commonly regarded as the bleak byproduct of Springsteen’s professional divorce from Appel, but given what we now know about the voluminous sessions that produced that album, it looks like the beginning of a search for a voice that ended—by my estimation—a decade later. Born to Run now feels like the end of a Jersey-centric story-song trilogy in a style that Springsteen subsequently stepped away from.
The songs that finally emerged on Darkness were much more economical and direct than the symphonic tracks on Springsteen’s first three albums; Springsteen had learned how to pare songs down in a manner that suggested as much as it told. The period from Darkness through The River (1980), Nebraska (1982), and Born in the U.S.A. (1984) was so spectacularly fertile that two 21st century box sets together containing dozens of outtakes (Tracks and The Promise) have yet to fully plumb its depths. Darkness and The River demonstrated Springsteen’s staying power, and the one-two punch of Nebraska and Born in the U.S.A.—followed by the seminal five-record set Live 1975-85—established Bruce’s range and made him a household name.
Here, Carlin is enlightening: Born in the U.S.A., led by its widely-misinterpreted title track, has sometimes been seen as making Springsteen a reluctant icon. Carlin, supported by Springsteen and band members, clearly establishes that the album’s success was no accident. 34 at the time of its release, Springsteen knew he was poised to become huger than huge, and knew that the songs he’d written were the ones that could do it. Having previously been careful not to give his work too much of a studio sheen, Springsteen very deliberately gave the U.S.A. masters to Bob Clearmountain, the decade’s go-to guy for radio-ready mixing.
“A lot of currents came together,” Springsteen tells Carlin. “At the point I got there, I was that guy. That’s where I found myself. You can kid yourself that you’re not, but then what have you been doing?”
Here the Springsteen story hits its next rocky shoal: Springsteen’s brief marriage and very public split from actress Julianne Phillips. Though the couple had privately separated by the time that Springsteen was photographed canoodling on a hotel balcony with band member Patti Scialfa during the Tunnel of Love tour in 1988, the breakup was news to most of the couple’s friends and family members. Tunnel of Love traced the lines of the failed marriage and connected them to Bruce’s childhood; it marked a new creative peak in Springsteen’s career. Failed love is one of the most emotionally complex things a human being can experience, and by 1987, Springsteen had the means to express his conflicting feelings with precision and power. There’s not a wasted word or note on Tunnel of Love, beautifully produced by Springsteen, Landau, and Chuck Plotkin with Bruce himself playing many of the instrumental parts.
Sting has observed that being in a band is like being married without the sex, and appropriately, it was Sting’s creative success after dissolving the Police that helped inspire Springsteen to leave the E Street Band behind in the late 80s. Happily re-married (to Scialfa), with kids, Springsteen finally followed Tunnel of Love half a decade later with the simultaneous 1992 release of Human Touch and Lucky Town.
With Human Touch in particular, a certain shark was unmistakably jumped. On that album, for the first time Springsteen sounded like he was on autopilot: songs like “All or Nothin’ at All” and “Roll of the Dice” were tepid, obscuring genuinely great songs like “I Wish I Were Blind” and “Man’s Job,” which added a soulful twist to Springsteen’s River-era frat rock. Lucky Town was a more coherent and confident disc, celebrating the Springsteens’ domestic bliss while throwing barbs at the Boss of the 80s, “a rich man in a poor man’s shirt.” The best release of this era, though, might be the live MTV Plugged disc (1993), with Springsteen sounding energized by his replacement touring band and giving a good workout to material new and old.
Carlin makes clear that he’s a fan of The Ghost of Tom Joad (1995), a series of songs about the plight of migrant workers. It’s not as chilling or cohesive as Nebraska—to which it was immediately compared—but it stands as a strong set of songs that’s as aesthetically experimental as anything Springsteen has tried since Born to Run, with meter and rhyme on some songs bent to the breaking point.
Tom Joad could have represented a new direction for Springsteen, but he wasn’t about to give up his mass audience and retreat to the critic’s-darling corner. In the late 1990s he re-formed the E Street Band; Carlin says Bruce “couldn’t abide the prospect of being dismissed as a figure from yesteryear.” Springsteen tells Carlin that as an artist, “You’re having a conversation with your audience. If you lose the thread of that conversation, you lose your audience. And when people say so-and-so don’t make any good records any more, or people talk about favorite bands from whom they haven’t bought any records of in the past 15 years, I always feel that the reason is they lost the thread of that conversation and the desire to make that conversation keep growing.”
Carlin goes on to suggest, in later chapters, that the most unique characteristic of Springsteen as a rocker in his 50s and 60s is his ability to keep a large audience interested in his new material. Selling records is one thing; it’s quite another to write new songs that your audience will anticipate, request, and cheer when you have as weighty a back catalog as Springsteen’s. Among artists who came of age in the 1960s and remain active, Springsteen has no peer in this regard; the closest would be Bob Dylan, but though Dylan remains artistically vital in his 70s, Dylan’s relationship with his audience has always been fraught and distant—can you imagine Dylan talking about the need to sustain a “conversation” with an audience?
By any account, The Rising (2002) was a landmark release for Springsteen, a remarkably successful bid to reclaim the mass resonance he found for his work in the 70s and 80s. Few but Springsteen would have tried to write an epic album-length response to 9/11, and probably no one else could have pulled it off as well as he did.
A decade later, what’s particularly impressive about The Rising is the generosity of its scope: it grieves the fallen and offers solace to the survivors while not shying away from the painful details of the thousands of very specific tragedies that constituted that one great national tragedy. It looks sympathetically inside the soul of a suicide bomber and imagines (albeit awkwardly) an East-West love affair, at a time when the more popular response among rockers was to write shamefully reductive kick-their-asses rave-ups. If the songs on The Rising are nowhere near on par with those on Born to Run or Born in the U.S.A., they’re good enough—and those albums’ mix of hope and grit remained entirely intact.
Springsteen also had the good fortune, and good taste, to work with new producer Brendan O’Brien, who gave the E Street Band a much-needed sonic overhaul. Talking to a journalist at the time, Springsteen articulated the shift well: “The band sounded like the band, but not like I’d heard them before, and that was what I was looking for. I wanted it to be like, this is the way we sound right now.”
After dipping back into Tom Joad territory with the about-as-good Devils and Dust (2005), Springsteen brought the band back for the clamorous Magic (2007), a return to the themes of his early work that, far from feeling like a nostalgia trip, was creatively his most vibrant-sounding collection in 20 years. Though it didn’t carry the cultural weight of The Rising, compare “Radio Nowhere” to “Further On (Up the Road),” or “Girls in Their Summer Clothes” to “Countin’ on a Miracle,” or “I’ll Work for Your Love” to “Let’s Be Friends (Skin to Skin)”: on Magic, the urgency came from the songs instead of the situation.
Quick follow-up Working on a Dream (2009) stands as an example of what a lesser artist would have been churning out since the 80s: an inoffensive and bland collection of songs about how happy Springsteen is. The fact that Working on a Dream was perceived as such a relative dud—Carlin observes that even on the subsequent tour, Springsteen quickly pared most of the new disc’s songs from his setlists—is a mark of what a high level of quality Springsteen’s maintained.
Wrecking Ball (2012), Springsteen’s newest album, feels like an apt point of punctuation for an assessment of his career. It demonstrates Springsteen’s continuing determination to release work that’s relevant to both his life and his times: the title track sounds resolute in the face of mortality (Springsteen’s 2012 tour was his first without the late “Big Man” Clarence Clemons), “Rocky Ground” includes the first rapped verse in a Springsteen song (it works), “American Land” speaks to Springsteen’s clear recognition that immigrant rights are the new frontier in labor rights, and if opener “We Take Care of Our Own” sounded uncharacteristically jingoistic when first heard, it took on new dimensions as an anthem for the Obama campaign—an articulation of a sense of shared responsibility as opposed to the purely individual responsibility promoted by the G.O.P.
Responsibility, in the end, is the stuff of which Springsteen’s justified legend is made. More effectively than any other artist, he’s demonstrated and articulated the sense of mutual responsibility implicit in the performer-listener contract. The listener grants the performer creative freedom, in exchange for a promise not to waste the listener’s time. What counts as a waste of time is something the performer and audience negotiate together: the performer can make a case for a song, but if it doesn’t stick, it doesn’t stick.
If that sounds a lot like a healthy relationship between coworkers, friends, or lovers, that’s no coincidence. Springsteen understands—as both a fan and an artist—just how intimate the performer-listener relationship is, and how crucial it is. The entire Springsteen enterprise is, and always has been, built on the power of rock and roll to save a life. It saved Springsteen’s, and he’s been working for over four decades to save as many more souls as he can.
That sounds a little heavy for pop music, but Springsteen is an artist for people who believe that music matters. He’ll always be there for his audience, which is why in a game of fuck, marry, kill, Springsteen’s always going to be the guy you choose to marry. Sometimes you’ll probably also want to kill him, but then, you probably want to fuck him too. That’s how marriage works.