Peter Ames Carlin, the former television critic for the Portland Oregonian, has made something of a second career out of detailed, carefully crafted, empathetic narratives of the lives of songwriting titans: First 2006's Catch a Wave, a gorgeous and thoroughly researched recounting of the strange tale of Brian Wilson, then 2009's Paul McCartney: A Life.
His latest subject is Bruce Springsteen, who basically just got Obama re-elected by finally acknowledging the existence of New Jersey governor and superfan Chris Christie, who repaid Obama for the introduction by throwing Romney under the bus. (Rock is thicker than water.)
Bruce is a heavily reported account of Springsteen's chaotic upbringing in the rusting streets of coastal New Jersey, his rise as a beloved Golden Boy of the shore music scene, his early super-stardom, his struggles with women and depression, and his fraught relationship with the E Street Band. Among its revelations: Springsteen spent years in psychotherapy and finally began taking anti-depressants after 2003's The Rising; his longtime drummer Max Weinberg once had to take drum lessons to stay in the band; "Everybody's Got a Hungry Heart" was originally written for the Ramones; and Bruce once struck a girlfriend after a fight.
The most satisfying thing about Bruce is the ever-present self-mythologizing voice of the Boss himself: Bruce is the first biography that Springsteen has cooperated with, opening his organization to Carlin and sitting for lengthy interviews himself. Below is a brief excerpt; ask Carlin your questions in comments starting at 1 p.m.
Dressed in a white T‑shirt, black trousers, and black boots, Bruce started the session by striding to the center of the stage, announcing "Okay, everyone man your stations!" into his microphone, and accepting one of his blond Telecasters from Kevin Buell. When the musicians and singers were in place, he counted off "We Take Care of Our Own," the ending of which segued into "Wrecking Ball," which erupted into "Badlands" and then "Death to My Hometown." Some songs went more smoothly than others. Nils Lofgren dropped a few vocal cues, Max Weinberg forgot a key drum fill-earning a swivel of Bruce's head and a loud gale of teasing laughter. When the horn section sat mutely during what was supposed to be a charted riff, Bruce shot Manion a look and laughed again. "Gotta figure that spot out, gents!" he called after the song ended. Bruce constructs his shows in modular fashion, with minisuites of songs blending into distinct moods or themes that feed into the larger thrust of the show. The rehearsal broke between each setlet, and as they got back to it, stage moves started to emerge. Lofgren did a few of his spins; Bruce jumped on his monitors to lock in with Weinberg, and then did a few jumps to emphasize shifts in rhythm and mood. By the end of the second setlet, he was drenched in sweat. "Very good! Great! Terrific!" he called into the microphone. "Yeah, yeah, yeah!"
When the afternoon ended, Landau huddled with Bruce onstage, prompting quick revisions to the harmonies and piano riff on "We Take Care of Our Own." Bruce fairly skipped offstage, but when he returned a half hour later, his face was blank and his body seemed to droop. "Same time, same place tomorrow," he said to me. But his voice sounded empty. An hour later, Landau called to explain. In his dressing room, Bruce had learned that a close friend, just forty years old, had unexpectedly died. Bruce was devastated, and feeling far too vulnerable to have a guest at the next day's rehearsal. He would get in touch the next afternoon. Bruce did exactly that, apologizing for the change in plans, saying he'd come by in a half hour. Why he felt more comfortable being interviewed than having an observer at rehearsal is as intriguing as it is hard to figure. But true to his word, Bruce walked into the hotel bar on schedule, ready to tell more stories about his life, work, and glorious career.
After the interview ended, he sipped his beer and talked about the friend he had just lost. He'd come from a tough background and, like Bruce, hadn't had the benefit of a good education. But he'd worked his way up to owning a business and settling into the life of husband and father. Bruce had lived his own version of that life, too, and hoped to give his friend a helping hand on his way to a better life. But now that the darkest kind of fate had stepped up, all Bruce, or anyone else, could do was try to absorb the blow. In the silence that followed, he did not look like a cultural icon or even a rock 'n' roll star. He looked like one of his own characters. Strong but sad and a little crumpled around the edges.
Update, 2:45 p.m.: Peter had to go! We thank him for his time.