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Honest look at Springsteen shines focus on warts, genius

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Bruce

By Peter Ames Carlin

Touchstone/S&S, 480 pages, $32

Turns out Bruce Springsteen has feet of clay. Who knew?

Certainly not his average biographer, of whom there have been many. All too often their attempts breathlessly recount the minutia of the American rock star's career with no genuine analysis and little depth. It may prove the writer's undying devotion as a fan but does not an insightful biography make.

It's not that Peter Ames Carlin is no fan. He lists Springsteen among his favourite musicians. The former People magazine writer and TV critic for The Oregonian newspaper also successfully set aside his feelings as a fan to write biographies of the Beach Boys' Brian Wilson and Paul McCartney.

Bruce is not an authorized biography, but it is the first in 25 years to be done with Springsteen's co-operation. The son of New Jersey's approval to the Portland- Oregon-based Carlin meant he enjoyed broad access to Springsteen's family, friends and colleagues and to the musician himself. But Carlin says in his acknowledgements: "Bruce made it clear that the only thing I owed him was an honest account of his life."

All members of the E Street Band were interviewed several times, including legendary saxophonist Clarence Clemens who gave his last interview, then died following a stroke just weeks later. But perhaps most important in gathering the information to understand the now 63-year-old Springsteen's life influences was Carlin's conversations with Springsteen's mother, aunts and sisters.

From those talks, Carlin traces the Springsteen family's struggles with mental instability back to the death of Springsteen's paternal great aunt Virginia, five years old when she was hit by a truck as she pedalled her tricycle down the street. Parents Fred and Alice's turning away from their toddler son, Douglas, Bruce's father, was so pronounced that other family members removed him from the home. It was years before his parents asked for him back.

Carlin's treatment of the tragedy, which was mentioned in New Yorker magazine editor David Remnick's much-discussed Springsteen profile last summer, provides a deep context for all those tortured lyrics and mid-concert heart-tugging stories about Springsteen's troubled relationship with his father. It was something far more sinister than the '60s generation gap.

As Bruce's mother Adele says, no one knew much about mental illness back then, but it seems clear now that Douglas suffered bipolar disorder and possibly other mental illnesses. The family just lived with his misery and moodiness, his inability to hold a job very long or connect to the family in any meaningful way.

Carlin discusses in depth Springsteen's own struggles with depression and his years of work in therapy to ease them.

But all of that fits the mould of Springsteen as a god-like talent whose four-hour live shows and 17 albums, including Born to Run, Born in the U.S.A. and Wrecking Ball, have vaulted him into the first rank of American performers. What really sets Bruce apart is Carlin's willingness to write about Springsteen's more human moments, many of which aren't particularly attractive.

He didn't always treat the women in his life very well (surprise, surprise, a rock star misbehaving?). One of the biography's only false notes is the ease with which Carlin accepts denials that Bruce had an affair with Patty Scialfa, his backup singer and wife No. 2, which ended his marriage to actress Julianne Phillips.

Carlin recounts another story about an earlier band member, with a hot temper, begging for a second chance, but Springsteen standing firm in firing him.

Carlin puts into context the significance of journalist (and eventual Springsteen manager) Jon Landau's famed column which called the musician "the future of rock 'n' roll."

Springsteen may have hated the hype that line created, but it saved his career at a moment the record company was toying with the idea of dumping him. The line made the executives rethink that, as well as kicking off a career-long relationship between Landau and Springsteen.

It's abundantly clear that from the early 1970s Springsteen was ruthless enough to fire anyone who got in the way of his drive to be a superstar. He once said that members of the E Street Band he caught drugging before a concert could all be replaced inside of 24 hours.

Carlin blows away images of the egalitarian nature of membership in Springsteen's band. In the mid 1990s, when re-forming the E Street Band (after abruptly firing them in 1989), he had a junior agent call members to low-ball the pay, even for those who had played with him for years. When the musicians complained to Springsteen, he joked that's what agents do, get the best deal.

One particularly revealing story has Stevie Van Zandt, Springsteen's very longtime bandmate (who later gained fame as an actor, playing Silvio Dante in TV's The Sopranos), abandoning music and working in construction for two years after Springsteen cut him loose. Confronted with the story years later, Springsteen is clearly discomfited as he feigns surprise, then brushes it off as a Van Zandt exaggeration.

Legend has it, Springsteen doesn't like being called "the Boss," his longtime nickname. One wonders how he felt when U.S. President Barack Obama famously said: "I'm the president, but he's the Boss."

And yet that's what he always has been, not one of the boys in the band, but the guy in charge. A massive talent certainly, but one with the musical vision and the drive -- plus sometimes plain old-fashioned stubbornness -- to make it happen.

The whole paints a less attractive portrait of the rocker, but it's actually a relief, certainly it's more relatable, to see the very human Springsteen emerge from the chrysalis of a contrived image.

It was an easy image to swallow, the more than 120 million albums sold, the 20 Grammys, two Golden Globes and an Academy Award testament to his talent.

But the honesty of Bruce gives not just a new view of Springsteen but also a better understanding of his genius.

Julie Carl is associate editor, reader engagement, for the Winnipeg Free Press. Nebraska is her favourite Springsteen album, despite a fondness for the accordion-friendly The Seger Sessions.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 3, 2012 J10

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