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Biography of a Rock Star: Bruce by Peter Ames Carlin

May 24, 2013

We’re all getting older, even rock stars. (Hey, it beats the alternative; see, for example, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Duane Allman.) And, as we all do, rock stars like to look back on their lives and what makes a licvr9781439191835_9781439191835_lgfe. So it’s only natural that the aging stars of a 60-year-old musical genre would want to share their thoughts about their seven or eight decades of life.

Recent years have produced some good biographies and autobiographies, such as Keith Richards’s Life, Anthony Kiedis’s Scar Tissue, Eric Clapton’s Clapton: The Autobiography, and Bob Dylan’s Chronicles. This year seems like the year to celebrate rock stars, though. I’ve read reviews of quite a few memoirs and biographies that are now on my reading list: Gregg Allman’s My Cross to Bear, Pete Townshend’s Who I Am, Neil Young’s Waging Heavy Peace, and R. J. Smith’s biography of James Brown, The One. These are just some I’ve heard about or artists I like. I’m sure you could name many others. But all of these had to take a backseat to the one rock-star biography I had to read: Peter Ames Carlin’s lovely book called, simply, Bruce.

You see, I’m a Bruce fan, a Tramp, a nut about all things Springsteen. Even my standard username comes from the lyrics of one of his earlier songs. I’ve got a whole shelf in my bookcase reserved for books about or by Bruce, including the first and most well-known of the biographies, Dave Marsh’s Born to Run and Glory Days. Some other Bruce fans know a lot more of his story than I do, but it’s pretty hard to get the jump on me when it comes to Bruce info or news. Just ask my husband or my friend Chris.

Peter Carlin, though, found a way to offer even big, know-it-all fans like me an interesting story or two about Bruce. I found the Bruce Springsteen in his biography to be engaging, funny, articulate, driven, intense, awkward, musically brilliant, big-hearted, and mixed-up; but I already know he’s all those things. Carlin also showed me a Bruce who’s annoying, obsessed, selfish, confused, depressed, closed-off, and, finally, in the end, relaxed—all of which make him human as well. And, of course, that’s his greatest quality for us Tramps, that he’s “just like us.” (Even though he isn’t, really.)

Carlin does something else that I found particularly worthy in a biographer: he writes well. His sentences are well-constructed, paragraphs flow with a natural rhythm not often found in popular music writing (the pretentious mess that is rock music criticism just infuriates me), and his informal style matches his subject’s without overstepping the bounds of intelligent writing. I found the book to be (mostly) well edited, too, which is always a plus for me. (Gratuitous plug for my other blog goes here.)

No doubt Carlin owes Bruce’s manager, Jon Landau, a debt of gratitude, for Landau—who contacted Carlin when he heard about his book in draft—opened the doors to many more interviews with Bruce’s family and band than Carlin might have otherwise wrangled. It’s likely that the stories from the family helped shape the reader’s sense of Bruce by explaining where he came from and what he was up against in the family’s history of depression and struggle for the American dream. And the way Bruce cavalierly dismissed members of the E Street Band around the Tunnel of Love sessions and the end of that tour wasn’t exactly magnanimous, as we hear a good deal of honest and still a little bitter reminiscences from Garry Tallent, Clarence Clemons, and Max Weinberg.

Last, Carlin must be a Tramp, too, because he sure does a great job of understanding and explaining the songs. After all, that’s half of what we fans love to do: talk about what the songs mean and how they relate to our own lives. Carlin gave me a new perspective on several of Bruce’s songs, and for that alone I’d recommend the book to any Bruce fan.

For those of you who are more casual fans or just like to read about rock stars’ lives, you’ll find something to like and something to ponder in Carlin’s Bruce. Let me know if you become a Tramp; I’ve got a few more books you might like.


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