You’d think that a guy who could write a line like that, build an anthem around it, surround that song with the likes of “Thunder Road,” “Jungleland” and “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out,” and then land the covers of Time and Newsweek simultaneously (the first person to do so), you’d think a guy like that would have it made, right? That’s what I thought. And then he follows Born to Run with Darkness on the Edge of Town? He’s now reached icon status, hasn’t he? Well, not exactly.
Bruce Springsteen’s career would have come to an unceremonious halt if Born to Run, his third album, had not sold well. In fact, he couldn’t afford his first house until the tour supporting The River finally put him in the black. For a decade or so prior to that, he and the E-Street Band suffered mightily for their art. Mostly it was Bruce’s fault—no serious marketing (his choice), no arena tours (his choice), the first contract he signed was a ripoff (his fault for not reading it)—but he and the band finally hit their stride commercially, and the rest is history.
In Bruce, Peter Ames Carlin reminds us that the perceived history of a person rarely reflects what was really happening at the time. Carlin begins Bruce’s story not with his childhood, but with his father’s. Doug Springsteen had a difficult time as a child and a tortured existence as an adult, and this was, perhaps, the single largest influence on Bruce’s writing. So, wisely, Carlin starts there, thus providing the context for Bruce’s early life. The author then takes us through the high school years, the early bands, the evolution of the E-Street Band, the albums and the tours, all the while venturing deep below the surface to reveal the forces that shaped and guided Bruce each step of the way.
This is a linear story, of course. We are dealing with eight-and-a-half decades of family history, and therefore must adhere to a certain chronology, but Carlin is a master of pacing. He knows when to slow down and when to speed up. For the recreational reader, this keeps the story moving forward, and therefore compelling. For the writer chronicling many decades of a person’s life, whether real or fictional, Carlin’s technique provides a sterling example of what to leave in and what to leave out.
If you’re a Springsteen fan, get the book and read it. If you’re a writer of biography, memoir, creative nonficition or fiction, get the book and study it. If you’ve already read it, let me know what you think.