Rock ’n’ roll heroes are supposed to be supernovas — exploding stars that flame out in bursts of thrilling light and flying debris. What about those, then, who stick around?
At 63, Bruce Springsteen still makes interesting and popular records, and he jumps, struts, and sweats onstage with the E Street Band with nearly the same earnest abandon he did back in 1975, when the release of the album “Born to Run” secured his place in the pop pantheon. Many rock acts linger thanks to nostalgic retroactive marketing of their wild-and-crazy old days, but as Peter Ames Carlin makes clear in this comprehensive new biography, Springsteen’s enduring appeal comes out of a decidedly unglamorous combination of clean living, good intentions, and hard work.
“The thing I’ve been proudest about for a long time was that unlike many other bands, our band members lived,” Springsteen says, in one of his interviews with the author. Springsteen has been famously abstemious regarding drugs over the years and would seethe or sulk when he caught his band mates taking them. But more central to this notion of survival is what Carlin sees as another kind of propriety: a dedication to the craft of making music.
Yet Carlin meets Springsteen at a time when stubborn facts of mortality have begun to encircle him: The band’s longtime organist, Danny Federici, died in 2008, followed three years later by saxophone colossus Clarence Clemons, whom Springsteen had seen as a brother and creative lodestar. These absences color the book, and its subject, with the kind of dark strokes that lurk in even Springsteen’s most rollicking, exuberant songs.
Carlin traces the major signposts of Springsteen’s life, which have been written about elsewhere and will long ago have become familiar to fans: In 1957, a young Bruce first sees Elvis on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” In 1964, enthralled by the Beatles, he gets his mother to buy him a guitar. He joins a band, then another, gets a manager, who cajoles Columbia Records into giving him a chance. In 1975, he appears on the covers of Newsweek and Time in the same week, after the release of his breakthrough “Born to Run.” In 1984, “Born in the U.S.A.” makes him really famous, and he spends the ensuing decades variously dodging or embracing that fame. With such a well-worn trajectory, we might ask: Do we need another Springsteen biography?
The answer, here, is yes, thanks in large part to Carlin’s tireless reporting, which helps straighten out some of the lore-laden stories of Springsteen’s early years in New Jersey, and further illuminates his later struggles with depression. Carlin also demonstrates that while we may picture Springsteen as a lone figure in the spotlight the real story of his life is one of complex, occasionally bitter, but always passionate and blood-thick relationships with complicated men — from his father, to his managers, to the boys in the band.
“I believed in him like I believe in God,” Clemons said to Carlin a few months before his death. “That kind of feeling. He was always so straight and dedicated to what he believes, you became a believer simply by being around him.” Religious language comes up throughout the book, as the people in Springsteen’s orbit try to explain his powerful pull. Jon Landau, his longtime manager, responded to a suggestion that Bruce has always attracted apostles, by joking, “You know what that makes me, don’t you? . . . I’m Paul.” In the Christian tradition, Jesus left this world early in a blaze of tragedy, leaving others to spread his story. In the Church of Bruce, meanwhile, the rock ’n’ roll messiah has lived to sing his own gospel.
Ian Crouch writes about culture and sports for NewYorker.com and can be reached at ian