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The Suburbanite
  • Bruce Springsteen biographer Carlin gets to the bottom of 'Bruce'

  • Let’s get this out of the way right off the bat: Peter Ames Carlin is no Albert Goldman. Unlike the late slash-and-burn biographer who drew brickbats for his controversial books on Elvis Presley and John Lennon, Carlin – whose new Bruce Springsteen biography “Bruce” is a New York Times bestseller – is actually a fan of his subject. And not a recently converted one either.

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  • Let’s get this out of the way right off the bat: Peter Ames Carlin is no Albert Goldman.
    Unlike the late slash-and-burn biographer who drew brickbats for his controversial books on Elvis Presley and John Lennon, Carlin – whose new Bruce Springsteen biography “Bruce” is a New York Times bestseller – is actually a fan of his subject. And not a recently converted one either.
    “I’d been a fan going back to 1978 when I saw his show in Seattle, at the Seattle Center Arena,” recalled Carlin, a former columnist for the Portland Oregonian and author of well-received bios on Paul McCartney and Brian Wilson. “And that just knocked me sideways – I had this vague idea that this guy was good in concert, but then that was really something special.”
    What drew Carlin to Springsteen’s work as a teenager, and kept him interested enough to want to tell the man’s story as an adult, was a certain sense of honesty in his work and words. “What he was saying at the time about whatever was happening in his life or his sense of the world … it felt real to me and honest and passionate,” said Carlin. “It always meant something to me.”
    But despite Springsteen’s massive popularity, the man behind the legend remained elusive, at least to Carlin.
    “I felt that there was an important story here, [and] I’d yet to find an analysis or a story about the guy that struck me as really what I felt needed to be said,” he said. “And then as a writer, a professional, you have the arrogance to think, ‘Well, maybe I’m the guy who can do that.’”
    Critics and readers seem in agreement that with “Bruce,” Carlin has done a better job than most at painting a portrait of Springsteen as a real, complicated human being – probably owing at least in part to the fact that, midway through the project, Springsteen’s manager Jon Landau contacted Carlin unexpectedly to tell him that Springsteen was interested in participating.
    Carlin attributes that development to “good timing and good luck.”
    “I came around right at the time when [Springsteen] began thinking that maybe it might be a good idea to cooperate with somebody, or the idea of allowing a biographer to come in and do a book was less repellant than ever before, let’s put it that way,” he said.
    “The fact that I had spent a year and a half doing so much research, Jon said that was a big deal for him and Bruce – that I was being super thorough and not just pulling clips and spouting off,” Carlin recalled.
    So how does a 30-year Springsteen follower keep his inner fan at bay when sitting down to hash out the man’s life and career?
    Page 2 of 3 - “The fanboy who was always there in the background somewhere, he was kind of tied to a chair,” explained Carlin. “ That guy could not really get in the way, because I had put so much work into and had so much riding on the book.
    “So at that point I didn’t have the bandwith to get star-struck,” he recalled. “I had to focus everything I had on just being with the guy and trying not only to have the conversation and track it on a variety of levels, but also try to absorb kind of the vibe around him or coming from him and set that into the story.”
    As to whether Springsteen the real guy lived up to his public image, Carlin said he certainly had a “dark and complicated” side – just as the author suspected he would.
    “I expected him to have limits on his warmth and on his patience,” Carlin said. “So when he’d go ballistic or start becoming the Bruce that people sort of roll their eyes about, I was kind of prepared for that to happen. I didn’t expect him to be super-cool all the time.”
    One such occasion that Carlin details in “Bruce” involves a minor meltdown during a sound check for the opening show of this year’s “Wrecking Ball” tour.
    “I remember feeling a little disturbed when he was having that tantrum on stage during the sound check … because as I say in the book right afterwards, that’s not the Bruce that you know,” he recalled. “But of course he’s like that! Because everybody’s like that to some degree – I sure am. You’re just bitchy [sometimes]. You can’t be bitchy on as grand a scale as he, but you can be your lesser self.”
    But to hear the author tell it, Springsteen was more than eager to have Carlin capture that side of him.
    “To me the interesting thing was that he was very interested, very enthusiastic about me capturing him at his less heroic,” Carlin said. “To get past the caricature or the symbolic thing and render him in human terms.”
    For Carlin, that involved concentrating on the artist’s early years, and taking a broader approach to the latter, more successful parts of Springsteen’s career. But that doesn’t mean he still doesn’t have more to share.
    “The story of [Springsteen’s early] struggle turns out to be a little more dramatic than the story of things being smooth [later on],” Carlin explained, adding though that “there’s a ton of information that didn’t make it into the book, and it’s not going anywhere – I still have it, and at some point in the future I’m hoping to find a way to use it.”
    Page 3 of 3 - So a sequel, then? “I have no idea what it might be or where or when,” Carlin said, “but that part of his story, of those historic events, hopefully at some point I’ll find a way to put them into something else.”
    Peter Ames Carlin will be conducting a Q&A at the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland on Tuesday evening, Dec. 5. He’ll be reading and signing books at the Oregon History Museum in Portland at 6:30 p.m. on Dec. 10, and on Dec. 13 will talk about Springsteen at the East Bend Public Library in Bend, Ore., starting at 6:30. For more information, visit peteramescarlin.com.
    Peter Chianca blogs for Gatehouse Media's Blogness on the Edge of Town and is author of "Glory Days: Springsteen's Greatest Albums."