Like the Blues Brothers, Bruce Springsteen has always been on a mission from God. From his earliest gigs, this lapsed-Catholic urchin from New Jersey seemed to recruit apostles. They were struck by a mercurial, garrulous, energetic talent who appeared to be a mix of Elvis, Dylan and Kerouac. In 1973, the title of his second album accurately summed up his ’hood: The Wild, the Innocent & the E-Street Shuffle. His starry-eyed, streetwise larrikins rewrote West Side Story for AM radio. Springsteen’s world was a town full of losers, and he was pulling out of there to win.
Peter Ames Carlin’s biography is workmanlike, which is appropriate for such a blue-collar hero. He thanks his wife for the meat-and-potatoes title, Bruce, although Springsteen’s band members and ex-girlfriends could also have suggested Boss – given his cavalier treatment of them. The book was produced with the cooperation of its subject, and an awestruck tone carries throughout, even though many of Springsteen’s flaws are exposed for the first time. Perhaps he and his early apostle, manager Jon Landau, thought it was time for de-sanctification.
Springsteen’s childhood difficulties are well-documented, but Carlin suggests his restless ambition is genetic. Springsteen’s father, Douglas, was disappointed by life, and brooded constantly, sharing little rapport with a long-haired son who saw his guitar as a vocation. Bruce appears to have inherited an element of bipolarity: if his exhausting ambition was the mania, his bleak take on Struggle Town, USA, was a byproduct of his depression.
After the overwhelming success of Born in the USA in the mid-1980s – when every man and his earth angel were “Bruced out” – Springsteen sought therapy, and in 2003 started taking antidepressants that have helped his dark moods. He knows – says Carlin, in analyst mode – “that his brain chemistry will never leave him in the clear”.
Springsteen has been on an epic journey since the late 1960s, and – even after he could cruise the highway in a pink Cadillac – much of it has been on gravel roads. The grand dreams and visions of Springsteen’s music are missing from Carlin’s account. He so desperately wants to be a writer, but lacks the cinéma vérité eye, musical ear and verbal dexterity his subject deserves. Springsteen didn’t need a buddy along as a Boswell, but a loquacious, street-savvy romantic. Let’s hope this one-time “new Dylan” eventually gets to write his own Chronicles.
BRUCE, by Peter Ames Carlin (Simon & Schuster, $37).
Chris Bourke is author of Blue Smoke: The Lost Dawn of New Zealand Popular Music 1918-1964 and curator of an accompanying exhibition of images at the New Zealand Portrait Gallery, Wellington, until February 24.