The West

Up close and personal with the Boss
Up close and personal with the Boss

Bruce Springsteen is rock's reigning working-class hero. In recent years, the legend has taken America's temperature and turned it into heartland rock anthems such as the September 11-inspired album, The Rising, or the post-Hurricane Katrina single We Take Care of Our Own.

Years before, back when he was Born to Run, the Boss rewrote the rule book for live performances, making sweat-drenched three-hour-plus gigs the norm alongside the E Street Band. At 63, he still outplays artists half his age and has taken on a veneer of invincibility.

Three years ago, when acclaimed music writer Peter Ames Carlin decided to pen a new biography, economically titled Bruce, he wasn't interested in more hero worship. For 18 months he worked like "an old-fashioned shoe leather journalist", hunting in Springsteen's native New Jersey for people who could help him add some fresh hues to the portrait of a blue-collar rock god.

"Go to the barber shop and talk to the guys," Carlin says from his home in Portland, Oregon. "Talk to the cops who knew him when he was a kid. Figure out who was his Little League coach, talk to that guy."

The author, who has published biographies on Paul McCartney and the Beach Boys' Brian Wilson, is a fan. He attended his first Springsteen gig on December 20, 1978, at the Seattle Centre Arena. "Which is the (ice) hockey arena," he says. "It was very small and smelled like sweat socks." Of course, he left the modest venue smitten.

Carlin reached out to Springsteen's long-time manager, Jon Landau, for access to the great man, but was advised by previous biographer and friend Dave Marsh that he could be waiting a very long time.

"I was working on my own and I had no real expectations of their being interested in working with me," he says. "I knew that it might be a possibility, which was probably just a naive fantasy on my part."

Landau called out of the blue early last year, inviting the writer out for a drink in New York. He said that Springsteen was prepared to talk, and was also happy for friends, family and E Street Band members past and present to go on the record. And the rock icon was in no way interested in influencing what was written.

"The book was never authorised and it's still not authorised," Carlin says. "They didn't want it to be an inside job. They thought it was time for a real outsider version of the story."

Springsteen is a notoriously private guy, shielding his family from the press. However, he encouraged his mother, two sisters and other family members to speak to Carlin, who was keen to delve deep into the Born in the U.S.A. singer's psyche.

"When I write about these guys, really what I'm after is the headwaters of their creativity, their muse," Carlin says.

The book reaches back past the rocker's difficult relationship with his distant and often depressed father to the accidental death of an aunt about 22 years before his birth, a tragedy that cast a long shadow over the Springsteen family.

Bruce also contains some candid conversations with the E Street Band, and other luminaries of the storied Asbury Park music scene.

Most notable is the final interview with saxophonist Clarence Clemons, conducted only a few weeks before his death in June last year. "I don't know what Jon or Bruce said to the other guys in the band, but I got the sense that they had essentially been cleared to speak their piece," Carlin says.

Despite access to Springsteen's inner circle, it wasn't until October last year that the author finally sat down with the subject. Four days of intense interviews were followed by regular phone calls, conversations, and then Carlin followed Springsteen

and band as they embarked on another epic tour in support of latest album Wrecking Ball.

The writer witnessed Springsteen throwing a temper tantrum during the sound check for the official first gig in Atlanta, Georgia, in March.

"The caricature is that he's kind of a rock'n'roll superhero, and in some ways he has presented that face," Carlin says. "However, I knew intuitively that this was a very complicated and in many ways dark individual.

"Don't get me wrong, Bruce is a great guy personally, and that was great to figure out, but he's also intense and he has his moments."

Carlin says that no topic was off limits, although Springsteen would try to steer the conversation away from the split from first wife, Julianne Phillips, while current wife and E Street veteran Patti Scialfa is a thin presence in the biography. Apart from that, it was open slather.

"Once Bruce was in, he was all in and everything was on the table."

Springsteen has never written a memoir and, at 63, seems unlikely to slow down and write one anytime soon. A definitive tome weighing in at close to 500 pages, Bruce is arguably the next best thing.

"Bruce has been at it for a long time and is still going strong, obviously," Carlin says, "but there was also some sense that it's good to start getting the history down before the main voices who were there to see it all happen are gone."

The West Australian

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