November 3, 2012 · 9:38 am
Bruce by Peter Ames Carlin (Touchstone, $28.00, 494 pages)
I was living in Los Angeles in the winter of 1975 when a live concert by a then-unknown East Coast band was stereo-cast late one evening by a Metromedia FM radio station. The group, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, was playing at the Roxy Theatre and for all of Southern California. The performance began with a song called “Thunder Road,” and the band proceeded to play all of the songs that we would soon come to know as the Born to Run album. (I saw Springsteen and the E Street Band when they hit San Francisco the following year.)
Fans of Springsteen know that despite all of their digging, not much is known about his personal life. Peter Ames Carlin, author of the well recommended Paul McCartney: A Life, and of Catch a Wave: The Rise, Fall and Redemption of the Beach Boy’s Brian Wilson, attempts to remedy this in Bruce. Carlin draws upon numerous interviews to flesh out a picture of a real human being behind the rock legend.
Some will be surprised to see how vulnerable Springsteen is. He’s a man who often worries about what others think of him, one who has been unsuccessful in numerous personal relationships, one who has experienced a high level of depression and relied upon years of professional counseling, and one who has often sought a geographical solution to his problems (moving from East Coast to West Coast and back, to the South and back to the West before settling back down in New Jersey). The mature Springsteen is now a family man, with a wife, son and daughter, who has repeatedly stuck his neck out for social causes and for political candidates – notably supporting Barack Obama in the 2008 and 2012 presidential races.
Carlin has an insider’s ear for music and provides a quite satisfying amount of information about Springsteen’s recording sessions over several decades; some of the insights may cause readers to purchase albums or revisit the ones they already own. Carlin’s best, detailed work comes in reviewing how The Rising album – a work of healing and redemption if there ever was one – was recorded after 9/11. His analysis is excellent except for the fact that it fails to mention the very best song on the album, “Waitin’ On A Sunny Day.” (How did that happen?)
“(Springsteen is) an artist fixated on the intimate stories of ordinary folks whose labors make wealthier mens’ dreams come true…”
Bruce provides the insight that Springsteen has crafted his albums in the same manner in which a movie producer crafts a film. Each album is intended to represent a story, generally about the people left behind in an otherwise prosperous society. It’s no wonder that Springsteen’s most recent release pleaded for us to take care of our own.
This story of a performer and his unique band of brothers is more satisfying than most musician bios and it makes for a fast read despite its length. It is, however, likely to have a short shelf life as the “definitive” biography – to quote Publishers Weekly – of The Boss. As with bios of Paul McCartney, Brian Wilson, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Mick Jagger and other rock notables, there’s certainly more to come
A review copy was provided by the publisher.
“There are many things I could and should be doing right now, but I am not… I am reading and rereading this book. Why did you do this to me?” Jon Stewart to Peter Ames Carlin
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December 2, 2010 · 5:54 pm
Paul McCartney: A Life by Peter Ames Carlin (Touchstone, $16.99, 384 pages)
“Take a sad song and make it better…”
Peter Ames Carlin wrote what was likely the second-best biography of Brian Wilson, Catch a Wave: The Rise, Fall and Redemption of the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson. It was very good but a bit dry in places, especially when compared to The Nearest Faraway Place by Timothy White. White’s earlier biography masterfully blended the migration of the Wilson family from the Midwest to Torrance with the history of Southern California itself. (The title referenced the phrase used by Brian’s mother whenever she wanted to escape to the not-so-close and not-too-far-away community of Ventura.)
This time Carlin has come closer to fashioning a definitive, lively and warmly human account of the man they call Macca in Great Britain. More than half of this bio covers the story of the Fab Four, which seemed to have had its last good moment with John Lennon and Paul – just the two – recording The Ballad of John and Yoko. Said Paul, “It always surprised me how with just the two of us on it, it ended up sounding like the Beatles.”
This is far from a totally fawning tale of Sir Paul, and Carlin does well in picturing the band as a dysfunctional family. In Carlin’s eyes, John was the wild husband, Paul the responsible mother figure trying to keep the family on track, George the often brooding and secretly rebellious son, and Ringo the “What, me worry?” older brother. And yet… Yet they all came to realize – in one way or another – that they had destroyed the household too soon. The break-up came too early.
Carlin illustrates several times how much Paul came to miss John once he was suddenly gone: “I really loved you and was glad you came along/and you were here today, for you were in my song.” This is the Paul who was subsequently again destroyed by George Harrison’s untimely death: “To me he’s just my little baby brother. I loved him dearly.”
The one caution with Carlin is that you should certainly feel free to disagree with his musical judgments, as when he praises the disastrous – to this listener’s ears – remixes of the Beatles songs on albums like Yellow Submarine, 1s (Ones) and Love. They’re louder and brasher, but not better nor true to the original recordings. He also fails to understand the simple genius of the album called McCartney – which contained Maybe I’m Amazed, Every Night (the alternate version of You Never Give Me Your Money) and That Would Be Something.
But in the end, we see here a musician who carried on quite, quite well even after the loss of his two quasi-brothers and two wives (one by death, one through a bitter divorce). If you love Paul McCartney, you will feel the same way about him once you’ve finished A Life. If you’ve never much liked Beatle Paul, you may grudgingly make your way through this bio and find that he’s earned a bit of your respect. “Take it away…”
A review copy was provided by the publisher.
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