‘I’m the President, but he’s the Boss’, Barack Obama declared a couple of years ago, and most Spectator readers will know Bruce Springsteen as the President’s celebrity pop star friend. (One of the first of the many pleasures Peter Ames Carlin’s book affords is the story of how Springsteen came byhis nickname: he was a ruthless player of ‘Cut-throat’ Monopoly.)
Bruce Springsteen is much more than a celebrity, and Carlin’s book far from a dispiriting celebrity hagiography. Although written with the full co-operation of Springsteen himself, it pulls no punches in describing the singer’s faults and weaknesses, cruelties and mistakes. To his fans he can do no wrong (other than that awful video for Dancing in the Dark), but so driven a performer requires a robust ego. His temper is short and his judgment swift, and before his marriages he was a disagreeably jealous lover.
He admits to too much self-analysis, and yet his songs are invariably narrated either by a fictionalised first person or are about others. On his most recent album, Wrecking Ball, he assumes an ironic ‘we’ (meaning the USA) in ‘We Take Care of Our Own’, the voices of the dead oppressed in ‘We Are Alive’ and the persona (if that is possible) of the Giants Stadium (awaiting demolition at the time) in the title song. Even early songs, such as ‘Thunder Road’ and ‘Born to Run’ are fantasies of escape rather than records of actual experience.
Carlin’s book is first-rate for its first two thirds. As it approaches the present, Springsteen’s status as untouchable cultural icon begins to ossify the tale. Even here, however, it is superior to Clinton Heylin’s book, which is standard rock biography with its treacle of hyperbolic adjectives. That is not to say that die-hard fans will not enjoy it. Heylin quotes Springsteen at length, so the book works as a compendium of the singer’s spoken (and written) words.
Born in Freehold, New Jersey, in 1949, on his father’s side of a family that sailed from Holland in the mid-17th century, and on his mother’s from Irish-Italian stock, he was sent to a local Catholic school. He hated it. While rejecting the religion, he took from it a vocabulary that allowed him to imbue mundane lives with heroic qualities. His songs are full of holy nights, angels, fires, floods, and, most emphatically, faith and hope. (‘I knew he was a Catholic’, said legendary A&R man John Hammond, having heard three songs.)What took the place of Catholicism was rock and roll, and he has been an evangelist for its redemptive powers ever since.
Springsteen began playing in bands at the age of 15, and as both these books testify, started as he continued, with utter commitment, practising every spare moment, and gravitating to band leadership with whomsoever he played. He didn’t drink until his mid-twenties (and has always avoided drugs, for fear of ‘losing control’), his highs always natural, usually onstage.
Eventually he found a like-minded manager in the form of Mike Appel, who, though often painted as villainous, emerges in both books as a character as determined as his client to make of Springsteen what Springsteen wanted made. It just so happened that another character took Appel’s place in Springsteen’s vision of himself.
‘I have seen rock and roll future, and its name is Bruce Springsteen,’ music critic Jon Landau wrote in 1974. Although Springsteen hated the use to which the line was put, Landau became his manager, and remains so to this day. What Landau brought was a degree of creative sophistication that appealed to the autodidact in the singer.
The album that made Bruce Springsteen was Born to Run, released the following year, a collection of urban stories characterised by what Springsteen called ‘an orchestral sound’ and boasting a famous cover, the leather-jacketed rocker leaning against the ‘Big Man’, saxophonist and friend Clarence Clemons. A decade later Born in the USA made him a megastar, with all the fatuous fandom that accompanies such a status, and likewise all the ignorant contempt (in Ian McEwan’s novel Saturday a country and western singer is described without irony as ‘the thinking-man’s Bruce Springsteen’).
The truth is that the working-class boy became a consummate middle-class liberal, supporting the usual causes but avoiding the smug self-righteousness of many of his fellow superstars. Earlier this year, Springsteen ended a speech to young rockers with the following: ‘When you walk on stage tonight to bring the noise, treat it like it’s all we have — and then remember it’s only rock and roll.’ He does know that while he is the Boss, he’s not the president.
There have been calls to put to bed ‘the American Dream’ as hopelessly out of sync with the times. Bruce Springsteen and Barack Obama are surely prime exemplars of its continuing plausibility.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 1 December 2012