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Springsteen’s Family Tragedy, Tough Nuns Recalled: Book Review

"Bruce," a biography by Peter Ames Carlin. Source: Touchstone via Bloomberg

Bruce Springsteen’s life has long been a mystery compared with his work. Peter Ames Carlin’s “Bruce” fixes that.

Carlin delves into the Boss’s family background and personality for a perspective largely absent from Dave Marsh’s “Born to Run” and “Glory Days,” which have until now been the definitive biographies.

The book benefits from the depth of Carlin’s reporting. He interviewed Springsteen himself as well as members of the musician’s family, current and former band mates and others.

Plenty of rough spots are covered: family relationships in the ’50 and ’60s, comings and goings of girlfriends in the ’70s, tensions with his E Street Band that led to its firing in the ’80s, and a search for musical direction in the ’90s that culminated in the band’s reunion.

The book begins with the family’s roughest moment: the death of Springsteen’s father’s sister, Virginia, as a 5-year-old. She was hit by a truck while riding her tricycle in April 1927. The death created a void that went unfilled until Bruce’s birth in September 1949, as the book recounts.

Springsteen’s family lived with his paternal grandparents at first, and his grandmother set few rules for him, Carlin says. Four-year-old Bruce stayed up until the middle of the night, as he later did as a musician.

Starting School

His grandmother’s lack of discipline contrasted with his mother’s approach: When he was ready for elementary school, she sent him to St. Rose of Lima, the local Catholic school. Carlin quotes Springsteen as saying he was caught between these women as he was later with his first two managers, Mike Appel and Jon Landau, and then with Landau and band mate Steve Van Zandt.

Carlin touches on the anger Springsteen felt at the rules imposed by the school’s nuns. That anger would later resurface in relationships with women, on concert stages, in courtrooms and elsewhere, as the book chronicles.

The most insightful observation in “Bruce” may be one pertaining to his time in elementary school: “For Bruce, his tendency for social isolation came as naturally as his secret desire to be at the center of everything.”

Conflicting Goals

Springsteen’s personality conflict helps explain why he adamantly opposed stadium concerts, music videos, marketing campaigns and other moves at first and then reversed himself.

Yet Carlin presents the changes of heart without exploring the mindset that drove them. This is one reason why “Bruce” doesn’t render Marsh’s biographies and other books about Springsteen obsolete.

Another is that not everyone in Springsteen’s story gets into the book. There’s no mention of Maria Espinosa, the first girl he ever kissed, though she was identified in the unreleased song “In Freehold.” Jim McDuffie, an assistant for much of the 1980s, is also unnamed. The omissions are telling.

Springsteen’s interest in Espinosa, who was Hispanic, was at odds with the racial divisions in his hometown and elsewhere during the 1960s. So was his high-school friendship with Richard Blackwell, an African-American who played congas on “The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle,” his second album.

Those relationships foreshadowed the defining moment of his musical career: meeting Clarence Clemons, the African-American saxophonist later known as the Big Man, in September 1971. The encounter occurred about a year after race riots in Asbury Park.

Charitable Work

McDuffie still works for Springsteen as executive director of The Foundation, which helps lower-income homeowners in New Jersey pay for house repairs. Carlin makes no mention of the Foundation or the Thrill Hill Foundation, a supporter of non-profit groups.

The omissions reflect a cursory treatment of Springsteen’s charitable work, which goes beyond writing checks. He has made personal connections with the Community Food Bank of New Jersey and other groups. He routinely asks audiences to donate, rather than touting his own contributions.

Also, “Bruce” would be better off without the footnotes sprinkled throughout the text. They bury details that deserve more prominence -- the origin of the E Street name, for one -- or provide snarky asides that distract from the narrative.

The disruptions are a greater flaw because there’s so much story to get through, and it’s so compelling. Carlin has written a book that any Springsteen fan will appreciate, even with its shortcomings.

“Bruce” is published by Touchstone (494 pages, $28). To buy this book in North America, click here.

(David Wilson is a reporter-at-large at Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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