Over the course of a year and a half, journalist Peter Ames Carlin interviewed more than 75 people who knew Bruce Springsteen and his family, spending time on the ground in Freehold and Asbury Park, talking to as many people from Springsteen’s early years as possible – people who, much to his surprise, had never been interviewed about Springsteen before.
The reward for his dogged shoe-leather reporting: Eventual access to Springsteen and his inner circle, and a biography that sheds new light on the performer’s childhood, early career, romantic life, and reunion with the E Street Band.
“I really wanted a new perspective,” Carlin said of the project he began in the fall of 2009.
The author will discuss his 494-page book, “Bruce” and sign copies at 7 p.m. tonight at the Princeton Public Library. Joining him will be Princeton history professor Sean Wilentz, whose writings on music have earned him a Grammy nomination and a Deems Taylor-ASCAP award. The event is free. Copies of “Bruce” will be sold at the event through Labyrinth Books.
Released Oct. 30, “Bruce” is already a New York Times bestseller. It follows two other rock tomes by Carlin, “Catch a Wave: The Rise, Fall and Redemption of the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson” and “Paul McCartney: A life.”
Carlin, a former senior writer at People magazine and TV critic for The Oregonian, became hooked on Springsteen’s music in 1978 when he was 15 and attended a concert in a Seattle arena that was part of the Darkness on Edge of Town tour. He had just finished working on the McCartney biography in 2009 when he and his editor started bouncing the idea around about writing a biography about Springsteen. He figured there were dozens of books already out there.
“But when I looked, there was not a lot of substantial reporting,” he said. “Bruce and his manager, Jon Landau, were very tight with access.”
Carlin called Springsteen’s press person when he began the project, but was not granted an interview by Springsteen and was told that the Boss was working on his own memoir. Carlin plowed ahead, reading hundreds of articles about Springsteen. Then he went back to the streets where Bruce grew up to interview people from his early years so he could see Springsteen’s life through other eyes. He interviewed members of bands Springsteen played in as a teen and young adult. He also talked to people who knew a lot about the Freehold area, like Kevin Coyne, the writer, journalist and New York Times columnist who grew up around the corner from the Springsteen family and who, as Carlin says “has an astonishing encyclopedic knowledge of Freehold and Asbury Park” and had never been interviewed by other authors for books about Springsteen.
“What was interesting was how many people played significant roles in his life,” Carlin said.
Word spread about all the interviews he was doing, and in 2011, Landau called Carlin and offered him access to Springsteen, his family and the E Street Band. “By the time we became aware of you, you were a moving train,” Landau told Carlin, who was granted access to sit in on band rehearsals and concerts. Over the course of about nine months, Carlin talked to the people in Springsteen’s inner circle, except for his wife, Patti Scialfa. He conducted Clarence Clemons’s final major interview, and talked to Springsteen for about 15 to 20 hours over the course of those months.
The biography is framed by a tragedy in the Springsteen family a generation earlier that shaped the role Springsteen would play as the “replacement child” for his grandparents in his lower working-class home in Freehold.
“That family tragedy transformed my sense of who Bruce is, and why he is the way he is,” Carlin said. “Even at four years old, he was this rock star who stayed up all night. His grandparents worshiped the ground he walked on. There was all that darkness on his dad’s side, and there was mental illness, but there was also decency. His mother’s side, the Zirilli family, was a force of nature and still is. A lot of elements of his personality became ten times clearer and more vibrant to me in researching the book.”
Springsteen is depicted as a supremely gifted musician and heroic figure, but one with a dark family shadow hanging over him. The book is filled with previously unknown little tidbits, like the fact that Springsteen almost played Woodstock. It also describes some unflattering moments that reveal how Springsteen could be moody and self-centered. He sometimes treated girlfriends poorly, and the book includes a scene where Springsteen sees an ex-girlfriend in the audience at a concert and loses control of himself.
“Of all the people I talked to for the book, the person most interested in trashing Bruce Springsteen was Bruce Springsteen,” Carlin said in describing how Springsteen encouraged him not to hold back on anything negative he was considering putting in the book.
The flawed hero depicted in the book is still loved and admired by those who worked with him though.
“They were crusaders, and it is a sensibility they all have to this day,” Carlin said. “There was this belief, this commitment.”
Carlin said Springsteen and the band are about much more than rock and roll. He compared the encounter to religion. People who were a part of performances were given the sense that they made things happen — that people at concerts were transformed and they were a big part if it. And they believed.
“I believed in him like I believe in God,” Clemons told Carlin a few months before his death. “That kind of feeling. He was always so straight and dedicated to what he believes, you became a believer simply by being around him.”