Rant ‘N’ Roll: Bruce, We Hardly Knew Ya!

The Bruce Springsteen who emerges from the 494 pages of Peter Ames Carlin’s meticulously researched Bruce (Touchstone) is a fully fleshed-out, fallible individual with faults and blemishes like all of us. Epic in scope, fascinating for the relationships he has with his many girlfriends, his father, his bandmates, his fans and, especially, the team he always had behind him (the names change but the belief in him never wavers), we see an individual who doesn’t want to be happy, rich or famous. He just wants to be great. Driven…obsessed…straight-edge before the term was ever invented in a society of heavy pot smokers…never without his rhyming dictionary and notebook…an exacting and frustratingly painstaking perfectionist in the studio, Bruce was oftentimes impossible. Demanding to go over one part of one song for eight hours, stretching sessions scheduled for five weeks into 18 months, rewriting lyrics after the master was complete, demanding to do everything over again, he’d then do the same thing yet again. And again. He’d fret and worry and bleed over every riff, over every word.

We see his father sitting in the dark at the kitchen table night after night smoking cigarettes and drinking beer. We see Bruce being kicked out of his first band because he wasn’t good enough. We feel the glory as he starts to come into his own in The Castiles, Earth, Child and Steel Mill. Janis Joplin wants to have sex with him. Steel Mill almost plays Woodstock and blows Grand Funk Railroad off the stage at the Ocean Ice Palace in Bricktown. He meets Nils Lofgren in L.A.—years before he invites Nils to replace Van Zandt in the band—and is intimidated at first by the fact that Nils was so damn good and even played on Neil Young’s After The Gold Rush. He breaks up Steel Mill—totally blindsiding the band—and in his pre-E Street Band, Patti Scialfa auditions as a backing vocalist but is told to go home and grow up as she’s still in high school.

Once the E Street Band coalesces around a vision of music Bruce hears in his head after digesting albums by Van Morrison and Joe Cocker, Bruce didn’t want so much to be in a band anymore, he wanted to have a band to effectuate his vision. They were always his salaried employees.

Manager Mike Appel risks everything for Bruce, becomes his greatest advocate, gets him in to audition for the legendary John Hammond of Columbia, is a great manager, everything you’d want, but makes Bruce sign bad contracts. Bruce doesn’t even show the contracts to a lawyer and just signs away his career, his songs, his money.

He studies the greats. Watches film of James Brown, Beatles, Stones, and Elvis over and over and over. He watches Mick Jagger and Rod Stewart getting in and out of airplanes like royalty and says to a buddy, “Don’t ever let me get like these guys.” He knows, instinctively, he’ll be in their league someday.

The sound he hears in his head has no room for Steven Van Zandt at first. So Van Zandt, after working with him so hard, isn’t on the first two albums. He leaves the band with a bruised ego not to return for two years. The tour supporting the debut shows the band with no money, hardly any food, no room to sleep but Bruce is in his element, traveling and living on potato chips, cupcakes and soda. His eating habits, in fact, are atrocious. It’s a wonder he’s in the shape he is today.

The first two albums do not sell. The third album, Born To Run, is made with the knowledge that if this one doesn’t sell, his career is over. He rides roughshod over the band, drives them crazy, can’t figure out the horn chart on “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out.” Invites Van Zandt to the studio. Van Zandt says it sounds like shit. “Oh yeah,” chides Bruce, “you could do better?” Van Zandt then takes those horn players under his wing, sings them exactly what they should be doing, and the result is what you hear on the album. Bruce watches this with amazement and puts him back on the payroll. Van Zandt stays another seven years.

Tours become such celebratory events that the booking agents for Bonnie Raitt and Jackson Browne refuse to let the band open for them because they’re just too damn good. Peter Frampton and Steve Marriott watch them open for their band, Humble Pie, and run to the safety of their limo, having to be coaxed out of the car to perform.

Born To Run is finished but just when the masters are delivered to the label, Bruce declares it shit and refuses to release it. He has to be talked down, back to reality, by Jon Landau, who he trusts implicitly, and it’s released. Then, after it’s a monster hit, he’s besieged by doubt and fear that he’s going to be a one-hit wonder and drives the band even more relentlessly than ever. He refuses to play larger venues fearing he’d lose his intimacy with the audience. He throws his food in the face of the caterer when it’s too fancy and runs out to find a Kentucky Fried Chicken.

He gets married, gets divorced and gets married again. He reconciles with his father who lives long enough to see him become a star and who softens in his old age. He reaches heights of Beatles/Elvis proportions with Born In The U.S.A. and becomes the face of America all over the world. But, having accomplished everything he set out to do, he fires the whole band and doesn’t tour with them for six years or record with them for 11 years. Then demands they return to be with him almost on a moment’s notice. He undergoes psychotherapy and discovers anti-depressants (that help him tremendously). He almost fires drummer Max Weinberg during the recording of The River for not being good enough. Max takes drum lessons.

It has been reported that Bruce told author Carlin he didn’t mind being made to look bad when the story warrants it. Written with Bruce’s full cooperation, Bruce comments on the action as his life unfolds. This is the only Bruce book you’ll ever need.