Listening to the Boss: Author Peter Ames Carlin on His Springsteen Biography
By Angela Barbuti Bruce Springsteen gets a lot of play-literally. Even President Obama has said, "I'm the president, but he's the Boss." And now, after more than 30 years of research, Peter Ames Carlin finally put his respect for the musician down on paper. Replete with interviews from Bruce's family, the E Street Band and Bruce himself, Carlin has recorded a biography that lives up to all the hype it has generated. Bruce, released Oct. 30, has won the honor of a four-star rating from Rolling Stone. On Nov. 14, the author will be at Barnes & Noble at 18th Street to sign his book, which is the perfect holiday gift for the Bruce fan in your life. You began writing the book in the fall of 2009, but your interest in Bruce dates back to when you went to a concert of his in 1978. I had been collecting material and knowledge starting as a 15-year-old, when I saw Bruce's show in the fall of '78 on the Darkness on the Edge of Town tour. The show was kind of-I don't want to say "life changing," that's a bit much-but it altered my sense of music and possibility. It resonated with me, and I carried that for decades. After a year and a half of writing on your own, Bruce's manager, Jon Landau, called you. I was doing research on my own with no connection at all to Bruce. I was speaking to a ton of people before that-old friends, people from Freehold and Asbury Park, and veterans from Columbia Records who were extremely eager to talk. The phone rang in January of 2011 while I was sitting in my office-my basement here in Portland-and it was Jon. We got together the next week for a drink, and from that point on, Jon became super-helpful and gave the green light to friends, collaborators and band members. What surprised you about Bruce? We spent a lot of time together. Everyone told me along the way that he's pretty much exactly who you think he is. In a way, that was very true. It was clear to me from his work that he's a very intense, complicated and, in some ways, conflicted person. He is enormously charming, but there's also a distance around him to a degree. He wears his moods and inner tension close to the surface. You conducted the last major interview with Clarence Clemons. What was he like? I had a couple days' worth of interviews with him just a couple of months before he died. Physically, he was a little compromised; he had just had another bout of surgery. He was doing a lot of physical therapy, trying to get in shape for this tour. Mentally, he was incredibly smart, funny, sensitive and intense. He had a lot to talk about and was very excited to do so, which was cool. You list Bruce's many accomplishments-120 million albums sold, 20 Grammys, two Golden Globes and an Academy Award. Why do you think he's able to do so much? Bruce is, in a lot of ways, a self-invented human being. But these threads-the energy, drive and passion-come from his mom's side of the family. The part that helps him work onstage for three to four hours a night and pursue his art for 50 years now. His mom's side is this very vibrant, hilarious, hard-working Italian family. His dad had a lot of emotional problems, and there has been a lot of darkness on that side of the family. The disturbance in Bruce's soul that has branded him came through his dad's side. You dedicate the book to your wife, Sarah, and thank her for thinking of the title. Besides that, did she help along the way? [Laughs] She helped me by making it okay for me to disappear for weeks on end. And there was a point halfway through the process where I quit the job I had for 10-plus years at The Oregonian. Things had gotten kind of unpleasant there for me, and I knew it was time to move on. When the Bruce thing really got rolling, I had the sense that if anything is worth throwing all your eggs in a basket for, it's this book that no one else had the chance to do yet. My wife encouraged me to do exactly that. You mention Café Wha? and Kenny's Castaways as part of Bruce's early life. What role do you see New York City as having in his development? Oh my gosh-a big role. As big as his earlier bands were in New Jersey and the South, they never tried to play New York for some reason. When he started building his career as a professional recording artist, that drew him to New York. His becoming familiar with it and seeing the world from that perspective transformed his sense of possibility. If you listen to "New York City Serenade" and "Incident on 57th Street," the impact is everywhere. Did you listen to Bruce's music as you were writing his biography? Well, sure. I mean, I listened to Bruce music when I was writing about everything else over the years. [Laughs] It's just part of my internal soundtrack. What is your favorite Bruce song? [Laughs] It sort of depends on the day or the hour. The songs have been part of my life on a step-by-step basis since I was a sophomore in high school. "Racing in the Streets" from Darkness. I just feel that there's something vital in that song that comes from so deep. What do you think the future holds for Bruce and the E Street Band? At this point, it seems he's very committed to the band and to keeping the group going. Bruce himself as an artist, songwriter, musician and performer-he'll do that for the rest of his life. Because that's who he is-it's what makes him alive.
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