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The Boss

Author Peter Ames Carlin peels back the layers of Bruce Springsteen's life without a lot spin for 'honest' biography


Portland resident Peter Ames Carlin's book, 'Bruce' examines the great Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, who hit the big-time with 'Born to Run‚' album and tour in 1975. From left to right, it's Springsteen, Garry Tallent, Danny Federici, Steve Van Zandt, Roy Bittan, Max Weinberg and Clarence Clemons.Envy?

Oh yeah, Portland author Peter Ames Carlin understands there might be some envy out there these days, with people knowing what he has done with his life for the past three years.

“The reason I’m the envy of people,” he says, “is because of my pecs and bench-pressing.”

He laughs, realizing the self-deprecating humor fails to cover up the pure excitement of a man who has written what many critics consider the best biography of music icon Bruce Springsteen.

“Bruce” went on sale in early November and, by Nov. 18, it had landed on The New York Times bestseller list.

Like many famous musicians, Springsteen doesn’t just share his story with anyone. Carlin, a former features writer for The Oregonian, stayed patient and worked it, interviewing anybody and everybody who had been part of Springsteen’s life, from toddler to titanic legend at age 63.

And, he worked it some more, eventually getting the seal of approval to do the full authorized biography of “The Boss.”

What made researching and writing the book enjoyable was the fact that Springsteen, and his longtime agent Jon Landau, wanted the full truth and only the truth in the book, Carlin says.

Springsteen made suggestions, but told Carlin to write what he wanted to write.

It was like winning the lottery, writer-style.

“One of the main things they valued was my independence,” says Carlin, 49, a Seattle native who attended Lewis & Clark College and also served as a senior writer for “People” magazine. “They did not want it to look like an inside job. They were very consistent, they expected no influence in what was going to be in the book.

“That continued up to the point where I shared some of the chapters with Bruce, and eventually the manuscript before the final form. I did it largely for fact-check reasons, and he repeated again and again, he didn’t expect me to make every change that he asked for. If anything was factually wrong, he’d let me know; if he had a different interpretation, he’d let me know.

“One serious request he made, he said very specifically on the phone, if there was anything found along the way that I didn’t want to use because he thought it would make him uncomfortable, he said, ‘Put it in.’ I quoted him the three worst things people had said about him, in each instance he said, ‘Put it in.’ ”

Tribute to honesty

Portland will be center stage for a Bruce fest next week. The Boss Man himself plays with the E Street Band at the Rose Garden on Nov. 28. The night before, “Bruce — A Musical Celebration of Bruce Springsteen and Peter Ames Carlin’s New Biography” takes place, 8 p.m. Nov. 27 at Mississippi Studios, 3939 N. Mississippi Ave.

Reviews have been terrific for “Bruce,” and Carlin has been humbled by the feedback.

“It was a labor of love to the extent that it was a tribute to Bruce,” says Carlin, who had previously penned biographies of the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson and (unauthorized) Paul McCartney. “I knew the sort of tribute he deserved was honesty. The only way I could really honor his work was to be as honest and unsparing as he is, to acknowledge but to understand the darkness, and make the connection between the darkness and horror and beauty of what he does.”

Carlin talked with about 150 people for the book — friends, band mates, relatives, etc. — including longtime saxophone player Clarence Clemons, before he passed away, for about 18 months before concentrating on Springsteen interviews.

Carlin spent hours interviewing Springsteen, both in person — back in his native New Jersey, in the recording studio, on the road — and on the phone. Carlin’s own self-admitted “fan boy” attitude left him and journalist took over.

Clearly cooperative, Springsteen told him of an early childhood trauma of being split between loving grandparents and his parents, mental illness in his family and the use of anti-depressants for the past 10 years. Carlin witnessed and wrote about an unappealing tantrum by “The Boss” during the first stop on the current “Wrecking Ball” that made him look like an (expletive); Carlin wrote about it, and his subject and his agent stayed silent about it.

“Bruce knows that’s who he is,” Carlin says. “He’s also a nice guy, and a great artist.”

Weakness for mythology

A large emphasis in the book was Springsteen’s upbringing, and the “darkness” that has followed him throughout his life, stemming from the “psychological scariness and twisted” childhood. His parents and grandparents lived together. He became attached to his grandparents, who didn’t want him to go to school.

“They were working people, not intellectual people, and a little crazy,” Carlin says.

“When his mom insisted they finally leave, he was devastated, being taken away from his primary caregivers. ... He was treated like a god by his grandparents.”

Springsteen struggled to break free from the cycle of mental illness within his family, throughout his career, which eventually led to him to start

taking anti-depressants after the “Rising Tour” in 2003.

“His pattern was to fall apart after tour,” Carlin says. “He’d do an album, do a one- or two-year tour, with all the emotion and energy that goes into putting on shows. Then, suddenly all that structure and work and energy vanishes from his life, to the point where he’d look around and have an existential hit.

“Taking anti-depressants, then, coincided with a sudden eruption of new work. He had always wrote and recorded tons of stuff, but stopped short of releasing it. Now, it was way more diverse and creative. ... He put out back-to-back E Street albums and tours, a solo album, a solo tour. He worked nonstop for years. All that happened after he started taking anti-depressants.”

Springsteen became comfortable with Carlin, who would go on to interview intimate family members — a sister, his mom, an aunt. Carlin says Springsteen wanted the full account of his life told with “his mother’s generation aging. ... What I kind of gleaned from that was he felt this heavy responsibility, the early stuff about Bruce’s family, father, grandparents, previous generations, he wanted something recorded before stories faded away. I felt a sense of responsibility.”

Carlin realized that Springsteen was influenced by “angers and demons,” but thoroughly enjoyed the man’s company.

“Very warm and charismatic. Very focused,” Carlin says. “He can be evasive, and has a weakness for mythology. If he fictionalized something to a degree, he’d say, ‘This is my experience, that is my experience.’ He was telling emotional truths.”

When Carlin met with Clemons for two days in March 2011, “he was very hobbled at the time,” Carlin says. “He had just had a back or knee operation again. He had a lot of parts taken in and out. He was going to physical therapy twice a day. He looked very tired, difficult for him to move around. His eyes were very bright, he was exceptionally intelligent and sensitive, very funny, larger-than-life character.”

Clemons died June 18, 2011, of complications from a stroke.

Dark days

Carlin writes about Springsteen’s affinity for songwriting, from “Born To Run” to “Nebraska” (the most autobiographical album he ever made, Carlin says) to “Born in the U.S.A” to his 17th album, “Wrecking Ball.” He has sold 120 million albums worldwide, and taken home 20 Grammy Awards.

Songs center around New Jersey, heartland rock, poetic lyrics and American sentiments, but one song, Carlin says, typifies the approach Springsteen has taken in songwriting: “Ghost of Tom Joad,” about Mexican immigrants fighting for survival.

“He knew how it felt to be from the edge of existence,” Carlin says.

“Born in the U.S.A.” became Springsteen’s biggest visible pop album, but “if you listen to the album, it sounds like a pop record, they sound like party songs, but they are dark and grim.”

Springsteen’s concerts are legendary. He has toured extensively and exhibited such energy and endurance on stage, fans go crazy for him. It isn’t unheard of for Bruce to play four-hour shows. Carlin does write that Springsteen has such energy, because he doesn’t do recreational drugs and drinks “like a normal person.”

“It’s how he’s wired,” Carlin says, of the long shows. “Early in his life, he had nowhere else to go. It was the only healthy thing happening in his life, making music and playing on stage. He’d hang on, desperately.”

Springsteen was briefly married in the early 1980s to Julianne Phillips of Lake Oswego. He later married bandmate Patti Scialfa.

“Bruce is very much a family person,” Carlin says.

Carlin writes about it all, the first writer to pen a Springsteen book with the star’s permission in 25 years.

“You move past 60, you’ve been doing your job, been a public figure for 40 years, created this body of work you’re proud but that has also been misinterpreted ...,” Carlin says. “My impression was (Bruce and Landau) were interested that the legacy was not to be misinterpreted. That it would not get out of control. And, I represented somebody who came in peace with an honest portrayal, rather than to muckrake.”