A great biography brings its subject to new life for the reader. Peter Ames Carlin’s 474-page “Bruce” (Springsteen) is not a great biography. Carlin’s source listing consists largely of other published works and previously released videos (which explains why so many of its quotes are familiar.) In his (seemingly) scant interviews he appears overawed by the privilege of speaking to his subject. Even those hoping for a career overview are shortchanged, considering that while Carlin devotes almost 100 pages to the making of albums Born to Run and Darkness on the Edge of Town, he compresses what is arguably the most interesting phase of Springsteen’s professional life (2005-2011, which produced five albums of new material and accompanying tours) into just over 40 pages, 6 of which focus on Carlin’s visit with saxophonist Clarence Clemons. (Carlin was clearly affected by Clemons’ death, and one can understand why he included the lengthy homage, but it takes focus away from the book’s subject. An editor might have helped to reshape the content.)
Those who find Dave Marsh’s Springsteen books mushy and pandering won’t love Carlin’s work either. Both authors are unabashed in their advocacy, with Carlin making extensive use of footnotes to swipe at naysaying Springsteen critics. Carlin doesn’t have a compelling critical voice himself, which is particularly unfortunate when he makes weak attempts to psychoanalyze Springsteen’s work. Nor is Carlin an interesting writer – the book has the misfortune of following David Remnick’s revelatory 16,000-word essay in the July 30, 2012 New Yorker. Compared to that piece, Carlin’s work comes across as a series of notecards sequenced together.
However, Carlin closes the book with a lovely image that one wishes had pervaded the rest of the work. It’s a brief story of the 18 year-old Springsteen tossing a ball with his 6 year-old sister. The final image of his throwing a ball so high into the sky that it never came down is just about perfect; that it’s probably apocryphal doesn’t need stating, and the author wisely doesn’t.