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Springsteen is tougher than the rest

WILL HERMES, San Francisco Chronicle

Publication: The Day

Published December 23. 2012 4:00AM

The record industry may be in serious decline, and more musicians may have to reckon with AARP status, but rock-star bios and memoirs show no evidence of slowing down.

''Bruce," by People magazine writer-turned-biographer Peter Ames Carlin, is just one of three major new books on New Jersey's rock 'n' roll savior - the others are "Bruce Springsteen and the Promise of Rock 'n' Roll," by Marc Dolan, and the forthcoming "E Street Shuffle: The Glory Days of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band," by Clinton Heylin.

Written with Springsteen's cooperation, Carlin's deeply researched, nearly 500-page brick aims to supplant Dave Marsh's two-volume semi-inside job ("Born to Run" and "Glory Days") as the singer-songwriter's definitive biography, updating and fleshing out an astonishing cultural story and illuminating a remarkably private personal life.

It's hardly "The Power Broker," but "Bruce" profiles a hugely talented and furiously driven human being who uses antidepressants and is not free of character flaws. Who knew, for instance, that the Boss could be a lousy boss?

Carlin is good with family roots, which he traces back to Casper, Geertje and their son Joosten Springsteen, a Dutch clan that launched the lineage in 1652. In a scene that opens the book, Bruce's paternal grandparents, Fred and Alice, lose a young daughter, a death that will cast a shadow over their grandson.

Looming largest among the elders is Bruce's father, Doug, a troubled, disapproving figure (and eventual song subject) who drinks alone at the kitchen table, waiting for his wayward son to return home at night. Images stick: The young Springsteen rummaging through garbage cans with his grandfather for old radios to repair, and decades later, as grown man and superstar, sitting uncomfortably on his chastened dad's lap backstage after a show.

But music making is the narrative meat. Carlin goes deep into Springsteen's formative years with the bands Child and Steel Mill, when he was a hippie-style guitar hero interested in Allman Brothers-style jamming and prog-rock sprawl. Bruce Springsteen is shown inventing "Bruce Springsteen" in fits and starts. In one scene, an outdoor Steel Mill show is shut down in 1970 by New Jersey cops in riot gear, a firsthand lesson in the limitations of revolutionary-chic pop that Carlin posits as a turning point for the 20-year-old rocker.

The legendary early derring-do of Springsteen and his E Street Band gets richly reprised: the singer-songwriter's signing by industry vets John Hammond and Clive Davis, the epic shows, and the pivotal bromance with critic-turned-manager Jon Landau.

In most bios, Springsteen's previous manager Mike Appel is merely a fast-talking hothead who signs him to breathtakingly unfair contracts. In an impressive bit of revisionism, Appel gets his due here as a wildly devoted if flawed champion who helped the singer reach his first plateau of mass popularity.

Business apparently isn't Springsteen's strong suit. He laid off the E Street Band in late 1989 to pursue other musical paths, a mishandled event Carlin shows from various points of view.

"My whole life dedicated to this band," said sax man Clarence Clemons, who was interviewed before his death last year, "and I get a f-- phone call?"

E Street voices provide many of the book's choicest moments. Clemons again, on a 1988 Amnesty International show in Africa: "It was the first time I ever saw more than one black person at Bruce's concerts. ... I was like, Wow! Purple trees and no white people! This must be heaven!"

There's little on Springsteen's relationship with wife-bandmate Patti Scialfa or ex-wife Julianne Phillips. Others provide romantic character witness, mostly positive. But it's testament to the potency of Springsteen's persona that to hear he slapped a girlfriend once during an argument, and publicly humiliated another (photographer Lynn Goldsmith) onstage, is kind of shocking.

Mainly chronicling uneven solo recordings, the '90s section lags. But things pick up after 9/11, when Springsteen re-emerges as a politicized entertainer-cum-cultural-worker with scant precedent, stumping for presidential candidates and ministering to a huge fan base. Perhaps the artist's most fascinating era, it flies by too fast here, rushing into the present and the astonishing 2012 "Wrecking Ball" tour.

Carlin deserves applause for the most complete Bruce bio to date. But Springsteen is still on fire at age 63; his story, clearly, isn't over yet.

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