Let’s get this out of the way right off the bat: Peter Ames Carlin is no Albert Goldman. Unlike the late slash-and-burn biographer who drew brickbats for his controversial books on Elvis Presley and John Lennon, Carlin – whose new Bruce Springsteen biography “Bruce” is a New York Times bestseller – is actually a fan of his subject.
In an extensive interview, Carlin talked to us about how he balanced his inner fanboy with his outward journalist, why Springsteen chose to work with him on “Bruce,” and how he approached his attempt to capture the man behind the myth.
Blogness: Tell me if I’m wrong, but your interest in Springsteen isn’t entirely journalistic – you’re a fan too, right?
Carlin: Oh yeah, totally. It sort of came on a bunch of different levels for me, my ambition to write a book about Bruce. Because on the one hand I’d been a fan going back to 1978 when I saw this show in Seattle, at the Seattle Center Arena, right at the end of the Darkness tour. And that just knocked me sideways – I had this vague idea that this guy was good in concert, but then that was really something special.
And I just followed his work ever since. I felt like I connected with it, and that what he was saying at the time about whatever was happening in his life or his sense of the world, which had very little to do with my life or my sense of the world, still, you know, those feelings, sort of the internal drive to it – I felt like it made sense, it felt real to me and honest and passionate. So I could never figure out a reason that I should change my tastes. It always meant something to me.
And then as I went to college and became a writer, and started looking at the world and certainly at the culture in a different, I guess in a more sophisticated way, and began to see connections to the other voices of the moment that Bruce admired – like Woody Guthrie and Steinbeck and Stephen Foster and those guys – I just thought, well, this is fascinating. And Bruce as a character is obviously a fascinating guy. Just as a symbol and as a human and as somebody who has become such an arbiter of American ideas and ideals.
So it just turned into one of those kind of passion projects, I guess, where I felt this sense of responsibility, maybe mostly to myself, to do as good a job on this as I could possibly do. That there was an important story here … I’d yet to find an analysis or a story about the guy that struck me as really what I felt needed to be said. And then as a writer, a professional, you have the arrogance to think, “Well, maybe I’m the guy who can do that.” And then from there, you move forward.
Blogness: When you started this project you had no idea that Springsteen would be willing to participate personally, or give you access to his inner circle like he did. After all these years of not participating in projects like this, why do you think he chose to now, with this one?
Carlin: I know what it was, because I talked to Jon Landau about it a few times. First of all, let’s talk about good timing and good luck – that I came around right at the time when he began thinking that maybe it might be a good idea to cooperate with somebody, or the idea of allowing a biographer to come in and do a book was less repellant than ever before, let’s put it that way.
It seemed like a big part of the charm for them was that I was independent, and that they didn’t have to worry that people were going to say, oh, this was an inside, in-house job, that these guys dictated this to him to some degree. And the fact that I had spent a year and a half doing so much research, Jon said that was a big deal for him and Bruce – that I was being super thorough and not just pulling clips and spouting off.
Which was fortunate – this was the lucky part – because the way I was pursuing it was absolutely the way I wanted to pursue it – you know, a heavily reported, old-style biography where I could go back and talk to his kindergarten buddies. So these things kind of came together, and when Jon called in the beginning of 2011, it seemed at that point he had read my earlier books, and then he told me subsequently that the amount of work I’d put in to it had impressed Bruce. Jon remembered Bruce saying, “This guy’s put so much work and time into this, I’ve got to honor his labors.”
Blogness: That’s such a Bruce thing to say.
Carlin: Yeah, isn’t it though? Isn’t it? It’s like, “How do I slap this guy in the face?” So it took him a long time to get around to it, but when we finally talked it he was totally committed.
Blogness: So having been a fan for such a long time, while you were talking to Springsteen for the book, how did you balance the need for journalistic objectivity with the feeling that, “Oh my God, I’m talking to Bruce Springsteen!”
Carlin: Well, by the time we got the point where he and I were talking, or meeting or whatever, the fanboy who was always there in the background somewhere, he was kind of tied to a chair – that guy could not really get in the way, because I had so put so much work into and had so much riding on the book, and my professional obligations. So at that point I didn’t have the bandwith to get star-struck – I had to focus everything I had on just being with the guy and trying not only to have the conversation and track it on a variety of levels, but also try to absorb kind of the vibe around him or coming from him and set that into the story, or try to draw out something that was thematic about it.
And so to the extent that it was nervous-making, it was because I didn’t want to blow it! As a professional thing, I didn’t want to say stuff that would necessarily make him think he was talking to a fan, because when that screen comes up my sense is that you don’t get a really close look at the guy.
I mean there were clearly times when, if we were having a drink or something and things had kind of boiled down a bit and we were just chatting, sometimes I’d bust out one of those stories about how his work and my life had somehow intersected. And sometimes he seemed to get a kick out of it and sometimes he seemed be like sort of “Sure, fine, whatever” – “Well that’s nice, but we don’t need to go into much more depth.” [laughs]
But I think he does get something out of people telling him that stuff, because it reaffirms his sense that his work touches people.
Tomorrow: Carlin on some uncomfortable Springsteen moments, his favorite album, and … a sequel?
NOTE: Peter Ames Carlin will be conducting a Q&A at the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland on Tuesday evening, Dec. 5. He’ll be reading and signing books at the Oregon History Museum in Portland at 6:30 p.m. on Dec. 10, and on Dec. 13 will talk about Springsteen at the East Bend Public Library in Bend, Ore., starting at 6:30. For more information, visit peteramescarlin.com.