Bruce: The Innocence, The Darkness, and the Rising (Book Review)

This piece is part of the What’s in a Name Reading Challenge, where readers pick six books based on six different categories. They then read those books and write about them. Simple, right? Best of all, it’s not too late to join. More information on the challenge can be found at Beth Fish Reads, who is hosting it for the year. In this piece, I reflect upon Peter Ames Carlin’s biography of Bruce Springsteen entitled Bruce: The Innocence, The Darkness, and the Rising.

1. When the Big Man Joined the Band

Tenth Avenue Freeze Out is one of Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band’s signature tunes, yet it’s meaning remains unclear to many fans. The Boss himself seems unable to pinpoint the precise meaning of the title. No matter. Roy Bittan’s piano, the brightly upbeat horn-section, Clarence Clemons’ raging saxophone, and a chorus tailor-made for a singalong, are really enough to secure the song’s status as a piece of musical brilliance.

The lyrics, more  cryptic than we’re used to from a man who thrives on storytelling that’s powerful in its simplicity, serve as a creation myth for the E-Street band. It begins with our hero, Bad Scooter, obviously a stand-in for Springsteen himself, “searching for his groove.”

Like many creation myths, the initial setting is chaos –  “I’m stranded in the jungle, Taking all the heat they was giving,” – and it’s not quite clear what’s going on – “From a tenement window a transistor blasts, Turn around the corner things got quiet real fast, She hit me with a Tenth Avenue freeze out.” It makes some, but not total sense.

Following the typical arc of a creation story, something beautiful emerges from the chaos. Here, there’s no ambiguity and every devotee of the E-Street band knows exactly of what Bruce speaks when he declares that “…the change was made uptown, And the Big Man joined the band.” The congregation knows to testify when Bruce proclaims “I’m gonna sit back right easy and laugh, When Scooter and the Big Man bust this city in half.”

We know exactly who the Big Man is. Clarence Clemons, the formally trained saxophonist who completes Thunder Road and Jungleland and Bruce’s perfect companion on stage. After Clemons left us in 2011, the climax of Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out literally gives us pause to remember. When played live, just after the line about the Big Man joining the band, the music stops entirely as a silent montage of footage of Clemons playing with the band is shown.

I saw this happen in the summer of 2012 at the Rogers Centre in Toronto, which was the first time I’d seen the place packed since the early 90s when the Blue Jays dominated the MLB. It could have lasted a few seconds or a minute. I can’t quite recall, though Wikipedia claims that these pauses last several minutes.What matters is that the crowd erupted the whole way through, as reverent toward the Big Man as they were to Bruce himself when he first stepped on stage that night.

Clemons was not just a sideman or background figure. His presence was and still is, in the form of recordings, integral to the E-Street experience, just as much as Bruce’s poetry, Steven Van Zandt’s licks, or Max Weinberg’s thundering drums.

The montage ends and the song continues.

2. It’s Hard to be a Saint in the Music Industry

Peter Ames Carlin’s Bruce: The Innocence, The Darkness, and the Rising, is about exactly what it’s title indicates: Bruce. It’s the story of the boy from Freehold, New Jersey who grew up to be the Boss. Pulling together accounts of bandmates, current and former, family members, and friends, it’s the story of the entirely self-taught and relentlessly determined rocker who got his first guitar at 13.

The trajectory is not so distinct from most rock n’roll stories, except that it has a happy ending. Bruce seems destined for stardom, born to carry the burden of being rock’s next great hope or the next Bob Dylan. When producer Mike Appel hears Bruce play in New York, he knew he has something and is eager to sign the young singer-songwriter, who had for years been honing his craft on the Asbury Park scene. Carlin writes,

Now that he had Bruce Springsteen in his life, Appel threw everything else away. His job, his health benefits, the financial security he’d built for his wife, Jo Anne, and their two small children, James and Germaine. “Mike had a total devotion for Bruce Springsteen,” says Peter Philbin…”I’ve never seen a manager as dedicated as Mike. He had complete belief in him. And he should be saluted for that (pp.114).”

Even the legendary Clive Davis is floored by Springsteen’s songwriting prowess. Carlin quotes Davis and describes his reaction,

“The subjects he was writing about, the poetry that made up his work, was very different from Dylan,” he says. When it was over, Davis told Hammond [Columbia Records talent scout John Hammond] to sign young Mr. Springsteen to Columbia Records as quickly as possible (pp.123).

Springsteen’s genius is at the centre of Carlin’s book, but it’s by no means unabashed worship. Springsteen’s anger, in early relationships and toward the trappings of fame, are dealt with in detail. In places, Bruce comes across as something of a control-freak, always at the creative centre of the E-Street Band’s output. When inclined to cut the band loose to pursue more experimental and alternative sounds in the middle stages of his career, he doesn’t hesitate to do so.

Parallel to the story of his rise to otherworldly stardom is the story of an artist at heart, desperate to create work that he would feel proud to call his own. Such a singular focus, such powerful ambition, must have its consequences. Not every venture is a commercial success, not every move is predictable, and frustration is felt by both the artist and those around him. It’s this relentless determination and devotion to his craft, however, that takes Bruce from high school auditoriums in Freehold to stadiums and arenas across continents. The turmoil of an artist and Bruce’s struggle with it is the story of his success.

3. More than Bruce

Another question is dealt with in a more subtle manner in this book, namely why Bruce’s music is so damn powerful. Why is it that there is something in the music of Bruce and the E-Street Band for everyone? How is it that on that night at the Rogers Centre, a kid in his early twenties of Caribbean descent could be moved by the same music that moved the white folks in their 4os and 50s in nearby seats and the Asian couple directly in front of me?

After reading Carlin’s biography, and savouring the music as I have done for so many years, I believe that understanding the power of this music goes beyond Bruce himself. Bruce is one man at the centre of an entire world that comes together in his voice.

For every single person, I idealistically choose to believe, there is a story in a Springsteen song that is their own story. The desire to escape (Born to Run), the pain of working for next to nothing and seeing the American Dream dissolve (Adam Raised a Cain), giving up the past (Glory Days), and fickle teenage hormones (I’m On Fire). If you’ve felt it, Bruce has written about it.

It seemed to be in Bruce’s nature to see the harsh realities of the world around him and give voice to the struggles of those like his father, fighting to maintain steady work, and his sister, pregnant and married before 20. Carlin writes:

Raised to view the American story through the eyes of the downtrodden, Bruce could connect his parents’ struggles with the larger dynamics of a country prone to forget its most vulnerable citizens. To be a Springsteen in Freehold meant knowing all about vulnerability and the taste of the ashes scattered upon the people who couldn’t summon the power to fight for themselves (pp. 296).

Just as he pulls together so many different stories, so does Bruce’s music pull together so many different genres. The E-Street Band is too an equal partner in the music. The greatest triumphs of the E-Street Band are eclectic and stamped with the immense talents and distinct styles of its members.

Jungleland, to take an obvious example, is a mish-mash of Bruce’s raw storytelling, Roy Bittan’s delicate piano, the perfectly timed drumming of child prodigy Max Weinberg, playing at weddings since the age of six and who had never heard Bruce play before his audition for the E-Street Band, and of course the perfectly timed entry of the Big Man’s sax four minutes in, evoking more R&B than rock. Carlin writes of Clemons, as a musician and presence, that his “…steps shook the stage while his glittering tenor sax connected the histories of rock, R&B, jazz, and gospel music to the promise of next Saturday night (pp. 139).

It’s seamless, though, and anyone who has ever fall in love with this music knows that it’s not just the drums, it’s Max Weinberg’s drumming, or just a sax solo, it’s Clemons’ sax solo. The E-Street band is a whole comprised of glorious parts, each bringing to the table something distinct and invaluable, something irrevocably connected to the religious experience of the music.

This is why when the point in the show comes for Bruce to shout “ROLL CALL!” and introduce every member of the band, it’s a celebration of all the parts of this whole. It’s why though he is gone, we can still pause for minutes to praise the Big Man, because his presence is forever imprinted on our experience of the music.

The E-Street Band is more than just Bruce as very quick hints of Carlin’s book reveals. The music too finds its power in the reality that it reflects. The E-Street Band is a world unto itself, made up of stories and several otherworldly talents that come together to out of the chaos of a Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out to create a voice for everyone who has loved, lost, and most importantly, hoped.

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