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October 31, 2013

Book Notes - Peter Ames Carlin "Bruce"

Bruce

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Peter Ames Carlin's book Bruce is an exhaustively researched and engaging portrait of Bruce Springsteen, one that the music legend himself contributed to.

The Boston Globe wrote of the book:

"Do we need another Springsteen biography? The answer, here, is yes, thanks in large part to Carlin’s tireless reporting, which helps straighten out some of the lore-laden stories of Springsteen’s early years in New Jersey, and further illuminates his later struggles with depression.”"

In his own words, here is Peter Ames Carlin's Book Notes music playlist for his book, Bruce:


I listened to a ton of music while working on the book – not all of them by Bruce Springsteen, of course. The work of Brian Wilson (with and without the Beach Boys), Gaslight Anthem, Wilco and a score of alt-country bands touched on ideas and feelings that resonated with my sense of the work.

But when the book was finished I put together this quasi-soundtrack on my iTunes so I'd have something special to give to friends and family, and also to accompany books I donated to charity auctions and such. I thought it would be cool to build the list out of rare live recordings, outtakes and other rarities, so nothing here is available in wide release. Each of these songs connect to particular stories, eras and/or performances that figure in the narrative. They're sort of chronological, but not entirely.

"Randolph Street" – This is a guitar-and-voice publishing demo from 1972 or thereabouts of a song Bruce wrote about his early childhood, when his family lived with his paternal grandparents, Fred and Alice Springsteen. They were eccentric people and their house (which had been in the family since the 1860s) was physically crumbling and haunted by decades of tragedy and sorrow. But Bruce's grandparents loved him desperately, and years later he realized that this first real home – torn down in the mid-1960s -- had been his favorite place in the world.

"Goin' Back to Georgia" - A 1970 performance by his early band, Steel Mill. At this point the band included future E Street Band members Steve Van Zandt, Vini Lopez and Danny Federici, all of whom were deeply influenced by southern rock and particularly the Allman Brothers. This is flat-out rock ‘n' roll, with meaty power chords and the sort of piercing, nimble-fingered guitar solos that earned Bruce his first acclaim as the best lead guitar player between Virginia and New Jersey.

"You Mean So Much To Me" – A 1971 live recording of the r&b rave-up Bruce for his next group, a rock/soul orchestra known as the Bruce Springsteen Band. Packed with singers, a horn section, a percussionist, two guitarists, a keyboardist and rhythm section, the band launches this straight into the Van Morrison/Joe Cocker zone, although you can still hear the influence of the Allmans in the long two-way guitar solo Bruce plays with Van Zandt mirroring his every move in parallel fifths.

"If I Was the Priest" – Another publishing demo from 1972 or thereabouts of the song Bruce played when Columbia Records a&r man John Hammond asked him, in mid-audition, to play a song he'd never perform live. True to his word, Bruce never performed, or even made a proper recording of the piano-based song, which presents Jesus, Mary Magdalene and friends as residents of a corrupt and bloody frontier town. Which is a shame because it's one of Bruce's most breathtaking early songs, and perhaps his best-ever takedown of Catholicism; a very common theme for him in those days.

"10th Avenue Freeze-Out" – A great song no matter what, but this New Year's Eve, 1975 performance in Philadelphia's Tower Theater is truly one-of-a-kind: A dreamy arrangement that starts the Born to Run cornerstone at a whisper and builds to a sweet, swaying slow dance.

"Does This Bus Stop at 82nd Street?" – Also from the 1975 New Year's Eve show, an excellent rendition of the Greetings From Asbury Park, New Jersey tune in its souped-up live arrangement. If he's riding the bus in the recorded version, this one sounds a lot more like a roller coaster, particularly when he caps the final line – "Uptown in Harlem she throws a rose to some lucky young matador" – with a joyous, "And that's me!" as the band charges after sax player Clarence Clemons into another go-round of the verse. Hang on tight.

"Thunder Road" – A studio outtake from BTR from the brief moment when Springsteen considered book-ending the album with two versions of the song. This would have been the album-closing version of the song, a solo acoustic performance with a pared down melody, different chords and alternate lyrics that change Mary to Christine and describe the desperation beneath the bravado: "Well, I tried hard Christine to understand/I'm riding out tonight to case the promised land/Baby, if you're born with nothin' in your hands/Heyl, it's your only chance." By the time he gets to the "It's a town full of losers" line it sounds more like a sigh than a declaration.

"Mona/Preacher's Daughter/She's the One" – A powerful triptych recorded at the famous Winterland concert in December, 1978. "Preacher's Daughter" builds off the "Mona" chords to detail a love affair passionate enough to edge toward violence, as symbolized in a stumbled-upon fistfight ("There's two boys bloody, over what I don't know/And the little girls shoutin', ‘Go, Billy, go!'") echoed in an extended coda to "She's The One" that describes the narrator's jealousy when he spies his ex-girlfriend with another man. "I get MAD!" he shouts repeatedly, comparing his rage to two-fisted icons from Al Capone to Popeye. How mad? "Sometimes I get so mad I just. . .I just. . . .I just. . ." the music stops as he sputters into the microphone. ". . .I feel like if I don't I'm gonna. . .I just feel like I gotta. . .cause if I don't I just. . ." – longer pause, as if he's contemplating a beating or even worse. Only to end in an exasperated shrug: "I just don't know." The band erupts, Springsteen's guitar roars and all that love, heartbreak and frustration erupts into the air. And right there you can hear a whole lot of what anyone needs to know about the passion, rage, humor and humanity in Springsteen's performances.

"Delivery Man" – A darkly hilarious outtake from the early ‘80s. A rockabilly confessional from a chicken truck driver who loses control and dumps his load all over the highway and can only watch as the birds sprint headlong into commuter traffic. "In five minutes it was all over/except for the flowers."

"Ritchfield Whistle" – An acoustic outtake from the early ‘80s sung in the voice of a well-meaning ex-con who tries, and fails, to live the straight life. But just as desperation steers him to the point of no return a glimmer of humanity pulls him back into the world.

"Follow that Dream" – From the mid-80s, a cover of the Elvis Presley movie song of the same name. Only Springsteen has rewritten the song practically from top to bottom, using Elvis's ghostly presence as a symbol of dreams surrendered and dreams reborn. Sweet, elegiac and yearning.

"Soul Driver" - Recorded at the Christic Institute benefit concert in 1990 an impassioned solo performance premieres a tune that would turn up on the sleekly recorded "Human Touch" album in 1992. Here Springsteen draws out the passion in held notes and gut-deep singing.

"In Freehold" – A folk style story-song about the good and bad times Springsteen had growing up in the blue collar industrial suburb of Freehold, NJ. The recording I like the best comes from a 1996 benefit show he played to raise money for his old Catholic elementary school's scholarship fund. It was a very intimate hometown show – tickets and entry were available only to people whose i.d. showed a Freehold address – and Springsteen wrote the song specifically for the occasion (though he has reprised it every so often since then). His emotions run high throughout – he's standing in his old, and much loathed, school's auditorium, which is just around the corner from the Springsteens' Randolph Street home. The relatively tiny audience includes virtually all of the song's characters, families and friends, along with his own mother, sister, aunts and cousins. And yet Springsteen's memories are as bitter as they are sweet, recalling his father's troubles, the cruelty his sister faced when she got pregnant at 17, and his own painful adolescence before finally reclaiming his place in the community: "Well, I left and swore I'd never walk these streets again, Jack/Now all I can say is, holy shit, I'm back. . ./It's one hell of a town, in Freehold."

Peter Ames Carlin and Bruce links:

the author's website
the author's Wikipedia entry
excerpt from the book
excerpt from the book

Boston Globe review
Daily Express review
Entertainment Weekly review
Guardian review
The Millions review
Open Letters Monthly review
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette review
San Francisco Chronicle review
USA Today review

Portland Monthly interview with the author


also at Largehearted Boy:

Book Notes (2012 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from the week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists


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