Written by: Paul Gleason
Peter Ames Carlin is one of our best rock biographers. Period. Enough said.
Carlin’s biographies of Brian Wilson, Paul McCartney, and Bruce Springsteen not only provide a compelling analysis of the life and works of their subjects but also excel at giving readers insight into their personalities.
Carlin’s most recent—and best—biography to date is Bruce, which came out in paperback on September 17, 2013. Without question, Bruce is the best biography ever written about one of America’s greatest songwriters and performers.
Carlin sat down for a long and extremely enjoyable chat about all things Bruce, which covers everything from car songs, the introspective elements of the Nebraska and Tunnel of Love albums, Carlin’s own adventures with Springsteen at a New Jersey pizza place, and the making of the Born in the U.S.A. album. Surprises abound in this wide-ranging interview.
Stereo Embers: Why have you chosen Brian Wilson, Paul McCartney, and Bruce Springsteen to be the subjects of your biographies?
PAC: Largely because they’re artists whose work I’ve known and really admired throughout most of my life. All of them go back to childhood for me—especially Paul and Brian. So just to be able to spend that much time and get that deep into their lives and work and really getting to understand who they are was a great privilege.
Also, it creates a really cool professional challenge, which is to get into or get deeper into something that is beyond the fan level—to get into the texture and deeper into the background into what the work means and where it came from, and what was really happening.
And I got to write from a really critical, journalistic perspective—way far beyond the traditionalist kind of “Well, I love your work” feeling about stuff.
SE: Does it help or hurt to be a fan of the artist whose biography you’re writing?
PAC: I think it helps to a certain degree, especially in the way I tend to write. The last thing I want to do is write fan non-fiction and be unquestioning or not challenging to some degree—to give them a pass on everything, especially if they sort of sell out a philosophy of their art and expand it to make more money or TV things, then I think it’s fair game to really go after someone and call them on that kind of bullshit.
The thing I really try not to do is to dig into people’s private lives and find out all the shameful things they’ve done and tear them apart.
But your original question had to do with being a fan. To me it helps because my motivation when I get into a book is to feel really strongly about this artist’s work in terms of what its significance is and what its place is in society or pop culture. To do that, I really want to come from a sense of comprehending it on several levels at once and deepening that and give dimension to readers’ perspectives.
SE: What I think you do well in all three books—and particularly in Bruce—is that you really give a sense of Springsteen’s personality. So I was hoping you could tell me about your personal experience of Springsteen. What was the first song that you remember hearing and relating to on a deep level?
PAC: Well, the first song I remember hearing was “Born to Run,” which was in 1975, right after the hype began. I was a little kid, maybe 13 or 12 at the time, and I was on a Boy Scout hike or something, in the car driving home, and it came on the AM radio in Seattle. And this guy was like, “Supposedly this is the new rock and roll hero. See what you think.”
I hadn’t heard music like that before. It didn’t sound like the other stuff in the Top 40. And “Bruce” sounded like a really weird name, and “Springsteen” I couldn’t even really wrap my mind around! But three years later, when Darkness came out, I was older—15—and understood a little more about pop culture and stuff. Something about that sound of Darkness really blew me away. I think “The Promised Land” really got under my skin.
SE: Let’s talk about that song. What about “The Promised Land” really grabbed you?
PAC: I remember as a kid really connecting with the line, “Mister I ain’t a boy, no, I’m a man.” Obviously, it’s that sort of thing that seems designed to draw your fist up in the air and pump rhythmically in that rock and roll way.
But I think what resonated with me about it—maybe this is just poof now that I’m 50 and want to rationalize my feeling in a sophisticated, intellectual way—is the contrast between “I ain’t a boy, no, I’m a man.” It’s a traditional rock and roll thing—an assertion of independence and power and strength.
But then Bruce says, “And I believe in the promised land.” And I think that’s what sort of really knocked it over for me with that sense of that he wasn’t just a muscle man, pounding my way through all resistance—it also implies a level of uncertainty; the fact that there was a connection to something sort of bigger and more mysterious; that it wasn’t just about the most kick-ass guy at an anonymous bar. It was sense of belief or faith.
I never would have said this when I was 15. You can feel the dust in this guy’s hands. “I’ve done my best to live the right way / I get up every morning and go to work each day.” At 15, you’re just beginning to get a sense of what the adult world might be like. Your parents go off in the morning and come back in the afternoon. It was all abstract to me. But then I got the sense—I mean I was pretty certain that I wasn’t growing up to work in a garage because I’m not smart enough to do those sorts of things—but it was sense of what an adult life might possibly be like.
SE: I picked up Born in the U.S.A. when I was about 10—that record was my first Bruce experience. I totally got into the power of that album. The lyrics in particular to “Downbound Train,” that’s probably my “The Promised Land.” Is there a commonality you find between Springsteen and Brian in terms of their earnestness?
PAC: Yeah. I mean Brian is so guileless; that’s his thing. When he’s in the moment he believes everything he says. What he says is the truth in that moment. It’s very difficult for him when he’s writing well—from the heart—for him not to say exactly what’s on his mind. Bruce is kind of the same way. I think Bruce is way more conscious in what he’s doing. When he starts writing a song about cars, he knows well in advance what the metaphorical implications, or what a car symbolizes. Brian I think is doing it in a more visceral way.
SE: You kind of read my mind. I was going ask about “Racing in the Street” and ask you to compare it to “Don’t Worry, Baby.”
PAC: First off, “Don’t Worry Baby”—that’s a song about a guy’s fear of sex. It’s a really weird kind of—it’s kind of a fun house mirror or circus sideshow of Brian’s mind—the guy’s lack of confidence in that song, the complete absence of faith in himself.
Also, another thing that struck me is the phrasing of those lines: “Oh what she does to me / When she makes love to me.” You just get the sense that he’s kind of submissive; that this woman is this sort of overpowering source.
Brian wrote that with Roger Christian. Whether Roger was aware or they both were aware of how metaphorical the car race was—were they thinking on that level? A lot of those songs, or a significant number of them, had a lot of coded language for other things. Whether Brian was conscious of that I don’t know. He doesn’t seem like that kind of guy.
On the other hand, how do you write all those songs like that unless you have a little bit of a clue? Maybe he was just this unconscious genius but doing it all almost completely by accident. Maybe he’s not even thinking about how this is a literary device; he’s thinking this is the shit I think about.
SE: What about Bruce in “Racing in the Street?” You’re saying he’s aware?
PAC: He’s totally aware. I mean he understands—here’s the amazing thing about Bruce. By the time he got into that Darkness phase, he was reading a lot and talked to Landau for a long time and really started to understand what subtext was. He hadn’t been much of a reader earlier in his life. I think it had to have been Jon who kicked the door open. He liked to hang out with writers in the first place, so I think he must have just absorbed a lot of interesting information from just being around those guys.
“Racing in the Street” is so casual on first listen—okay, this is a song about people and a place. But then the fact the song moves from a 7-Eleven parking lot to a division of sin and redemption. It becomes this journey. It starts in the 7-Eleven parking lot and ends with them washing the sins from their hands.
SE: Would you say it’s the opposite than “Born to Run” in that way? As a car song?’
PAC: No, I think he was playing the same game in “Born to Run,” much more in this shotgun-y way—especially if you go back and check out the early versions of the lyrics. He’s hurling everything at the wall—every image, every idea. But he knows exactly what goes into that. Racing and the cars are metaphorical pursuits. This is how you follow your ambitions when your back is against the wall.
SE: In the book, you talk about Bruce’s introversion quite a bit. To me, introverted songwriters that I admire—Van Morrison—they tend to write about personal feelings a bit more. Bruce rarely does that. He talks more about people and creates characters. What do you think is the impetus behind that for him?
PAC: The thing about Bruce is, on the one hand, how do you call him an introvert when he’s the huge rock star his entire life basically, burning and glowing in the spotlight in front of tens of thousands of people? But that’s a kind of extroversion he’s comfortable with because it’s entirely on his terms and it’s not really that intimate at all—it’s this big, abstract screaming crowd of people that seem to love him unconditionally.
SE: So he’s like Freddie Mercury in that way.
PAC: Well, I guess so. I don’t know much about Freddie Mercury, but I guess that sounds about right.
With Bruce, the other thing to remember is the way that the DNA of the Springsteen family was wrapped together with the DNA of the Zerilli family—his mom’s family. The Springsteens were all spooky and sad and dark and weird—a more troubled family.
The Zerillis were these ass-kicking Italian immigrants that got to New York with European migration in the early-20th century. They came over to take over the world. The grandfather—Bruce’s mom’s dad—got off the boat already knowing English and got himself to college. He graduated after three years, went to law school, and got out of that in two years. He became a successful lawyer pretty quickly. He was a big wheel in his way.
The daughters—including Bruce’s mom—were dancers; they were party people. They weren’t boozers or flappers or anything. They worked their asses off and then partied their asses off at the end of the day.
So that’s half a Bruce, and the other half of Bruce is the bi-polar father and this very strange, haunted legacy or world that he lived in on Randolf Street. When you start tying those things together, you got a really fascinating guy.
SE: What was it like talking to him for the book?
PAC: By the time he really committed himself to talking—which was a good nine months after Jon Landau got in touch and said, “We’re ready to cooperate”—from that point on Jon was my greatest resource because basically anything I wanted he could work out, so I could speak with this person or access part of the archives. The only thing he really couldn’t deliver on his own volition was Bruce. We were sort of going back and forth over it because he knew that it was important for Bruce to talk to me. But then Bruce was kind of going back and forth because he’d never done something like this before. So Bruce started calling people—sometimes repeatedly—to make sure that they knew that it was okay for them to talk to me. Eventually, when he finally decided to get involved, it was really anything I wanted basically—within the limitations of his busy schedule.
SE: When you talked to him was it primarily over the phone or mostly in person?
PAC: Mostly in person. We did some phone stuff towards the end. I went back east in October of 2011 to speak to the family. We got to the point that Bruce sort of intended to do something but never quite got around to doing it—which is not quite uncommon in his life.
But once we were there, we spent like three days together. He played me music in his studio; we ate lunch, had pizza and beer. He’s a really sweet, warm, and fun guy to hang around with because he’s smart and funny. And he likes to talk about rock and roll. I know a lot of those type of guys, and I like to spend my time with them the most.
On the other hand, we were talking about really intense stuff at times, and not all of it was fun for him to rethink about or relive. Or it spurred really dark feelings, and he was not hiding his emotions. He was feeling things.
SE: When you went to meet him in person were you intimidated? Did you have anything prepared or did you let things flow naturally?
PAC: The first meeting we were going to have was an off-the-record, go-have-drinks sort of thing. But I still had some… intimidated….it’s always intense to meet somebody whose work…not only whose work you’ve sort of followed for decades since you were a kid and their music is part of the big soundtrack of your life. On the other hand, I had this huge project I was working on in which the expectations were getting higher and higher. And gaining access to Bruce was a huge deal, and I never knew how long it was going to go on for. The first few times, I just thought this could be the end—I could just get these three hours and then that would be all. It was less than boyish, trembling in my socks but more like my professional obligations of getting it right and getting him to say interesting things to me. That was far more important to me than, “Oh, my god it’s Bruce Springsteen.” It was part of me, but it was locked up behind all these other far more pressing things—I don’t want to fuck up this book, I have to absorb every molecular aspect of this moment so that when we go our separate ways I can sit back and really try and run the thing through the machine.
SE: Let me get this straight. You never knew whether you were going to get invited back for another session with Bruce?
PAC: Well, the first time, there were no promises made when we got together for that drink. But then the next day was the “Okay, we’ll do the formal interview tomorrow.” And that turned into a four-hour conversation. And then we went on to the recording studio after that. So I knew that was my big…I didn’t know what would come after that. But then what came after that was, “Well, okay, let’s do another one tomorrow and whatever other questions you have we can run that through.” We did that, but it was clear that wasn’t going to be it really. Then I began to get the sense…basically he would just say, “Whatever you need.” So in other words, it slowly became clear to me how much cooperation he wanted to give.
SE: Why do you think he resisted giving so much cooperation to earlier biographers?
PAC: Probably for a variety of reasons, having to do where he was in his life at the time and where he was in his career or his sense of himself at the time. I think my timing was accidentally correct. He was really at a point where he was moving into a new chapter—the post Clarence, post Danny chapter—and trying to move into the future and still have a sense that the legacy of his past wasn’t going to be taken out of context. I think he got to a point where it felt like it made sense to have an independent biography that would be focused on the things they were most interested in a book being focused on.
SE: I know that our readers would love a visual of you and Bruce hanging out at a pizza place. Could you provide a picture of what that was like? Were you sitting across from each other? What did you order?
PAC: It was great! We went to this place in Freehold that was just his hometown called Federici’s. That’s like the best pizza place in Freehold and maybe in the country! And the family’s owned it for generations. It was a sort of place your baseball coach would take you after the came. Bruce was in The Castiles as a teenager, and their manager would take the guys there and promptly buy them pizza and soda. It’s just the family place that you would go to. And I think the Springsteens still have family events there. Bruce is in there a lot. On the first day, there was these three guys at the bar and St. Louis was playing the Rangers in the World Series, and they had done some miraculous come from behind thing, and Bruce had stayed up late watching it with his kid, I think, and then been up many hours celebrating because he hates the fucking Rangers with a passion—their whole connection with George W. Bush. I asked him later about how late he’d been up celebrating and asked, “Does any of this have to do with Bush’s connection?” And he said, “Boom!” So we were standing at the bar, and these guys had plowed their way through 98% of a huge pizza, but there was a slice there, and they said, “Hey, Bruce, you gotta have it.” And they were just his old buddies—the neighbors and the kids he went to school with. So they’re there talking baseball or whatever and finally we’re getting ready to go to the place where we’re going to sit and eat. And they go, “Bruce, you got to take this slice. We’re not going to eat it!” And he said, “Oh, you’re tempting me now.” And he snatched it, folded it over and started stuffing it down his gullet.
We sat down, and he said, “You’ve had the pie here right?” And I said, “Oh, yeah.” And he said, “Okay, we’re going to get one.” So we got one, and beer and tequila was asked for and brought. And if you’re drinking with Bruce, you should know that every shot of tequila you order will actually be about three shots of tequila. They love him there. He’s been going there for 40 years.
The most poetic and beautiful moment for me was I had in fact eaten at Federici’s a lot because I’d spent a lot of time in Freehold. And I had been there the previous summer because I brought my family when we were visiting friends and family. I took them down to the shore to show them around Asbury Park and all the Springsteen places like that, and we were eating with another family at Federici’s. So when the owner came up to talk to Bruce in October, Bruce asked, “You ever been here before?” And I said, “Yeah, I was just here a few months ago having dinner.” And the owner goes, “Oh, yeah. You guys were sitting right over there.” He pointed to the table where we had sat. And Bruce was like, “Ooh!” I thought that was a good point-scoring moment. I didn’t need it, but it didn’t hurt. So we just sat there and chatted. It was kind of like one of those job interviews where they’ve pretty much decided to give you the job but this was the opportunity to really fuck it up and say the wrong thing. But he was really warm and sweet. He’s really there and focused. It’s intoxicating because he has all the charisma, and he’s really smart, got a lot of brain power, sees things really clearly—so it was really fun.
Afterwards, it was early evening-late afternoon, and we went back to get our car. And he told me, “Follow me. Don’t go on the main street to get out of town because that’s going to be traffic forever. Just follow me and I’ll take you on the super-secret way out.” It was out of his way just to show me a way to get out of Freehold’s little rush hour. And at one point we got separated and he stopped, picked up his cellphone, and said, “Where’d I lose you?” And he came back to make sure I got off to where I needed to go. It was just very sweet. Everybody told me—the years I’d spent working on the book—that he’s exactly who you think he is. That’s true.
SE: Does the personality match the kind of caring, empathetic lyricist we know?
PAC: Well, sure. But the thing is is that he’s not just caring and empathetic in his songs. Even when he’s singing about characters you can kind of intuit just through what your experiencing, even if it’s not clearly autobiographical, the elements of himself he puts in. So there’s a lot of darkness and a lot of complexity and a lot of anger. All those things are a part of him too. There’s impatience and unguarded stress about things. I kind of expected all that and was not disappointed. There were times when it was more fun to be around him than other times. That’s life with people.
SE: What did you learn the most about his work?
PAC: I think that I really came to understand was how powerful his experience as a little kid was. The whole dynamic between his grandparents and his parents and the dead daughter—his aunt got killed in a tricycle accident when she was five—and exactly how haunted they were, and exactly how strange all those relationships were, and exactly how heavily that weighed—and continues to weigh—on Bruce in a lot of ways. Those are just foundations of his intellectual experience of the world—the sense of his self and relationships. It was a very odd and unstable kind of environment. And a lot of that sense of control—that need for control—springs directly from those very primal, almost pre-verbal type of experiences.
SE: Do you think that he articulates that upbringing the most on Tunnel of Love? You’ve just made me think of a song like “Walk Like a Man.”
PAC: Sure. Well, that song is kind of the brighter side of it. Even in that song, which is a very loving song about his father, he still acknowledges the darkness in that guy’s eyes and the things that went wrong. When he gets to the part where he says, “When I saw your best steps stolen away from you.”
I think that Nebraska is by far the most autobiographical album.
SE: Why is that?
PAC: It’s so haunted and so dark. The characters are so out of control; the world is so out of control. And it’s surrounded by this disconnection and darkness, and that was kind of the worst part of his family experience—how disconnected they were from the rest of society and how strange things can be when you do lose that connection.
SE: So what you’re saying is that the record operates kind of metaphorically. It’s not just about what most critics say: a critique of Reagan in ’82 and the desperation of working class people. It’s about Bruce’s interior life and all of our interior lives.
PAC: Well, I think all of those things resonate. The Reagan stuff resonates, too, because if there’s one thing Bruce understands in a visceral way—having experienced it at a very young age—is the desperation of the working class. His dad’s mental illness meant that he couldn’t really hold jobs. He was kind of hooked to the mom to bring in the steady pay.
It touches on Bruce’s affection for cinema noir and more fiction and that kind of thing—his stance on that the ground is always shifting beneath people’s feet, and there’s always these sort of overwhelming things that are beyond your control that kind of throw you. And that’s a very noir kind of thing, but that’s also how his mind works.
SE: Did he mention any specific noir writers or filmmakers that interested him?
PAC: It’s like that John Wayne movie that he likes to talk about so much. John Wayne plays that guy who’s hunting down the daughter who got kidnapped by the Indians.
SE: The Searchers.
PAC: Yeah. That’s the one. I think the scene the that really resonates with Bruce is when at the end, there’s kind of a happy ending—all the families are all celebrating—and the John Wayne character—the one guy who made it all possible—couldn’t find it in himself to even walk through the door. So that was the thing. Bruce goes back to that image repeatedly, back in those eras and going forward, I think, too.
So that was the thing, and obviously Steinbeck was big on him. But he still says the real influence is—as much as he’s clearly for the novel The Grapes of Wrath—the John Ford movie was the thing the matters the most to him.
SE: So I take it he saw the film before he read the book?
PAC: He caught part of it on a late night movie, and it was about half way through. Sometimes when the late movie was on in those days, they would or wouldn’t tell you what the title of the movie was during commercial breaks. This was one where they didn’t, but he talked to Landau a day or two later and described it to him, and Landau goes, “Oh, that’s The Grapes of Wrath! Did you read that book?” And Bruce was like, “BOOK?!”—something like that. I don’t think he read Steinbeck’s actual novel until he was in his 40s. He started to develop a relationship with Steinbeck’s widow, so there’s letters and stuff that he sent to her.
SE: I wonder what you make of Born in the U.S.A. and its production.
PAC: I had been a fan for like five years before that came out. So when it did come out, I was both thrilled, to have a new Springsteen record, but when the whole Born in the U.S.A. moment metastasized into the pop mainstream, I was both thrilled for Bruce for getting his recognition. But also there were elements that when you know, after the first 1,000 listens, they began to feel a little more externally driven.
On the other hand, I thought they did a great job of taking the mainstream down and applying it to Bruce’s vision or his own town. Don’t think that all those songs are “party hearty” songs, like “Glory Days.” That is a sad song. The lyrics completely belie the kind of party hearty aspect of the fame. Nobody’s happy. No one’s going anywhere. They both know that their best times are behind them. Also, songs like “Working on the Highway,” are songs about guys handcuffed to bumpers. It’s about guys who are totally fucked over. And obviously “Born in the U.S.A.” itself is the most anti-patriotic pop song ever to become a huge hit and have people think it’s pro-America.
SE: I know that Reagan kind of co-opted it. Does Bruce still think about that?
PAC: Oh, yeah. Sure, we talked about that a bunch. He talked about the willful misinterpretation of his work. And it goes through the decades, even with Wrecking Ball, especially with “We Take Care of Our Own.” It’s like “Listen to the verses!” It’s that same tension that is in “Born in the U.S.A.” You have this resounding chorus that’s pushed hard, but you have these verses that belie this sort of affirmation in the chorus.
SE: Does Springsteen think that “We Take Care of Our Own” is misinterpreted as well?
PAC: Yeah. Totally. Sure, because people wrote all kinds of op-eds and they either loved it because it was so patriotic, or they hated it because it was too patriotic, or they hated it because it was so anti-American, and they loved it because it was so anti-American. He got that shit all the time, and it has to be amusing to him on some level.
The whole thing with ’84, I went back to read every scrap of everything and really trying to follow the narrative that developed in that era, and it kind of the first things was a piece that appeared in People magazine. It called Bruce a “working-class troubadour,” and that really stuck. That column was “Yankee Doodle Springsteen” by George Will. Basically, it tried to co-opt everything Bruce said and pound it into a square hole—essentially that Bruce’s life is essentially an Ayn Rand story; that he’s like the John Galt of rock and roll—he doesn’t ask for handouts, he’s squeaky clean, and he makes art like a jock!
SE: His physical image probably didn’t help at that time either—the muscles.
PAC: I actually talk about that a bunch in the book because I was sort of a gym rat and still am to some degree. But the whole point of getting that large and sort of supersizing himself, becoming a super-heroic character, I think he did it specifically in order to present the face or become the face of the “other” America, not Reagan’s America. He was conscious of popularizing himself and going to make the biggest noise on the biggest stage and become as big as possible only to become the face of the America that he believed in.
Landau was like, “We need a single for this record”—after we had 98% of the record done. And at first, Bruce was furious because he’d been working so hard on that record. But then later, he went upstairs, and, overnight, he wrote “Dancing in the Dark.” And it’s the kind of the tune he can write with one hand behind his back.
SE: He could have been a pop craftsman, right?
PAC: Oh, yeah. He’s great at writing those pop tunes. Steve Van Zandt keeps complaining that Bruce’s biggest mistake in his career was not focusing on that part of himself. He definitely still has a deep appreciation for the serious stuff, but I think his beef at that particular moment in Bruce’s career was that he thought it was a good idea to become that huge.
SE: May I ask you about “Born in the U.S.A.?” Why do you think he didn’t originally release the minor key version that he recorded during Nebraska period and instead waited to release the poppy version?
PAC: Well, I think that he was trying to…I’m sure you know that those Nebraska songs, those tapes were demos, and he was trying to give the band a sense or feeling of those songs. And they got into it but it took some time before they realized that the demos were the album. So, they recorded a bunch of those songs with the full band that just didn’t make it. One of those songs was “Born in the U.S.A.” And I think that’s either a first or a second take. He just said, “This is how it goes.” And they took it and ran with it on the fly—including that keyboard riff, with that kind of Asian sound or Chinese, or South East Asian sound on the synthesizer. And then they recorded the song and holy fuck it kicked ass. You just you put it on, and what you hear is what they go that brief morning or afternoon. How do you throw that away? How can you say that the demo was better than that? It wasn’t better than that.
SE: So that was on the shelf right? They had that already in ’84 when they were going in to record the album?
PAC: They recorded that in ’82 because the sessions for Nebraska and Born in the U.S.A. were the same thing—they never stopped. They recorded a ton of stuff in the first weeks after Bruce had made all those Nebraska demos. They cut like five or six of the tunes that are on the finished album that were recorded about two years before the album came out—all those tunes that are on the third disc of Tracks. Bruce is like a firehose of songs—one after the other, after the other.
They were finally done with that process when Landau realized that they needed a single. And that’s where “Dancing in the Dark” came from.
SE: Was Bruce expecting at that point to become the mega star that he became?
PAC: He definitely was asking for it. You don’t make that Courtney Cox video—that video was made for MTV clearly, with the dry ice and candy-color light behind him. Bruce is made up, and you got this Courtney Cox character playing the role of the everyday fan. But she’s not an everyday fan. She’s a fucking knockout Hollywood actress. And she’s wearing the merch. That I found kind of offensive—she’s already got the tour merch.
And if you ever see the first stab at the video they’d made—it’s on the Internet—it’s just Bruce, but he looks like a mime. He’s wearing this weird black-and white thing with suspenders and he’s got the handkerchief and everything. There’s a really good director, the guy who directed The Kids Are Alright. That had come out in ’79, and they got this guy, a cinematographer, who wanted a very sharp kind of light to accentuate Bruce’s muscles. Bruce didn’t like that light for whatever reason. So they went through a couple different takes of it, and then there was a coffee break. And Bruce said, “Okay, see you in a few.” And then he walked off the stage, down the hallway, out the door, and drove off, never to be seen again. That’s his way of saying, “This isn’t working for me.”
I think Jon tried to scrape together a cut of the video, and he took it to the president of the label to show it to him. The guy looks at it and says, “You know what I’m going to say right? This is unacceptable. This is a piece of shit.” And then Jon went back to Bruce, and that was when they finally decided to do the full on Hollywood version of the video. The hilarious thing is that the president of the label looks back and says, “Well, I fucking hate this too, but it’s totally commercial. We’re absolutely releasing this.”
SE: How does Bruce feel about it now?
PAC: It was just part of his journey. He was very deliberate and intentional about what he was doing and why he was doing it. And he felt that there was a very high purpose behind. It wasn’t just about becoming the hugest rock star in the world—though he definitely wanted to be that too. His collaboration and his relationship with his trust in Jon made it so that when Jon said, “Okay, we know what you want to be. Here are the steps.” And Bruce was willing to do it. He kind of swallowed his ambivalence and fear about selling out, which kind of allowed him to push past that and really go for the big crowd. And he did. He pursued that for a couple or three years for that one album and he decided that was enough of that. Then he went back and made Tunnel of Love, which was a more intimate level.
SE: Doesn’t he tend to go from a big, outward looking album, like Born in the U.S.A. to something inward looking? I’ve noticed that. The albums tend to alternate.
PAC: Yeah. I think that is more just about his…you know you scratch one itch and satisfy that appetite, but you got other appetites. You want to write political records, or about relationships and people’s inner lives, and sometimes you want to write an album about the whole wide world. But still there’s very intimate songs on Wrecking Ball, and there’s a few songs there that are obviously meant for the cheap seats, to make everybody jump. But those are great songs too.
SE: That’s probably his strongest album since The Rising.
PAC: Yeah. That’s one of my favorites. It’s got a handful of good songs and a handful of songs that could have been left off as “Tracks, Part Two!”
SE: What do you want people to get out of reading your book?
PAC: What I’m hoping that it brings people past the kind of caricature of Bruce that people have developed over the years, partly a result of his own actions. But he’s just as conscious of and taken action be exactly the opposite.
The one thing that I didn’t tell you that I think is kind of important is that even after Bruce got super involved and they really opened up everything and gave me access to virtually anything I wanted, Bruce and Jon were insistent and repeatedly insistent that they expected me to be an independent; that they were giving me access, but they had absolutely no intention to manipulate what I wrote.
SE: I think your true talent, as a writer, is that you really do give a sense of the artist’s personality. And I think that people like Wilson, McCartney, and Springsteen in particular, that’s so essential because they’re so earnest. And I think that academic studies don’t fit their work at all.
PAC; Well, thank you. That’ s the other thing: I think one of Bruce’s motivations was that he wanted people to understand that he wasn’t a superhero, that he has no intention of seeming like one. He told me, “When people talk to me like that, I feel diminished.” One thing he wants people to understand is his complexity and his darkness. He insisted and refused, especially at the end of the process, said, “If there’s anything anyone said or anything that you learned that you felt uncomfortable in the book because you think it might embarrass me or something, put it in.”
SE: What really helped me was they way Bruce opened up to you about his depression. That was really significant, and obviously a lot of people can relate to that.
PAC: If there’s one thing that I’m probably most proud of in the book, in terms of stuff I managed to get him on the record about, was his admission to taking antidepressants. The thing is we really got into how his friend committed suicide just the day before when I was with him one day. He got the news right after rehearsal, and he still followed up on his promise to do an interview with me the next day. He showed up just looking shell shocked and freaked out. But we started talking, and we talked a lot earlier about depression and therapy, but then we got into the talk about antidepressants. And he kind of alluded to me; he said something like, “It’s like give me stuff to me now, and keep it coming.” So months after that, I knew what he was alluding or implying to me. Towards the end of the process, I asked, “You know, you said something to me and it was kind of off the record, I was wondering if you’d be interesting in talking about it.” And I told him what it was and why I was interested in talking about it. And he said, “Yeah, put that it.” So, to me, that was something that could theoretically save someone’s life—someone who’s depressed and lives with that fiction that everybody should be able to solve their own problems or that is what weak guys do. So maybe there would be someone out their that admires Bruce’s strength not only to take them but to say so.
SE: I was talking to Stevie Kalinich the other day. We were talking about Brian’s music speaks to depressed people. I was wondering if you’d make the same argument for Bruce’s music?
PAC: Hmm. You know, I imagine it probably does because he radiates understanding and empathy. The song “This Depression” on the new record is so powerful, and it’s obviously about—it’s got nothing to do with economics—someone having a depressive experience and trying to plead for understanding and love from his wife or significant other. And I just think it’s overpoweringly moving. “This is my confession / I need your heart / In this depression.” That is a big admission; that’s a real dig into the void. Talk about “I believe in the promised land”—that same story.
SE: Springsteen speaks like Steinbeck: in language in which we can understand and in the economy of his writing.
PAC: Like Dylan… one thing that I really admire about Dylan in this recent era is his not only willingness but expectation that he’s basically duking it out with the guys who wrote the bible; that he feels like those guys are full of shit and he’s writing his own.