''It sounds like a myth, but that's one story that's actually true.'' That's guitarist Steven Van Zandt talking about how, after hours of false starts in the studio, Bruce Springsteen's ''Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out'' coalesced in an instant into the classic it is. But it's clear from Bruce that Van Zandt might as well be talking about Springsteen's whole unlikely life.
Mythmaking is a huge part of the rocker's success, and author Peter Ames Carlin gets swept up in the dusty magic of Springsteen's definitive rock & roll fable about a hardscrabble kid from Freehold, N.J., who gradually built himself into a cultural institution. The best (and least warmed-over) material here concerns Bruce's pre-fame existence in and around his decaying hometown. Carlin gives those passages an airy, nostalgic glow, creating a tactile world where Springsteen jams at coffeehouses, works and lives in a surfboard factory, and passes on a booking at the Woodstock music festival in 1969.
Once the hit albums start rolling in, the narrative becomes slightly more breathless, though anyone who owns Born to Run could probably recite the beats of Bruce's past three decades without breaking the same sweat he does during his three-hour six-string sermons. Bruce contains a few regrettable holes, most notably the details surrounding the dissolution of Springsteen's first marriage to actress Julianne Phillips (one of the few people from the star's past who didn't give a full interview). But this is no hagiography. Carlin portrays Springsteen as moody and surprisingly lacking in empathy, sometimes treating his bandmates with derision and expecting his early girlfriends to do his laundry. Those details make the rocker's tale all the more engaging, as beneath his gravelly-voiced demigod exterior lurks a flawed and talented human being. A-