In the fall of 1975, not long after the release of "Born to Run," I got a call from a publicist at Columbia Records asking if I'd like to interview Bruce Springsteen. It seemed Springsteen had read my rave review of the album in the Washington Star, the paper I worked for at the time, and a couple of my reviews of his live shows. He had put me on the short-list of writers he'd like to talk to.

Of course, at the time, everyone wanted to talk to Springsteen. "Born to Run" had taken off like a rocket, and Springsteen had been on the covers of both Time and Newsweek -- in the same week. My editors told me to drop everything else and get to New York for the interview.

I met Springsteen, who had just turned 26 at the time, in an office in Manhattan. It was late on Friday, and the offices were emptying so that, not long into the interview, he and I were all but alone. It was supposed to last a half-hour or so, but instead went on for a couple of hours with the two of us talking about everything from the impact of those Time and Newsweek covers to the music of Roy Orbison and the guitar work of Duane Eddy.

I would interview Springsteen once more (briefly) and would run into him backstage at a couple of concerts. But within a few years, I switched from writing about music to the news and so simply became a fan of the Boss.

But those few hours in New York have stuck with me. Not that Springsteen had said anything that profound -- although he was as articulate and engaging an interviewee then as now -- but just how downbeat much of the conversation had been. It wasn't so much what he said but the tone with which he said it. When I started to press him on something, he would retreat, not so much becoming elusive as simply not opening up. Even with very good interviewers like Ted Koppel, he seems pretty much the same today.

All of which must have made Peter Ames Carlin's new Springsteen biography, "Bruce," a tough one to pull off. Springsteen cooperated with Carlin, although the author stresses the Boss had no editorial control over it. Much of the best stuff in "Bruce" comes not from Springsteen himself, but from those around him: Steve Van Zandt, Clarence Clemons, former girlfriends, friends from the early days in Jersey. While hardly the artful dodger and revisionist of his own history that Bob Dylan has become, Springsteen doesn't really open up -- a serious disadvantage for a biographer.

But Carlin makes the most out of what he had to work with. For the most part, it is an entertaining work, with some solid insights into what makes the Boss tick. It is filled with the kind of little details and juicy nuggets that you want in a biography. (In the interests of full disclosure, I know Carlin a bit from the days when we both covered television. I admired his writing then and also enjoyed "Catch a Wave," his previous biography on another rock genius, Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys.)

Carlin nails down the early backstory of Springsteen, from his upbringing in Freehold, N.J., to his first guitar (right after Elvis appeared on "The Ed Sullivan Show") to his work in a string of Jersey bar bands, notably Steel Mill. This portion is strewn with good stories that might be tall tales (one involving a dramatic appearance by Clemons at a bar is a beaut) and those nuggets (Janis Joplin had the hots for young Bruce). He does a good job of sketching Springsteen's influences, including the Allman Brothers and James Brown.

Carlin also does a good job of sorting out some of the rougher patches of Springsteen's professional and personal life. He is, for example, far kinder to former Springsteen manager Mike Appel than most accounts. The Appel-Springsteen battle was so epic that it took teams of lawyers to sort it out, a process that kept the E Street Band off the road and out of the studio for months (delaying the recording of "Darkness on the Edge of Town," the follow-up to "Born to Run").

The author's portrait of Springsteen isn't saintly, either. The Boss didn't treat women particularly well through the years. Nor did he treat the original E Street Band members well. He came close to firing Max Weinberg during "The River" and broke off from them for a long period before getting the group back together for "The Rising."

But as cleverly written and insightful as "Bruce" can be, it lacks the real depth one finds in truly great biographies. Precious little is included about Springsteen's current personal life, and Carlin doesn't quite find the essence of Springsteen's work over the years. In fact, at times the author seems to keep his distance from his subject, which is not so good for emotional impact.

Still, "Bruce" is better than earlier Springsteen biographies (notably Marc Dolan's florid "Bruce Springsteen and the Promise of Rock 'n' Roll," released earlier this year). But the truly defining work, one that captures the true nature of a great American artist, remains to be written.

Follow Charlie McCollum at Twitter.com/charlie_mccollu.

Touchstone

$28, 494 pages