It started with a gifted guitar. During his run on Broadway, Bruce Springsteen stepped out the backdoor of the Walter Kerr Theatre one night and a young fan flagged him down and gave him a fine acoustic, possibly of Italian origin. Bruce took the guitar home, placed it on a stand, and that's where it sat for months.
Then came the death of his friend and former band mate in the Castiles (his teenage rock group), George Theiss. That was the spark and the songs started to come. He picked up the gifted guitar and wrote the bulk of Letter to You.
Bruce Springsteen is now 71. “Age brings perspective,” he says in the accompanying documentary of this, his 20th studio album. Released on October 23rd, Letter to You is largely devoted to looking through his back pages, friends and lovers no longer around, encores delivered, and the cries of last call. The boy who was born to run, race in the streets, sings as though he is the last man standing.
But is this just a song cycle eulogy laid down by guys heading into the autumn of their lives? Far from it. And it has everything to do with the way it was conceived. Once Springsteen had the songs written, the E Street Band was summoned to his home studio where the album was laid down live over the course of five days last November. According to Steven Van Zandt, they did it like the Beatles, finishing a song every three hours. The approach reduced Bruce's legendary endless tinkering over tracks and jettisoned the antiseptic sheen which hung over past albums.
Plus it freed up the E Streeters to do what they do best. Burnin' Train kicks like a River-era rocker. The kid who learned how to make his guitar talk on Thunder Road still believes in and celebrates rock n' roll's healing, redemptive power as they romp through Ghosts (it's melody reminiscent of The Call's The Walls Came Down).
Some of the best moments though, come from songs that date back decades. The sexual innuendo of the 1973 outtake, Janey Needs A Shooter, gets a Darkness on the Edge Of Town style throttle. If I Was a Priest and Song For Orphans date back to Springsteen's '72 demo which lead to his first record deal. He wrote these during his "New Dylan" phase and they are both brimming with a Zimmerman-style word salad surgery.
For those hoping for commentary on our current social and political unrest, it ain't happening much here. The closest is Rainmaker, an ominous tale of desperate people in desperate times, willing to cave to their worst tendencies, as he sings, “Sometimes folks need to believe in something so bad.” Springsteen claims to have written it during the Bush years as a reaction to the times.
Loss is ever present throughout the record. Loss of life, youth and innocence. Letter to You is bookended with tales of those that have gone before and those expecting to fly. The quiet opener, One Minute You’re Here, is just Bruce, guitar and strings, whispering about big black trains, laying his body down along muddy banks, singing, "Baby, baby, baby, I'm so alone/Baby, baby, baby, I'm coming home". The closer, I'll See You In My Dreams is the other side of the coin. While losing the ones we hold dear hurts the heart, sometimes it's better have lived life with them, than without, "We'll meet and live and laugh again...For death is not the end."
And to that end, Letter to You celebrates the living and the fact that loud guitars and pounding drums can get you through the tough times.
For Springsteen, the ties still bind, the truth can still ring out from the stage of a small-town bar, and that darkness on the edge of town is just another stop on the journey.