Springsteen’s record is made all the more poignant because it was recorded late last year, and now it echoes like an empty barroom stage down the long hallway of the year of COVID-19
by Marshall Bowden
Rocker Bruce Springsteen wrestles on his latest release, Letter to You, not with illness or disability, but with the passage of time and the loss of friends and comrades. Many critics will read this as a nostalgic look back, imparting a sense of destiny and a rosy glow to the end of Boomer times, and it is true that the album reminded me in many ways of a stronger, single album version of The River without the roadhouse rockers that Springsteen and the E Street Band could play like no other band but which didn’t add to his overall reputation as a songwriter.
Springsteen’s record is made all the more poignant because it was recorded late last year, and now it echoes like an empty barroom stage down the long hallway of the year of COVID-19. So many are dealing with loss directly or indirectly that an album that brings forth the shadows of the departed E-Streeters Clarence Clemons and Danny Federici as well as the death of George Theiss, a bandmate of Springsteen’s from The Castiles, a group with whom he played guitar from 1965-1968, can’t help but be cathartic.
In light of Springsteen’s successful Broadway mixture of autobiography, storytelling, and singer/songwriter performance, it should come as no surprise that he would turn towards writing about his career, his band, his relationship with rock music and with the musicians he’s spent most of his life working with as well as aging and the specter of death. There are those who point out that some of the songs–especially the rockers-in-heaven “House of a Thousand Guitars”– are corny, but that’s from people who have lost their ability to see the wonder, the inspiration, and the uplifting energy of rock music, people who would fault Springsteen for repeating “hiding on the backstreets” all those times.
Bruce travels through time, taking his best inspiration wherever he might find it. Coming after a period of writer’s block, the newer songs on Letter To You are joined by some older material, including three songs that Springsteen wrote before his first recording Greetings From Asbury Park. “If I Was The Priest” goes all the way back to his audition for Columbia’s John Hammond in 1972. It’s a great song that finds Springsteen drunk with words and giddy with his rock outlaw imagery. If Springsteen was, for a time, the new Dylan, this song is a prime exhibit of his youthful strength.
I read a Twitter take on Letter to You that said Springsteen has been on E Street mode since Ghost of Tom Joad, which was also his last really good album, implying that the material since has been a retrenching, legacy-building exercise. But it is worth recalling the words of Springsteen when he inducted his bandmates into the Rock Hall of Fame :
“So, real bands — real bands — are made primarily from the neighborhood. From a real time and real place that exists for a little while, then changes, and is gone forever.”
The neighborhood is long gone, maybe the E Street band is gone since there are no live performances in their future for probably a year or more. But Letter to You travels both ways–as a marker of the past and a meditation on what comes next.