We’ve been on a long tour of Bruce Springsteen’s past the last few years. He took it to Broadway, wrote a memoir, and continues to reminisce his glory days. This summer Springsteen, Little Steven van Zandt and Southside Johnny spent a couple of hours going over their magnificent beginnings on Sirius XM. For fans (that’s me) this was just about the best radio show I ever heard.
Now Bruce is trying to blend nostalgia with forward thinking. At 70 years old, he’s allowed. No one told him to keep making new records after creating an incredible library of music. But last year we had “Western Stars” following his Broadway run, and now we have the E Street Band album “Letter to You.” The album comprises some new songs, some from 1972 that he’s finally fleshed out, it’s a look back and forward simultaneously.
The album — Bruce’s 20th official studio album — was also made in just a few days. Springsteen smartly allowed director Thom Zimny, who made his Springsteen on Broadway film for Netflix, to shoot the recording of “Letter to You.” The film will unspool on Apple TV as the album drops. Interestingly, not all the songs from the album made the movie. One, called “Rainmaker,” which seems political to me. wasn’t included in the film. Maybe Bruce didn’t want to take the focus away from the camaraderie of the recording session.
Listening to the album is a whole different discipline than watching the making of the record. In the film, Zimny is looking for relationships, mixing old home movies with new visual anecdotes. It’s a tribute to Bruce and the E Street Band that they’ve never veered from their mission statement of 40 or 50 years ago. Their aim has remained true. You can draw a straight line through the decades from the beginning to now. And the film really brings out the talents of each member, Max’s pounding drums, Nils’s soaring guitar, Stevie van Zandt presiding over the whole thing as the architect of rock.
Maybe the one thing that has crept into the Band and Bruce’s lives is a melancholia derived from losing band members Clarence Clemons and Danny Federici. There is much toasting by the E Street to lost brethren, and much contemplating of the past. Songs from 1972 that were known only to fanatics have been reworked and recorded. One of them. Song for Orphans,” is conceded to be influenced by Bob Dylan, and I’ll tell you, it sure is.
Some of the songs that were known to fans, like “If I Were the Priest,” come to life as new classics. And one of them, “The Power of Prayer,” should be a radio single. It’s a hit, and it will misinterpreted as much as “Born to Run.” I like that.
You’ll want the album and the movie. Zimny knows how to get the most from live performances, and watching Bruce and the E Street Band construct the songs for the album is just dessert after a long, satisfying meal. And we get a little something extra after dessert, too. Through the film we meet Frank, Bruce’s “cousin” who taught him the guitar. And at the end of the movie, in what I called a post-film Marvel scene, they perform an acoustic version of the first single Bruce was on, in the group the Castiles, called “Baby I.” It’s a grace note Zimny, who gives us a little lump in the throat moment.
As for the album, a couple of songs that have grown on me in the short time I’ve had it: “House of a Thousand Guitars” with Roy Bittan’s piano leading the way at first I wasn’t sure about. The movie version sold me on it. The melody is surprising and disarming. “Burnin’ Train” is classic E Street, and I can’t wait to hear it in concert.
Both the movie and the CD hit next Friday, October 23rd, and I will probably have more to say about them between now and then.
Meantime, because it’s the 45th anniversary of “Born to Run,” I guess they’re playing it a lot on Sirius. I’m re-enraptured by “Thunder Road” and “Tenth Avenue Freeze Out.” I’ve also been humming the mini-melodies from “Darkness on the Edge of Town.” There’s a moment in the movie when Bruce talks about fans at a concert doing that. I know how they feel. I love the look of surprise on his face realizing the fans know those interior melodies. These things are lodged in our heads, Bruce.
“If I Was the Priest” and “Janey Needs a Shooter” are old songs from concerts. They exist in bootleg form. Other artists sometimes got to them first. Warren Zevon has a version of “Janey” on YouTube. Allan Clarke of the Hollies (very underrated singer) did “Priest.”