Bruce Springsteen: Imagining Life Without the Boss’s Musical Compass
Photo: Bryan Adams
I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve done this, headed south of the border to see Bruce Springsteen. It started when I was 17 with a road trip to Tacoma, Wash., to catch a Tunnel of Love show, a night that ended with me and a friend collapsed in an all-night diner in downtown Vancouver, drinking coffee and sharing a plate of fries and gravy as we waited for the sun to come up so we could board the bus back to Agassiz, B.C., the small town where we grew up. We were so exhilarated we were practically speechless; it felt like our lives had changed in a single evening.
I’ve skipped classes and missed work, left my family for days at a time just to see Bruce. Yes, a lot of fans call him by his first name, evidence of the strange connection we feel with him, something beyond the usual rock star and fan. Plus, it’s easier to chant at a concert than “Springsteen.” I’ve spent thrilling nights crushed up against the stage, close enough to touch him, and others in seats that were half an arena away. People stare in disbelief when I tell them I’ve seen a dozen or so shows in Vancouver and the Pacific Northwest, but I’m a lightweight compared with serious fans, some of whom have seen hundreds of shows on multiple continents. In 2011, as my marriage was coming apart, I tried to analyze the importance of Bruce to my life and work through a book formatted as an autobiographical mix tape, Walk Like a Man: Coming of Age with the Music of Bruce Springsteen. I came to recognize there was no part of my life he hadn’t touched, no aspect of my character he had not had a hand in shaping.
So when rumours started to swirl about an upcoming album last spring, I felt that old, familiar excitement start to build. It had been more than a decade since my last Springsteen concert because a divorce and a move to a patchwork freelance life had played havoc with my budget. But now my schedule was relatively clear, my finances in a rough sort of order and I had a new, loving companion to share the experience: perfect conditions for a road trip. When his 19th studio album — Western Stars — was released last summer, though, Springsteen made it clear he wouldn’t be touring to promote it. The fandom was disappointed but not surprised: the music, an homage to the string-heavy, California-country pop of Jimmy Webb and Glen Campbell, didn’t lend itself to the “heart-stopping, pants-dropping, house-rocking, earth-quaking, booty-shaking, Viagra-taking, love-making, legendary” E Street Band, as Springsteen calls them onstage. And there was another, largely unspoken reason: in a development familiar to anyone in the sandwich generation, Springsteen has stayed close to his New Jersey home for the last few years to be near his 94-year-old mother, Adele, who has Alzheimer’s.
To say there is nothing like a Springsteen show would be an understatement. He’s been a titanic live performer since the earliest days of his career. As music critic John Landau wrote in 1974, after a concert at Harvard Square Theatre in Cambridge, Mass., “I saw rock and roll future, and its name is Bruce Springsteen.” Prescient words, but it’s another part of the review that gets to the heart of the relationship between Springsteen and his fans. At 27, Landau had bought a house, his marriage was faltering and his body was being attacked by Crohn’s disease. He was facing the questions we all ask as we transition to another phase of life. “On a night when I needed to feel young, he made me feel like I was hearing music for the first time,” wrote Landau, a fan who went on to become Springsteen’s producer and manager.
I’ve been a fan since 1984, the year Springsteen became a household name when Born in the U.S.A. dropped a few months before I turned 14. It was one of the biggest albums of the year, yielding seven top-10 singles from 12 tracks. Propelled by “Dancing in the Dark” and its accompanying video of Springsteen on stage with a fresh-faced, pre-Friends Courteney Cox, the rocker launched a tour that saw him on the road for more than a year. Born in the U.S.A. ultimately sold 30 million copies.
That’s the Springsteen most people recognize: headband and muscles and blue jeans against the backdrop of an American flag. They might be aware of earlier songs, like “Born to Run,” “Hungry Heart” or “Thunder Road,” but Springsteen in 1984 is iconic Bruce.
That was 35 years ago; Springsteen has seen a lot of road since, and I’ve been with him for every passing mile.
My devotion, while its intensity waxes and wanes, has never left me. If you want an almost cringingly accurate portrait of what I was like as a teenage Springsteen fan, the film Blinded by the Light, released last summer, does a good job. I watched certain scenes — friends trading Springsteen lyrics back and forth — with an embarrassed familiarity.
A Springsteen show isn’t simply about watching a band perform; it’s a gathering of a community, and you haven’t really lived until you’ve sung along to “Born to Run” or “Badlands” with a choir numbering in the tens of thousands. Before you even walk in the venue door — grabbing a beer at the nearest bar or waiting in the lineup outside — you’re among friends, and that vibe continues inside, uniting the audience and the man on the stage.
You come away from a show hoarse, drenched with sweat, exhausted and utterly alive. It’s no surprise that his tours remain top attractions: his most recent outing with the E Street Band, The River Tour 2016, was the top-grossing tour of the year, earning US$263 million.
With a new album this year and no prospect of an accompanying tour, fans were left to wonder if they had experienced Springsteen live for the last time. He had turned 70 in September: would Springsteen and the E Street Band ever be up for another tour? Sure, they had performed the longest shows of their career when Springsteen was in his 60s, but was it all about to end?
The answer led me to a road trip but not the one I had imagined.
So here I am, on the cusp of 50, hitting the road from my home in Victoria, headed to Seattle for a Bruce Springsteen … movie. I’m not expecting the same level of intensity as a concert but, as Springsteen fandom has long taught me, the only constant in life is change. That holds true for Springsteen as much as it does for any of us.
In the last 35 years, we’ve seen the breakup of Springsteen’s first marriage and his developing relationship with back-up singer and guitarist Patti Scialfa, who was a fixture on the Born in the U.S.A. tour and became his wife in 1991. They have built a family — eldest son Evan is a songwriter, daughter Jessica is a renowned equestrian and youngest son Sam is a firefighter — and, after a sojourn in California, returned to live in New Jersey not far from where he grew up in Freehold.
In the absence of a tour, Springsteen and longtime colleague Thom Zimny brought a film crew into the hayloft of a 100-year-old barn on Springsteen’s New Jersey property. They enlisted a full orchestra alongside a core band to record live versions of the Western Stars songs in front of a small audience of friends and family, which became the concert film’s soundtrack, also called Western Stars. “A certain kind of magic took place,” Springsteen, who co-directed the film with Zimny, explained in an onstage interview at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) in September following its première. “The music began to take on a life of its own.”
Western Stars, both the album and the film, is the most recent addition to an ongoing project — a trilogy — in which Springsteen painstakingly re-examines his life. The autobiographical urge has its roots in debilitating bouts of depression that hit Springsteen after his 60th birthday. “It lasted for a year and a half,” he writes in his bestselling 2016 memoir Born to Run, “and devastated me.” The book, which has sold more than a million English-language copies so far and has been translated into 23 foreign languages, dug into the depths of his illness, which he has struggled with for decades and which drove his frenetic work ethic, resulting in shows that have exceeded four hours. As he told a reporter for Rolling Stone in 1992, “Two of the best days of my life were the day I picked up the guitar and the day I learned how to put it down.” Medication also helped. “I’ve been on antidepressants for the last 12 to 15 years of my life,” he wrote in his autobiography. “They have given me a life I would not have been able to maintain without them.”
Building on the form and success of the memoir, Springsteen continued this introspective impulse with “Springsteen on Broadway,” which opened in 2017. The show featured Springsteen performing solo on acoustic guitar and piano, mixed with passages from the memoir and related stories. It was initially only scheduled to run for eight weeks but, after two extensions, it closed more than a year and 236 shows later, in December 2018. The Broadway run made more than US$110 million and earned Springsteen a special Tony Award.
After the final curtain went down, Springsteen turned his attention to a batch of songs — rumour is there were more than 40 pieces — written prior to 2012 but shelved at the time, joining hundreds of never-released Springsteen tracks that fans dream about hearing. From those songs, he chose 13 for the Western Stars album.
“Maybe it’s part of the act of getting older,” he explained in his trademark rasp during the on-stage interview with Warner Bros. chairman Toby Emmerich at TIFF. “The book came very organically, and from the book, the play came, and really from the play, this is … the tying up of philosophical threads that I’ve been working on my whole life, really, since I was a kid.”
Rather than focusing on the strictly autobiographical, the songs on Western Stars reflect Springsteen’s experiences and emotions through characters in the songs like an aging stuntman, a no-name Hollywood actor, a solitary hitchhiker and a pair of star-crossed lovers, to name a few. It’s similar to the narrative songwriting Springsteen has practised throughout his career, but this album is more sombre than most despite its string-laden sheen, not quite sinking into despair but absent a lot of hope. It’s probably his darkest album since 1982’s low-fi masterpiece Nebraska.
The film, however, is far more than a concert. Interspersed with the musical selections, Springsteen delivers scripted soliloquies, observations on his life and American culture and insights into the music, song by song. These interludes are done in voice-over, the words rolling out over closeups on Springsteen’s leathered face and his rough hands, which serve as counterpoint to beautiful vistas of the American West, Springsteen driving through the desert and aerial shots of wild horses and limitless landscapes. Springsteen explores the contrasting impulses in the American spirit between “the solitary side and the side that yearns for connection and community,” he said in the film festival interview. “That’s been a lifetime trip for me, trying to figure out how to get from one to the other, trying to reconcile those two things. It might be that those three things, the book, the play, this, are sort of summing up my trip to this point, something I want to leave my audience with, that’s also a continuation of the conversation that we’ve been
having since I was a young man.”
A quiet theatre on a rainy Saturday night in October was the perfect way to experience Western Stars. There were only about 20 people at the Seattle screening that night, and they were hushed, reverent. There was no applause, no singing along. The entire audience seemed to lean forward in their seats, completely absorbed, when Springsteen says in the film’s opening scenes:
“The older you get the heavier that baggage becomes that you haven’t sorted through. So you run. I’ve done a lot of that kind of running.”
Sadly, the film’s soundtrack does not include any of the voice-overs or interstitial music; I’m going to have to wait for the Blu-Ray edition.
By the time I got back to my hotel, the online fan pages had lit up, with new messages appearing so frequently my phone was buzzing constantly in my pocket. Fans spoke about the quiet power of the film, its beauty, how moved they were by Bruce and Patti’s relationship, how the movie shed new light on what was already widely perceived as a new classic album.
Springsteen and his music have always elicited a passionate connection; it’s not that he sings about the common people, as has often been said, but that he sings for them and with them. Springsteen is always there for us, whether it’s pining for our youth, missing lost friends, facing the grind of the working life or exploring the end of a relationship.
At its core, Western Stars reminds us Springsteen is one of us, as much as a superstar who has won an Oscar, the Presidential Medal of Freedom and played the Super Bowl half-time show can be. He faces the same trials and tribulations we all do but, with his gift, he is able to give eloquent voice to the struggles we share. Fame is good for a lot of things, but it doesn’t insulate you against depression, the illness of a parent and the lingering shadow of death.
As we age, we are confronted not only with the spectre of our own mortality but the mortality of those we love. In fact, Springsteen’s current period of introspection coincides not only with his mother’s Alzheimer’s but also with the loss of two longtime bandmates, saxophonist and on-stage foil Clarence Clemons and organist Danny Federici, as well as his close friend and personal assistant Terry Magovern.
As Springsteen says in the film, “Life’s mysteries remain and deepen, its answers unresolved. So you walk on, through the dark, because that’s where the next morning is.”
Sunrise for Springsteen is clearly Scialfa. One of the most touching reminiscences in the film is Springsteen’s account of their clandestine encounters in New York City early in their relationship, meeting at the Empire Diner in Chelsea, drinking beer from a paper bag on a bench in a park nearby.
As he says in a voiceover: “We all have our broken pieces, emotionally, spiritually. In this life, nobody gets away unhurt. We’re always trying to find somebody whose broken pieces fit with our broken pieces, and something whole emerges.”
But it takes more than a lover or a spouse to make us whole: we need friends, community, art, music and joy. And some of us need Bruce.
Coming away from Western Stars, I keep returning to one image. Springsteen’s hand is on the steering wheel of a car, the desert looming through a dusty windshield. It’s an image that’s been repeated several times, a classic Springsteen allusion to solitude, loneliness and uncertainty. This time, though, a second hand appears from off-screen and covers Springsteen’s: Scialfa’s hand, holding his, as they drive into the future.
Addendum: The angst of facing the second half of my life without seeing Bruce play again has evaporated since Springsteen told an interviewer he was writing songs, with a new album and tour to come in 2020. It’s never a sure thing — is anything in life? — but maybe it will soon be time to make another playlist like the list of Springsteen songs I took on the road to Seattle and hit the highway, hand in hand with my own beloved travelling companion by my side. —RJW
A version of this article appeared in the Jan/Feb 2020 issue with the headline, “The Long Road,” p. 39.