Bruce Springsteen, who writes so often of people who lost something — a job, a family, hope — was recently inspired by a loss of his own.
The death of George Theiss, his last surviving bandmate from his first group, sent Springsteen back into his recording archives and into his memory. The result is Letter to You, an album with an accompanying film. In them, Springsteen reflects on being "the last man standing."
We spoke with Springsteen via video link in these pandemic times. He chose an evocative location, sitting beneath the rafters of the recording studio on his property in New Jersey, with light falling in through the windows behind him.
He is 71, though the singer, famed for concerts that last three or even four hours, remains so fit that you don't think of his age when you look at him. In the interview that follows, he mentions swimming in the cold waters of the Atlantic off New Jersey in October.
It's only when you settle in with the film that you notice the changes in his face, the work of time. The film shows Springsteen with his E Street Band as they record the album across four days in late 2019. The black-and-white images of the recording studio are interspersed with old photos and video from his youth.
His first group was The Castiles, which he joined as a teenager in 1965. It was the closest he had to music school, where he gained experience and developed his own style — though Theiss, not Springsteen, was the frontman. The group broke up after three years, and Springsteen continued to perform in a series of bands. He dedicated more and more time to songwriting, and in 1972 he auditioned for Columbia Records as a solo artist. Three of the songs he wrote and recorded as demos in that time appear on Letter to You: Springsteen, the older singer, re-recorded this work by Springsteen, the aspiring young writer.
Other songs on the album, more recently written, reflect on his early days: The first image in the first song describes placing a penny on the railroad track so it could be flattened by an approaching train. They also reflect on what he has lost, and what time has taken from him.
There is only a little politics on this album, though it is part of his conversation; in June, in an episode of his SiriusXM radio show, From My Home to Yours, he said that "the United States of America is a nation of souls," and that President Trump's many failures include a failure to tend to those souls. In making such a judgment, Springsteen is standing on his home turf. In the NPR interview he calls himself "a spiritual songwriter," and says he tries to tend to the spiritual needs of his audience in whatever small way a musician can.
This is the second time I've spoken with Springsteen, and both times I came away with an impression of vulnerability. It wasn't anything he said; it was the way he said it, or maybe the way he rocked ever so slightly in his chair. This humility may be practiced — he knows very well how much he has accomplished — yet it also felt real. Maybe what I really sensed was openness. Springsteen, even while reflecting on his past, is still present. Still taking dips in the ocean. Still feeling it.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Steve Inskeep: I want to begin with a question for the people who are coming to this material for the first time. What got you started thinking about your fairly distant past?
Bruce Springsteen: I had a friend who was in my very first band, who passed away two summers ago. He and I were the last living members, so when he passed away, that left just me — all the other guys passed away at relatively young ages. It just led me to reflecting on what that time in my life meant to me, what I learned. We were together for three years, which for teenagers was a very long time to be able to stay together, all through high school. And it was also from 1965 to 1968, which were, of course, culturally explosive years in the United States. It was a sort of an action-packed period of time to be in a rock band and to have the same consistent members, so it always stayed with me — and also because I learned the majority of my craft, or the certainly the beginning pieces of it over those three years; you know, how to perform, how to play in front of every kind of audience. We played bowling alleys, pizza parlors, firemen's fairs, Elks clubs, Knights of Columbus, CYO dances, high school dances, weddings, bar mitzvahs. We played in front of virtually every audience you can imagine. And so it was an enormous school of rock, as I say in the film.
What kind of a person was George Theiss, your friend?
George was kind of a regular guy. He was a carpenter by trade, and I believe that that's how he made his living through most of his life, and played music on the side. But actually, as a teenager, he was quite charismatic: He was very good looking, attracted a lot of girls and had a great sort of tenor voice, and was really, initially, the frontman for The Castiles — I was simply the guitarist. And so he was a bit of our local star, you know, and he locally maintained that reputation for quite a big part of his life in Asbury Park.
This is a hard question to answer without making you feel self-conscious, but do you feel you understand why it is that you became famous and he didn't?
Well, there's a lot of reasons, you know? There's some luck involved, there's some choice of path. George was married very, very young — 18 or 19, I believe — and became a father very young, so he had a lot of responsibilities. And then it comes down to also writing; your ability to write is essential in how you progress. I really studied and perfected my writing skills very, very intensely. But it's just different paths, really. I don't really have an explanation as to why life takes someone one way or someone the other. I mean, I was a one-track mind before anything else — before work, girls, I was always just: music, music, music, music, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. And that had a lot to do with it.
The songs that are recorded [on Letter To You] from your early days — they're like some of your earliest, Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. songs. They're a little different than some of the stories that you told later. How would you describe some of these early songs?
My writing style was Dylan-esque in the sense that I was really interested in language, interested in image after image after image. I suppose influenced certainly by Bob the most, secondarily by Allen Ginsberg and some beat poetry. I wrote for several years in that style, only a small amount of which got released on Greetings from Asbury Park and maybe my second record. The music I wrote before my record contract, when I was 22 — there was quite a bit of that type of music that remained unreleased, and so I went back to some of it on this record and we had some fun with it.
Within a few years, you were telling stories with specific characters that you could relate to and events you could follow. What made you change?
Well, the early songs had an emotional consistency and emotional point of view that made them congeal and work. I don't know if you could follow a story from A to Z in it, you know, but they worked as pieces of music. And I changed the style because of all the Dylan comparisons. I didn't want to get stuck in that — though looking back now, while they were Dylan-esque, I had a version of it that was my own. And so consequently, sometimes I regret not holding on to that style a little bit longer just because it was so much fun.
So let me ask about putting together this album. First, you went back and found these old demo recordings. How did the older you react to the writing of the younger you when you went back to it and had a look at it?
Well, initially when I was young, I threw all those songs out because I was self-conscious about them. But the old me goes back and I just get a kick out of them; they're funny, they're quirky. They're crazy. I'm shooting from the hip. I'm totally uninhibited. So I got great joy out of digging through the trove of those songs.
They're a lot of fun to listen to. The lyrics are different, just in the sheer number of words. You seem now to be a lot more efficient, disciplined? You tell me the right word.
[Laughs.] I guess I just became more restrained and I tried to concentrate my power in fewer and fewer lines and in simpler images because that's the way people speak.
And I had an interesting moment — I got to know Luciano Pavarotti a little bit before he died. I went to his apartment one night and he made me and my wife spaghetti. And so we're sitting and eating and he invites me to the opera. So I go to the opera, which I've never been to in my life, and I watch him perform. And after the opera, we're out having a drink and he says, "What do you think, Bruce? What did you really think of the opera?" I said, "Well, it was incredible." You know, there's no mic; he came out, his voice was, to me, still in fantastic shape. And he says, "Well, yes, but the popular singer has it over the opera singer." I said, "Really? Why is that?" "The popular singer sings the way people speak."
I thought about Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett, and I thought: Yeah, that's true; they sing colloquially, the way people speak to one another. That had been what I'd been pursuing in my own songs for quite a few years at that point, but he made it all make sense to me.
Why did you record in the way that you did? In the studio where you're sitting now, I gather?
We have this lovely studio at home now that Patti, my wife, built and designed with some help. I've recorded several albums here — Western Stars and Wrecking Ball and a few other records.
I had cut a song on the record called "Janey Needs a Shooter" earlier on, for a one-off for Record Store Day. But when I listened back to it, it was the closest thing the band had ever sounded to Darkness On The Edge of Town. You know, that was because we all played together and sang at one time, and because we relied only on the instrumentation of the band and no overdubs. So I said, well, I'd be interested in making a record where we return to the template of Darkness On The Edge of Town. And so, consequently, I made no demos of the songs. I simply recorded them on my acoustic guitar into my iPhone, waited until the band got here, played in the songs on an acoustic guitar and then we went and performed the music.
We hadn't recorded a full album like that ever in our lives. We've recorded certain songs like that, but never a complete album where all the vocals and everything were live, and where we relied simply on the playing instrumentation in the band as the song went by.
Meaning that you made the creative decision in advance that whatever happened in those few days was going to be all there was.
Yeah, yeah. But for all I know, it could have taken months. And if it didn't work out, I would have went in and overdubbed and done whatever I needed to do to get the best out of it. But I could tell early on that we got the best out of it when we just ran it down. It took us about three hours a song.
So you would sit with a song, you would go through it, you would work it up. And within a few hours you had a take that you liked and you went away from it again. You didn't even go back to it the next day.
Not to do anything to it — we'd go back and listen. It was very unusual; we recorded, really, the whole album in four days. And on the fifth day, we rested, I guess. [Laughs.] We listened.
In this film, you say that as a boy it was common for you, even as young as age six or seven, to be brought to wakes and funerals. And you'd look at the body, open coffin. That's also something that I did growing up and thought of as totally normal, but then I got older and realized not everybody does that.
That's true. It was part of the Italian-Irish culture, you know? They had wakes and wakes were big events. They went on for days and everyone visited. It was a huge social event for the family. Probably the only time that the entire family and community got together was around the body of the dead. And so it just became a big part of my life.
I had a huge family that lived on one street in Freehold, N.J. We had five or six houses filled with grandparents and great-grandparents, and so I got used to people passing away when I was quite young. And it's a very funny thing because I lived a lot with death when I was a child, and then you have this big break from it, sort of from your 20s to your 40s, where it's very rare for someone to pass away. And then once you hit your 50s and 60s and 70s, of course, it becomes a big part of your life again.
How do you think it's affected your life or even your art to have been made aware at such a young age that there's an endpoint?
You know, it was so natural to me that I didn't think a lot about it. ... It was just something I just started to contemplate when we were making this film. And I don't know how it affects the rest of my life, outside of being comfortable with the idea of death and people passing.
How does it affect you now, to have to get used to that idea and to be aware that there is an endpoint that's not endlessly far away for any of us?
Well, the past 15 years, really, is when you notice people starting to check out early. And so that that gets sad, you know, as you lose close friends. I lost Clarence [Clemons], lost Danny [Federici], two guys in the E Street Band. Those are pretty difficult and painful experiences. And then a variety of other close friends — George, of course, that I write about on this record. You start looking around to see who's taking care of themselves and who's not taking care of themselves. You start worrying about some people more than others. And it's just a daily part of your life now.
I feel that, in some ways, you are doing the adult equivalent of those wakes in that you are keeping the dead close. If I go to a concert, I may see images of Clarence Clemons; I see you toasting to Clarence Clemons in this film. Even though he's been dead for years, you're still thinking about him.
Oh, yeah, yeah. We don't get together without Clarence in the room and without Danny in the room. It's very important.
Of course, his nephew is in the room.
That was a lovely piece of luck for us, that Clarence had a young nephew who was proficient on the saxophone and also fell in with the band spiritually. It was a balm for losing Clarence.
What goes through your mind when you have one of those toasts?
It's good things, you know; it's a hail to one of our brothers, and there's a good spirit — the spirit that Clarence worked his entire life to sustain and to be a part of and to build and to ensure its growth; one that he nurtured the whole time he was in the band. We get a chance to salute him and remind ourselves of that at the same time.
You allude in the film to the idea of hope — which is a nice way to end a film, but it is a set of songs about loss and death and memory. What feels hopeful about this material to you?
It's just the drinking in of life, you know? Having the experience of having been here. As I've gotten older, I appreciate that experience more and more each day. I appreciate each sunrise and sunset.
I was in the ocean yesterday in the middle of October, and there was just a moment where I just thought about how wonderful that was. And the fact that I've sustained these relationships in my band for 45, 50 years and that we continue to be a unit that functions at its highest level this late in the day — these are all things that I find great hope in. And in the love that's in my life; I find tremendous hope in simply the love that I have amongst my band members and amongst my family. And death is just a part of all those things, you know? So I feel like a lucky guy.
When you said in the ocean, did you mean in a boat or in the ocean?
Wow! What is that like in October, off the coast of New Jersey?
It's brisk. [Laughs.]
You mentioned you were looking back in this period of the mid- to late-'60s, which means you were reflecting on a time of social upheaval — when you grew up — during a time of social upheaval that we're living through now. How does reflecting on that past make you think about the present?
I suppose what we're living through now would be as close as what we experienced in the late '60s as I can remember in my lifetime. Though I find it completely different also. I can't say I remember a moment where democracy itself felt like it was teetering or that it was under such stress and attack from inside. So I don't know how that affected the record; I don't know if it did. There was a line or two that is slightly political, but it's not a political record in that sense. It's basically a spiritual record, and I consider myself primarily a spiritual songwriter. I think that slips in and gives hope to the times, and I'm optimistic that better times are coming. I believe that our current administration is going to lose and that the country is going to regain its footing. I'm fairly confident of that. But, yeah, we're living through very unusual times, there's no doubt about it.
You've done a little bit of satellite radio during the pandemic, and there was a program in which you said the United States of America is "ultimately a nation of souls." What did you mean by that and why was it on your mind?
Well, you know, the folks at the top right now are so inept at addressing the spiritual life of the nation and the fact that now there's 350 million souls out there, all of whom need to be addressed and nurtured and comforted through the darkest of times. And unfortunately, we have people running the government now who are completely inept at addressing that fundamental essence of the American people. And it's a crime, particularly in the times that we're in. So part of that show was that, in my own small way, I try to pick up some of that work, whether it's through my radio show or through this record or this film or performing with my band. That's really a part of the task that we attempt to fulfill at this time.
You're not talking about a government that is incompetent or corrupt; you're talking about some higher human need that's not being met, is that right?
Yes, that's true.
And you say you're trying to meet a little bit of it —
Well, you know, in the only way that a guy in a rock and roll band can. I'm not sure how great that is, but it is a part of who we are now, and it's a part of the conversation that we are having with our audience. There's a spiritual dimension to it that I enjoy addressing because if I address it with my audience, I address it within myself. And it's what I move to do, you know; it's why I'm interested in creating right now.
You said you're a spiritual songwriter. What's it mean to be a spiritual songwriter?
To be a spiritual songwriter means that you are primarily addressing the soul of your listeners. I want people to dance. I want people to be entertained. I want people to do their laundry to my music. I want people to vacuum their floors to my music, to diaper their babies to my music. At the same time, I try to insert something that can, in certain moments, address your inner life, you know, by revealing my own inner life.
Do you feel you reveal yourself in your music?
Yes, I do.
Is there some part of you that holds back?
Of course there is.
I guess if you answered that question more fully, you'd be not holding back anymore.
That's right. [Laughs.]
This story was produced for broadcast by Vince Pearson. LaTesha Harris and Marissa Lorusso adapted it for the Web.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Bruce Springsteen writes songs about people who lost something - a job, a family, hope. On his latest album, the person who's lost something is Springsteen himself.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LAST MAN STANDING")
BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN: (Singing) Faded pictures in an old scrapbook, faded pictures that somebody took when you were hard and young and proud, back against the wall, running raw and loud.
SPRINGSTEEN: I had a friend who was in my very first band who passed away two summers ago. He and I were the last living members of my very first rock band.
INSKEEP: And the death of his friend George Theiss sent Springsteen the songwriter spinning back to his youth in New Jersey.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LAST MAN STANDING")
SPRINGSTEEN: (Singing) Rock of ages, lift me somehow, somewhere high and hard and loud, somewhere deep into the heart of the crowd. I'm the last man standing now.
INSKEEP: Springsteen talked about this while sitting in the home studio where he recorded the album, "Letter To You." The making of that album with his E Street Band is also the subject of a film. Both projects led Springsteen to recall when he was a teenager in the 1960s and the guitar player for a group called The Castiles.
SPRINGSTEEN: We played bowling alleys, pizza parlors, firemen's fairs, Elks Clubs, Knights of Columbus, CYO dances, high school dances, weddings, bar mitzvahs. We played in front of virtually every audience you can imagine.
INSKEEP: It was his school of music, and Springsteen was not the lead singer, not the frontman. His late friend George was.
Do you feel you understand why it is that you became famous and he didn't?
SPRINGSTEEN: George was married very, very young, became a father very young, so he had a lot of responsibilities. I was a one-track mind. You know, before anything else, before work, girls, I was always just music, music, music, music, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and that had a lot to do with it.
INSKEEP: His friend became a carpenter. Springsteen became a songwriter. And for this new album, the older Springsteen, now 71, records three songs written by the young Springsteen of almost 50 years ago.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IF I WAS THE PRIEST")
SPRINGSTEEN: (Singing) That Jesus is standing in the doorway in a buckskin jacket, boots and spurs so fine. He says, we need you, son, tonight up in Dodge City 'cause there's just too many outlaws trying to work the same line.
INSKEEP: In the old songs, you hear a cascade of images that may or may not be related. The wordplay caused early critics to hear the influence of one of his heroes, Bob Dylan.
SPRINGSTEEN: I wrote for several years in that style.
INSKEEP: Were these songs narratives and they're just so complicated I don't get the narrative? Or was it just imagery?
SPRINGSTEEN: I don't get the narrative, either, so you're not alone.
SPRINGSTEEN: All I know...
INSKEEP: Well, that interests me, though, because within a few years, you were telling stories with specific characters that you could relate to and events you could follow. What made you change?
SPRINGSTEEN: I changed the style because of all the Dylan comparisons. Sometimes I regret not holding onto that style a little bit longer just because it was so much fun.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IF I WAS THE PRIEST")
SPRINGSTEEN: (Singing) If Jesus was the sheriff and I was the priest, if my lady was an heiress and my mama was a thief...
INSKEEP: You seem to be a lot more efficient, disciplined - you tell me the right word.
SPRINGSTEEN: (Laughter) I just became more restrained, and I tried to concentrate my power in fewer lines and in simpler images just because I thought, well, that's the way people speak.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ONE MINUTE YOU'RE HERE")
SPRINGSTEEN: (Singing) Big black train coming down the track, blow your whistle long and long. One minute you're here. Next minute you're gone.
INSKEEP: In this film, you give a little detail about yourself that I didn't know. You say that as a boy, it was common for you, even as young as age 6 or 7, to be brought to wakes and funerals, and you'd look at the body in an...
SPRINGSTEEN: Oh, yeah...
INSKEEP: ...Open coffin.
SPRINGSTEEN: That's true. It was part of the Italian Irish culture. You know, they had wakes. It was a huge social event for the family. Probably only time that the entire family and community got together was around the body of the dead, and it's a very funny thing because I lived a lot with death when I was a child. And then you have this big break from it, sort of from your 20s to your 40s, where it's very rare for someone you know to pass away, to die. And then once you hit your 50s and 60s and 70s, of course, it becomes a big part of your life again.
INSKEEP: It's a big part of his music, too, even at his concerts, where screens have shown images of his late saxophone player, Clarence Clemons. The film shows the band pausing their recording of "Letter To You" to drink a toast to Clemons.
What goes through your mind when you have one of those toasts?
SPRINGSTEEN: It's good things, you know? It's a hail to one of our brothers, you know, and it's - there's a good spirit.
INSKEEP: You allude, in the film, to the idea of hope, but it is a set of songs about loss and death and memory. What feels hopeful about this material to you?
SPRINGSTEEN: It's just the drinking in of life, you know, the - having the experience of having been here. As I've gotten older, I appreciate that experience more and more each day. I appreciate each sunrise and sunset. And I was in the ocean yesterday in the middle of October, and there was just a moment where I thought about how wonderful that was and the fact that I've sustained these relationships in my band for 45, 50 years. These are all things that I find great hope in. And in the love that's in my life - I find tremendous hope in simply the love that I have amongst my band members and amongst my family, and death is just a part of all those things, you know? So I feel like a lucky guy.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LETTER TO YOU")
SPRINGSTEEN: (Singing) Things I found out through hard times and good...
INSKEEP: Well, Bruce Springsteen, it's been a pleasure. Thank you very much.
SPRINGSTEEN: Thank you. I appreciate the conversation.
INSKEEP: Bruce Springsteen's new album is "Letter To You." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.