Bruce Springsteen and the Art of Aging Well
What the happiest Springsteen album in decades can teach us about Joe Biden, the wisdom of maturity, and the meaning of life
I recently saw a photo of Lyndon B. Johnson in the first year of his presidency. He looked like a classic old guy—wrinkled, mature, in the late season of life. It was a shock to learn that he was only 55 at the time, roughly the same age as Chris Rock is now. He left the presidency, broken, and beaten, at 60, the same age as, say, Colin Firth is now.
Something has happened to aging. Whether because of better diet or health care or something else, a 73-year-old in 2020 looks like a 53-year-old in 1935. The speaker of the House is 80 and going strong. The presidential candidates are 77 and 74. Even our rock stars are getting up there. Bob Dylan produced a remarkable album this year at 79. Bruce Springsteen released an album today at 71. “Active aging” is now a decades-long phase of life. As the nation becomes a gerontocracy, it’s worth pondering: What do people gain when they age, and what do they lose? What does successful aging look like?
President Donald Trump is a prime example of an unsuccessful older person—one who still lusts for external validation, who doesn’t know who he is, who knows no peace. Nearly two millennia ago, the Roman statesman Cicero offered a more robust vision of what elders should do and be: “It’s not by strength or speed or swiftness of body that great deeds are done,” he wrote, “but by wisdom, character and sober judgment. These qualities are not lacking in old age but in fact grow as time passes.”
Springsteen is the world champion of aging well—physically, intellectually, spiritually, and emotionally. His new album and film, Letter to You, are performances about growing older and death, topics that would have seemed unlikely for rock when it was born as a rebellion for anyone over 30. Letter to You is rich in lessons for those who want to know what successful aging looks like. Far from being sad or lachrymose, it’s both youthful—loud and hard-charging—and serene and wise. It’s a step forward from his Broadway show that debuted three years ago and his memoir, released four years ago. Now he’s not only telling the story of his life, but asking, in the face of death, about life’s meaning, and savoring life in the current moment.
It’s the happiest Springsteen album maybe in decades. “When I listen to it, there’s more joy than dread,” Springsteen told me. “Dread is an emotion that all of us have become very familiar with. The record is a little bit of an antidote to that.” The album generates the feeling you get when you meet a certain sort of older person—one who knows the story of her life, who sees herself whole, and who now approaches the world with an earned emotional security and gratitude.
The album, and the film that recorded the making of the album (I recommend watching the film first), was occasioned by a death. From 1965 to 1968, when rock was in its moment of explosive growth and creativity, Springsteen was in a band called the Castiles. Two years ago, Springsteen found himself at the bedside of a member of that band, George Theiss, as he died of cancer. After his passing, Springsteen realized that he is the sole remaining survivor from that band—the “Last Man Standing,” as he puts it in one of the songs on the new album.
The experience created an emotional vortex and the music poured out of him. “The actual mechanics of songwriting is only understandable up to a certain point,” Springsteen told me, “and it’s frustrating because it’s at that point that it begins to matter. Creativity is an act of magic rising up from your subconscious. It feels wonderful every time it happens, and I’ve learned to live with the anxiety of it not happening over long periods of time.”
On the album, Springsteen goes back in time to those mid-’60s years when he, Theiss, and the Castiles would play in the union halls, hullabaloo clubs, and bowling alleys around Freehold, New Jersey. He goes further back, to his childhood, and reminisces about the trains that used to rumble through town; the pennies he’d put on the tracks; and when he first became familiar with death as a boy, going to the funerals of his extended clan, walking up semi-terrified and kneeling before the casket and then walking back home with a sense of trembling accomplishment.
“Memory is many things,” the Benedictine nun Joan Chittister has written. “It is a call to resolve in us what simply will not go away.” Springsteen has made a career, and built a global fan base, out of going back and back, to Freehold and Asbury Park, and digging, digging, digging to understand the people he grew up around and who made him, for good and ill, the man he became. “The artists who hold our attention,” he told me, “have something eating away at them, and they never quite define it, but it’s always there.”
Even in his 70s, Springsteen still has drive. What drives him no longer feels like ambition, he said, that craving for success, recognition, and making your place in the world. It feels more elemental, like the drive for water, food, or sex. He talks about this in the movie: “After all this time, I still feel the burning need to communicate. It’s there when I wake every morning. It walks alongside of me throughout the day … Over the past 50 years, it has never ceased. Is it loneliness, hunger, ego, ambition, desire, a need to be felt and heard, recognized, all of the above? All I know, it is one of the most consistent impulses of my life.”
With the Castiles, he not only learned how to do his job but also found his mode of emotional communication and a spiritual awareness. He found his vocation, and his vehicle for becoming himself. A lot of the music on this album is about music, the making of it and the listening to it, the power that it has. The songs “House of A Thousand Guitars” and “Power of Prayer” are about those moments when music launches you out of normal life and toward transcendence. For a nonreligious guy, Springsteen is the most religious guy on the planet; his religion is musical deliverance.
Like every successful mature person, Springsteen oozes gratitude—especially for relationships. The film is largely about the camaraderie of the E Street Band, men and women who have been playing together off and on for 45 years and who have honed their skills and developed a shorthand for communicating. We watch them discussing and arguing over how to put each song together, then savor the end result. The band sounds fantastic, especially the powerful drumming of Max Weinberg.
The film intersperses clips of Springsteen recording and performing with the same guys four decades ago, when they were young and lithe, and today, when they’re a bit grizzled. “We weren’t immune from the vicissitudes. We had the same ups and downs as most rock bands,” Springsteen told me. “It’s like a marriage. The ups and downs have deepened us. The band is as close now as it’s ever been. We had to suffer.”
Letter to You is a sincere and vulnerable album. It conveys Springsteen’s appreciation for the conversation he’s had with his audience, and his appreciation for the dead and the debts we owe them. The core of the album comprises three songs about how the dead live on in us and in the ensuing generations. “It’s just your ghost / Moving through the night / Your spirit filled with light / I need, need you by my side / Your love and I’m alive,” Springsteen sings in “Ghosts,” the best track on the album.
“When you’re young, you believe the world changes faster than it does. It does change, but it’s slow,” Springsteen told me. “You learn to accept the world on its terms without giving up the belief that you can change the world. That’s a successful adulthood—the maturation of your thought process and very soul to the point where you understand the limits of life, without giving up on its possibilities.”
Attaining that perspective is the core of successful maturity. Carrying the losses gently. Learning to live with the inner conflicts, such as alternating confidence and insecurity. Getting out of your own way, savoring life and not trying to conquer it, shedding the self-righteousness that sometimes accompanies youth, and giving other people a break. The owl of Minerva flies only at dusk, as they used to say.
That perspective is evident in the movie’s “bright sadness,” to use a term from the Franciscan monk Richard Rohr. Directed by Thom Zimny, the film cuts again and again to overhead shots of snow-covered forests—Old Man Winter coming. But inside the studio, everything is warm and full of music. The dreams of Springsteen and his band came true times a thousand; they have good reason to be content in old age. But studies show that most people do get happier as they age. They focus more on life’s pleasures than its threats.
As you watch the film, you may think of not only personal maturity but also national maturity. America has always fancied itself as wild and innocent; youth, Oscar Wilde observed, is the country’s oldest tradition. After the past 20 years, and especially after the presidency of Donald Trump, we’ve become jaded, and look askance at our former presumption of innocence. But, taking a cue from Springsteen, maybe we can achieve a more mature national perspective in the years post-Trump.
“Joe Biden is like one of the fathers in the neighborhood I grew up with as a kid,” Springsteen told me. “They were firemen and policemen, and there was an innate decency to most of them that he carries naturally with him. It’s very American.”
Approaching 80, Biden is pretty old. Seventy-seven is probably not the ideal age to start such a grueling job as president of the United States. But making the most of the not-ideal is what maturity teaches. The urge to give something to future generations rises up in people over 65, and a style of leadership informed by that urge may be exactly what American needs right now. Today, being 77 doesn’t have to be a time of wrapping things up; it’s just the moment you’re in, still moving to something better. Maybe this can be America—not in decline, but moving with maturity to a new strength.