“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.”
David Brooks: How music made Bruce Springsteen
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.