Between Loneliness and Company: Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Letter to You’1
Between Loneliness and Company: Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Letter to You’
After the one-man theater tour Springsteen on Broadway (2018) and the studio album Western Stars (2019), Bruce Springsteen returned to the studio to record a musical work that is as complex as it is immediate, called Letter to You (2020).
Observing the genesis of this album, we can see how it is full of strong dynamic tensions with elements that could be considered in tension or contradictory. In fact, in the era of large productions and myriad technological possibilities, in which sounds are processed, corrected and recreated, Springsteen has opted for a more instinctive solution. He recorded in the studio at his farm in Colts Neck, New Jersey. It’s a live recording – as in a live concert – accompanied by the historic E Street Band. It’s as if he wanted to again feel the thrill of the pulsing, rough sound of the music of his origins.
Another element of tension is of a temporal kind: if only five days were dedicated to the recording of songs, these nevertheless encapsulate the full extent of his career. “It’s a record that stretches across a wide swathe of time, takes in my first band, takes in my current band and takes in what I learned between[…] Between 17 and 70,” he says. On the album he reprises the song “If I Was The Priest,” which he sang at the beginning of his career during an audition at Columbia with the record producer John Hammond, who was one of the first to recognize the potential of Springsteen’s music.
The E Street Band, with whom he has shared a good part of his career as a musician, adds another dynamic. Following on from his solo performance in the recently concluded tour of theaters, the band accompanies him, sharing the load, the responsibility that is possibly too heavy for his shoulders. “I have lived 45 years with them: a lifetime. I’ve seen their best and worst sides, and they’ve seen mine,” Springsteen has said. “We were able to make peace with ourselves […]. We’ve come a long way together, experiencing the natural brotherhood that comes from playing a thousand and one nights together: it’s a wonderful feeling, a blessing.”
Another dynamic is the tension between youth and maturity. Springsteen wrote the songs, making use of a guitar given to him by a young Italian admirer after one of his Broadway shows and on it he composed, amongst others, the song “Ghost.” This was born from the last meeting, in 2019, with George Theiss of The Castiles, the last member of the group with which he had started playing. He died a few days after that meeting. And the E Street Band no longer has its original shape, as both keyboardist Danny Federici and saxophonist Clarence Clemons passed away a few years ago. This is a dimension that Springsteen takes on himself, coming to terms with the passing of time, with his musical career, with the people he met, with the relationships he had, knowing that the “blessing” also includes the wound of missing others, of their absence, of emptiness.
‘Letter to You’
The promotional single Letter to You, for which a black and white video was shot, is also centered on some significant polarizations. It opens showing the face of the American singer-songwriter on the right side of the screen, framed with a dim side light that also comes from the right, slightly illuminating half his face and leaving the other half in the dark as it blends and fades into the black background.
The subsequent scenes, which show moments of the recording of the song with the musicians of the E Street Band, maintain the same photographic setting. The prevalent colors are shades of grey and black, except for the shot of a sheet of paper on which Springsteen has written down the words and chords of the lyrics. These sheets of paper, in their simplicity, give off the whiteness of white, showing how the strength of the words and the poetic text prevails over the passing of time, within which the various human events take place.
Springsteen begins to sing, understanding the humble intensity of the word: ’Neath a crowd of mongrel trees / I pulled that bothersome thread / Got down on my knees, / Grabbed my pen and bowed my head. The act of kneeling shows he recognizes the value of the earth, a place that sustains precisely because it is trodden upon, and, just as the body places itself on its knees, so too does thought bow down, through the movement of lowering the head.
This seems to be the same sentiment that Italian singer-songwriter Francesco Guccini sets to music in the song ‘Lettera’: Me lying on the green grass / dreaming lazily about my past. / But the years suddenly reveal / my ideals were not to be. In this song too, a natural image, less rough than that of the American singer, introduces a reflection on the time that advances and on one’s own uncertain existential experience. A profound look at your own existence shows how much your own convictions are not so transparent, but shaded by the doubt that becomes consistent as age advances.
In the same way, Springsteen describes the attempt of an immersion in the abyss of his own soul, understanding how the learned truth must still be investigated and scrutinized: Tried to summon all that my heart finds true / And send it in my letter to you.
Between solitude and companionship
As the music video continues it shows a man walking alone in a bare winter landscape, flecked by snow, with sparse, bare trees. Two parallel roads appear, but then they diverge, as if to suggest that this man can walk only one, the one he has decided upon: solitary, unique and personal.
To define this reflection on life, a balance sheet that takes into account the extremes – The things I found out through hard times and good – that is, the painful events, but also those rich in beauty, the American singer uses a vigorous image: I wrote ’em all out in ink and blood. The black of the ink symbolizes the entire recording career of the singer, which is tinged with the blood of the passion for the lives of the many people met, imagined, dreamed and imprinted in his songs. The flow of ink represents that incessant race along the highway of life, as he had already sung of in “Born To Run” (1975) – And we’ll walk in the sun / But till then tramps like us / Baby we were born to run – through a microphone and the steel strings of his guitar, he makes resound the desire for a redeemed life of his own and of others.
This is how Springsteen, at 70, rereads his journey, that of a soul furrowed by the most intimate feelings: I took all my fears and doubts / In my letter to You / All the hard things I found out. Fear arises not only from considering, as Shakespeare’s Hamlet would say, “the whips and scorns of time,” but also from experiencing how not every problem is rationally solvable. The complexity of living teaches us that every road – as shown by the man in the music video who walks alone along a road – will bring with it dilemmas and doubts, the awareness of which will generate a radical change in one’s soul.
But Springsteen’s nature is also in accord with the one belonging to the protagonists of his songs. These two lanes will take us anywhere / We got one last chance to make it real / To trade in these wings on some wheels […] Riding out tonight to case the promised land, he sang in “Thunder Road” (1975). He sings of those who travel on the border between despair and redemption, accepting the extremes of existence, as he continues singing in the words of Letter to You: I took all the sunshine and rain / All my happiness and all my pain / The dark evening stars and the morning sky of blue.
The sun, the rain, the darkness of the evening and the dawn – always symbols of happiness and pain in Springsteen’s lyrics – often refer to relationships. An example is in “Land of Hope and Dreams” (2001): I will provide for you / And I’ll stand by your side […] Tomorrow there’ll be sunshine / And all this darkness past, and in “One Way Street” (2010): Well if the sun should fall from the sky tomorrow / If the rain brings a tear to your eye, / I would share your sorrow […] In the night, I see only the fire in your eyes / The morning light brings the shadows of your lies. In this song he refers to himself, thus the singer thus becomes the protagonist of his song and, precisely for this reason, can identify with his sung characters.
Although in this song he refers to himself, at the same time he welcomes all his fellow travelers, who struggle or have struggled so that the American dream of freedom and social dignity would continue, shown also by the presence of the political song “Rainmaker” on the album.
This desire of his for truth is written as a letter, and therefore assumes a recipient, a “you” who is capable of understanding, guarding, loving the life of a man. In fact, the final images of the video, which again act as a counterbalance to the loneliness of the man walking alone in the snow, frame the joyful and laughing faces of the song’s musicians together with Springsteen and his wife, Patti Scialfa. This shows that if, on the one hand, the lonely man continues his journey along snowy roads, on the other hand, a community of old friends will continue to support and accompany him over time.
 G. Sibilia, “Bruce Springsteen, l’intervista: ‘La fratellanza con la E Street Band è una benedizione’”, in Rockol (www.rockol.it/news-717428/bruce-springsteen-letter-to-you-l-intervista-e-l-anteprima), October 14, 2020.