Review: 'Bruce Springsteen's Letter To You'

Post by: Rick Ellis 23 October, 2020

It's not an exaggeration to say that no artist has had a larger influence on how I view myself and the world around me than Bruce Springsteen.

I saw him live for the first time by accident. I grew up in Southern Indiana, an unhappy teen desperately longing for something more. I knew my place was elsewhere. I had no desire to get married out of high school and go work at the local Whirlpool factory like so many of my friends. I had no concept of what I might do with my life and my unhappiness was a burden that I wore like an uncomfortable concrete overcoat. One winter my rage and hopelessness was more than I could bear and for some unknown reason I decided to run away to Chicago. 

I didn't know anyone there, I barely had enough money to buy a soft drink. It was cold and desolate and I ended up riding the El train back and forth, trying to stay warm. At one point I needed to go to the bathroom and randomly got off at a stop on Chicago's Northside, hoping to find a bathroom and maybe convince someone to buy me a sandwich. The only place I could find was a small club, The Quiet Knight and I managed somehow to talk my way into the club. Maybe it was because I just looked harmless or maybe it's because I knew the music of The Persuasions, who were the headliners. I sat in the back corner of the club, trying to make myself small enough so no one would toss me out. And the opening act that night changed my life. 

I wasn't familiar with Bruce Springsteen before that moment. I was a hardcore music fan & remembered hearing some buzz about him. Comparisons to Bob Dylan and other comments that didn't motivate me to listen to his music. But in that small club. Springsteen and his pre-E Street band backup did a loose, rambling set that seem to look right into my soul. He was this unsettling mix of energy and thoughtfulness. He had so much to say, even though I barely understood any of it. I understood he was on a mission and on some level it suddenly occurred to me that like him I had things to say. And I needed to figure out what that meant and I knew I couldn't do it hiding in some club surrounded by strangers.

Looking back, it's strange how often Springsteen's music has been a familiar fabric interwoven into the important moments of my life. I went away to college and was in love with a smart and stunning young woman who worked at Columbia Records. She pulled some crazy amount of strings to get me into one of Springsteen's legendary shows at the Roxy. In fact, that show she and I attended was one of the last things we did before she was murdered. The joy of the night is wound up tightly with the pain and when I heard the recently released official bootleg of the show, it brought me to tears despite the passage of nearly 40 years. 

Springsteen Bruce Springsteen is seen in concert in New York's Madison Square GardenSPRINGSTEEN 1978, NEW YORK, USA

His Darkness On The Edge Of Town album came out just after my father died, a man whose life was filled with so much disappointment and unfulfilled dreams. The songs from that album haunted me for years. They seemed so personal to my life and fraught with emotion, even though the stories were Springsteen's and not mine.

It feels like his music has always been there speaking to my soul, even when I didn't appreciate it at the time. I was dating a woman I nearly married during his The River & Born To Run years and her love for Springsteen was a reflection of the joy she felt about life. It was a bond between us, the kind of shared experience that adds a special texture to a relationship. It's impossible for me to hear that music without thinking of her and remembering us at our happiest times together.

Over the years Springsteen's music changed as he experimented with different styles and backing musicians. I didn't always love the results, but I understood the compulsion to experiment. To wring every last little bit of creativity and opportunity out of life. I was a stand-up comic for ten years, a syndicated talk show host, a financial news reporter who also did the voice of a stock-picking sock puppet. I got married, had a kid and became a full-time TV industry journalist. I seemed driven to push myself in new directions, new careers. Even if my choices weren't the ones others would wish for me.

But Bruce Springsteen's music never left me and I would unexpectedly find older music of his dropping into my life with unsettling messages. As a thirtyish punk, I was lukewarm to his Tunnel of Love album with its subtle, almost slight arrangements and subject matter that made me long for the days of "Sherry Darling." But a couple of decades later, fighting to keep my marriage alive, I found its vision of the struggles between the promise of love and the reality of disappointment to be entirely too real for me.

In recent years I've begun to feel my age and as those feelings have seeped into my psyche, I've watched the same battles come into view in Springsteen's life. His autobiography and Broadway show centered on the struggles of a man who is looking back as much as he's moving forward. He hopes he's been a good man, he wrestles with the memories of  the mistakes and missed opportunities. Springsteen has been reflecting a lot about his life and it's come at a time when I've done the same. 

That reflection has been evident in the interviews Springsteen has given about his new album Letter To You, which has also spawned an Apple TV+ documentary of the same name. Even in the cheeriest of circumstances, reuniting with his beloved E-Street band on their first new album together in decades would be an occasion for reflection. But the album finds Springsteen and the band in perhaps the last chapter of their long friendship and the 90-minute film lets those moments wash across the screen without any explanation. 

Bruce Springsteen's Letter To You was primarily filmed during the recording of the album of the same name and if you're hoping to see some insight into the creative process, you'll be disappointed. The footage is less about the songs and more about the friendships and relationships that made the songs come to life. It's about the warm memories of the past, the lost friends whose memories haunt and the compulsion to keep creating - keep pushing forward - because like sharks most artists will drown if they stop moving.

As a man who feels every bit his age it's unsettling to see Springsteen and the band looking so very much like the senior citizens they are in real life. Springsteen seems frail and withered in some of the footage in a way that is startling. He's always been such a towering force of nature that seeing him slumped and tired, to hear his voice take on that old guy rasp is a painful personal reminder that like Springsteen and the rest of the E-Street Band, my years on this earth are limited.

The music of Bruce Springsteen changed me life and he continues to have an impact on the way I see myself. I won't argue that Bruce Springsteen is the most important musician of our generation. But he fills that role for me and ultimately, that's all you can hope for from your heroes.

Bruce Springsteen's Letter To You premieres Friday, October 23rd, 2020 on Apple TV+.

Last modified on Saturday, 24 October 2020 00:00