For Bruce Springsteen fans, the new album, Letter To You, is one they have dreamed of for some time. His first with the mighty E Street band since 2014’s High Hopes. And more importantly for E Street fanatics, it is the first since 1984’s seminal Born In The U.S.A. to be recorded live with everyone together.
It turns out not only have fans been clamoring for this for some time. so has the E Street Band, particularly Steve Van Zandt, who tells me he’s been hoping for this kind of recording for years.
“I kept emphasizing if we do make another record, and it was really not clear if we ever would, but I said, ‘If we do, let’s go back to the old way,'” he says.
The result is a masterpiece. A meditation on mortality, the album is, reminiscent thematically at times of Bob Dylan’s Grammy-winning Time Out Of Mind. But backed by the joy and power of the E Street Band, Letter To You is balanced by hope, optimism and unity.
Through the record, the music thanks the ghosts for the memories they have brought, like on the stunning opener, “One Minute You’re Here,” but instead of just mourning, it takes the lessons and the love brought by departed friends and family, and channels that into celebrating still being here, as on the moving “Last Man Standing.”
The album wraps with Springsteen tapping again into his lifelong Roy Orbison fandom vocally at the beginning of the powerful prayer, “I’ll See You In My Dreams.”
“We’ll meet and live and laugh again/I’ll see you in my dreams/Up around the riverbend/For death is not the end/And I’ll see you in my dreams.” Springsteen sings as the E Street Band rise in a powerful crescendo throughout the uplifting anthem.
Letter To You, is, in typical, Springsteen fashion, exactly the work needed for the times. For Van Zandt, who has worked by Springsteen’s side for five decades, that is part of the wonder of Springsteen as he explains.
“The main thing art does is it lets you know you’re not alone and I think that’s what Bruce’s gift has always been. And it’s all through Letter To You, no matter how specific it gets people can relate to it,” he says.
As brilliant as the album is lyrically, so much of what makes it special is the unity of the E Street Band, celebrated in the mesmerizing Apple TV documentary Letter To You (for which I interviewed director Thom Zimny for a piece running this Thursday).
As you see in the documentary, this is more than a band. It’s a family, and one that as time passes only grows to appreciate each other more.
As Van Zandt says so aptly and accurately, “It’s fun to play with this band. This band is among the best that there’s ever been.”
No argument. And Letter To You shows and celebrates maybe the greatest American band ever (to answer actor Hank Azaria’s question) at their absolute peak.
I spoke with Van Zandt and guitarist Nils Lofgren, who took me through the incredible recording process and into the inner workings of Bruce Springsteen and the “earth-quaking, booty-shaking, Viagra-taking, history-making, legendary E STREET BAND!”
Steve Baltin: What do you both take from this record?
Nils Lofgren: I think it’s a huge statement. On the playbacks I usually try to get a lyrics sheet and when I got down to the end of the week and we started listening back I was like, “We’re gonna just revel in the joy of music.” I started playing accordion when I was five years old, looking back now, I realize my entire life music has been a sacred weapon. It’s the planet’s sacred weapon. Billions of people turn to it every day, now more than ever, for healing, a sense of community, bringing people together. We need it now more than ever and I’m really proud when Bruce got us together and picked up the mighty E Street sword and started swinging, he put everything above all that. Said look, “The joy of music, the gifts we all got, we didn’t ask for, how it happens when we’re together,’ that’s what this record is about. and we need to share it.” I know we were waiting to go out and tour, which just didn’t work out that way, because of the pandemic. I was really grateful and proud of him for deciding not to wait on this record any longer and share it because, boy, the world needs healing from wherever we can get it. And there’s no finer place than music.
Steven Van Zandt: Work does have a context. There’s no doubt about it. Whenever it arrives in the form of art, art always has a context that is connected to what’s going on. And I think in this case I think there is a sense, what I was talking about, in terms of loss, Bruce is exploring the subject of mortality and the subject of what matters most to you in your life. He’s been really digging deep into that for the last four projects. This is his fourth extraordinarily insightful, confessional, autobiographical piece of work. The book, the Broadway show, Western Stars and now this, I think they are all connected and they’re all extremely unique, connected pieces of work that I call “Wisdom Art.” I did a whole radio show on this a few months ago. I called it wisdom art, which is art that can only be made by someone who’s a little bit older, who’s been around and has some perspective. I think this is another example of it. You have this wonderful record that is mostly very up and optimistic and hopeful. Inside are the sub-themes of mortality and loss.
Baltin: The film shows so much joy in everybody being together.
Van Zandt: In this case, it was just so much fun because we hadn’t recorded this way since Born In The U.S.A. And we had several conversations through the years about it. And I kept emphasizing if we do make another record, and it was really not clear if we ever would, but I said, “If we do, let’s go back to the old way.” Which we had done on three records, Darkness [On The Edge Of Town], The River and Born In The U.S.A, where Bruce walks in with an acoustic guitar, plays his songs and everybody has a chance to give their input. The great thing about the E Street Band is they really do produce themselves. Our roles are so well defined at this point. It’s just a matter of, with Nils and Charlie [Giordano, keyboardist] of course their first time recording the old-school way, which is live in a room. Nils of course fit right in. There’s always room for a third guitar part, so that was easy. And Charlie was terrific. Had to nudge him a little bit because Danny[Federici, who passed in April of 2008] was such a unique keyboard player, very instinctive and very unique style that through the years developed. Danny and Roy [Bittan, piano] very much had that weaving their parts together. And it’s very hard to describe to somebody Danny’s style. Danny was loose, very free-flowing and very strange and like most of the band probably wouldn’t have fit in anywhere else (laughs). But once Charlie got acclimated, “Oh, it’s not a normal organ player job, this is a little more complicated than that.” But Charlie is a very fast learner and he adapted very, very well once he realized we were loose and relaxed. The only problem was, to be honest with you, it happened too damn fast, which kind of ironic when you think back to Darkness On The Edge Of Town and Born To Run. But Bruce finally came full circle. My only regret literally is I wish we could have spent a little more time, it was just so much fun. It was nothing but fun.
Lofgren: It was spectacular. I still remember after the Born In The U.S.A. tour, it was like 156 shows. I’d been buying tickets to see them play since the early ’70s, big fan. I never thought I’d be in that band. And at the end of that tour I remember thinking, “Man, if this never happens again, what a beautiful gift of a ride.” And god, look at us now, almost 36 years now as a member of the band, well past a thousand shows probably, and that’s not counting the records, the sound checks, the travel, the time together. It was such a joy. And we work intensely and well together. While we were recording the record a lot of times with Steve and Bruce on electrics I’ll pick up an acoustic guitar. I love kind of becoming a giant shaker inside Max [Weinberg’s] high hat and just doing this breathing work. And whatever I hear I breathe to it differently with my right hand. There are a couple of songs, we’re all collectively working with arrangements with Bruce, throwing out ideas. That’s the beauty of being all together, if somebody has an idea, Bruce says, “Let’s hear it.” You count it off, ten seconds later you’re like, “Yeah, that’s good, put it in.” Or, “No, let’s leave it like it was.” It’s just so immediate when you’re all together. And even internally there’d be times, like on “Ghosts,” I’d be playing this acoustic rhythm and it felt good and musical. But something was wrong, I didn’t know what it was. And just internally I’d ask Kevin Buell, Bruce’s tech, Kevin and I did the Ringo [Starr] tours together, he’s a dear friend, I’d say, “Get me my baritone, get me my Fender Baru,” and I plugged in a Fender and an amp, and this is all while the band is raging on and talking through arrangements and experimenting and next thing you know I go from an acoustic to a Baritone. These are just internal productions and instincts that we all have. Roy playing with his voicings, he’s so great at it. He instantly gets to what he wants. Everyone is bobbing and weaving. I’ll see Garry [Tallent] put down a bass, pick up another bass. Whatever he was doing felt great to me, but he had an idea (laughs). So we’re all producing our own little universe as we’re collectively putting the whole arrangement together and changing the map of what eventually will be the take. It’s just such a beautiful thing, a joy. What a blessing, what an opportunity. It’s very rare and hey we got to do it again.” And after the Born In The U.S.A. tour I wouldn’t have been the greedy this many years later to be making a fresh new record with Bruce and E Street and I hope part of that will lead to our getting out and singing and playing again. I’m almost beside myself that I can’t get on a plane and go to a gig and figure, “How late in the show is ‘Burning Train’ gonna happen? Cause man it’s hard to follow that one even though we got the songs to do it.” Silly little musician things and I couldn’t be more grateful Bruce put us together to make this record.
Baltin: Are there songs from the new record you are really excited to do live or see how they invigorate the old material?
Lofgren: All these songs are really powerful. I see them all in a live setting and in particular of course songs like “Ghosts,” “Burning Train,” it’s something that could go on indefinitely cause of the grooves and the power with an audience in front of you. That’ll be somewhere down the line. The huge positive for me is that Bruce realized let’s get this out, just the way we all felt making it and the gratitude for the experience and the success of the experience and the songs together warranted sharing it now with the world. And I think it’s gonna heal and help a lot of people and put some inspiration and healing into their lives. I hope that will linger as we all navigate this dark chapter we’re getting through.
Baltin: I love the older songs, especially “If I Was A Priest.” Talk about recording those songs.
Van Zandt: It’s wonderful how the older songs fit so well into this album. It’s remarkable really. That, “Janey Needs A Shooter” and “Songs For Orphans” are all from the early ’70s. To have something fit so well 50 years later, oh my god, I swear we have completely redefined chronological time I’m telling you, I think rock and roll has changed science. Seventy is the new 40.
Baltin: After all these years why do you think it is you and Bruce work so well together?
Van Zandt: I know me and Bruce are always thinking the same way, which is how can we be useful. I think that’s something an artist always needs to ask themselves. Yes, there’s always going to be a personal part of what they do in terms of expression or confession or searching for answers or finding insights and sharing them. But I think in the end the question becomes, “Okay, here’s all this chaos, and man, we are in chaos, how can we be most useful?” By opening our arms and saying, “Hey, everybody’s welcome to our shows, everybody’s welcome to hear our music.”
Baltin: This album feels very special for E Street fans.
Van Zandt: Bruce has performed the brilliant artistic task of being extremely personal, extremely detailed and nuanced in his personal explanation and descriptions and insights, and the more personal he gets the more universal the message becomes. That’s a brilliant, brilliant gift. And I learned from that. And I think David Chase learned from that with The Sopranos and I learned from that in Lilyhammer and my own work. But it was Bruce really that said, “We don’t need to generalize, we don’t need to say let me explain the whole world to you as an artist. You don’t have to do that. Just tell the truth about your own life, what you’re experiencing, what you’re seeing and dig into it. Don’t be afraid of it, confront it. Let’s see where it comes out. Let’s describe our most intimate relationships with the hopes that other people can see themselves in our work.” That’s the great thing about art. Art can pass along inspiration, motivation, insights, even information. But the main thing art does is it lets you know you’re not alone and I think that’s what Bruce’s gift has always been. And it’s all through Letter To You, no matter how specific it gets people can relate to it. You don’t have to be a musician or a band member. Yeah the central sort of premise of the album had to do with the Castiles and the E Street Band, what they have meant to his life. But that’s just a vehicle. You don’t have to be in a band to relate to what he’s talking about. Or be a musician, it has to do with family and brotherhood and sisterhood. How we are better when we work together than we are when we’re alone. That’s the bottom line I think of this album, we’re better together.
Baltin: You said you didn’t know if there would be another record. Because of that do you feel more of an appreciation when you are all together?
Van Zandt: Yeah, it’s fun to play with this band. This band is among the best that there’s ever been. And I think you appreciate that more every single year. We appreciated it more when we came back together in ’99. It’s a very comfortable combination that just works. It’s been working a long time and it just gets better. I think you do appreciate it more and more every year.