I was listening to the song “The Power of Prayer” from the new Bruce Springsteen album Letter to You when I drove by a church known for posting witty aphorisms on its outside bulletin board. The message was “Faith needs no proof; proof needs no faith.” It was an “a-ha” moment: Maybe that’s what this song is about. Maybe it’s what this album is about.
This is not an argument about deism or the existence or non-existence of a higher power. But in a recent interview with Steve Inskeep on NPR’s Morning Edition, Springsteen refers to himself multiple times as a “spiritual songwriter.”
“It’s basically a spiritual record, and I consider myself primarily as a spiritual songwriter,” Springsteen says. “To be a spiritual songwriter means that you are primarily addressing the soul of your listeners. I want people to dance. I want people to be entertained… At the same time, I try to insert something that can, in certain moments, address your inner life, you know, by revealing my own inner life.”
Springsteen was using words, torrents of words, to describe the ineffable since he started writing songs. Think of the songs on his Columbia Records debut album, Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J.: “Spirit in the Night,” “Lost in the Flood,” “The Angel,” “It’s Hard to Be a Saint in the City,” “For You,” and, of course, “Blinded By the Light.” Keep the titles, go holy with the lyrics, and you could have an album by The Five Blind Boys of Alabama or the early Staple Singers. A reader influenced by The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James, might wonder: What does it mean to be “blinded by the light,” if not to have a spiritual awakening?
The genius of Letter to You as an album – and it is genius, one of the great albums Springsteen and the E Street Band have made over their 45 year career – is that it reconciles three of the earliest songs Springsteen had written with nine more recent ones, your classic 12-song album that creates a kind of story arc of his musical life, and yes, spiritual development.
The three early songs: “Janey Needs a Shooter,” “If I Was the Priest,” and “Song for Orphans,” were all from the demo recordings Springsteen made for Columbia Records’ John Hammond preceding the recording of the debut album Greetings. The former demos all get the same full E Street Band treatment that the new tunes receive. From soft to loud; from pensive to joyous, all in a few bars. The album was spontaneously arranged and recorded during four days at Springsteen’s New Jersey home studio in late fall/early winter 2019 (there is light snow on the ground seen in the useful Apple TV+ documentary on the making of Letter to You).
“Janey Needs a Shooter” is the strangest because people may understandably confuse it with Warren Zevon’s “Jeanie Needs a Shooter,” from Zevon’s 1980 album Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School.
The titles are not coincidental: Janey and Jeanie are like first cousins in a close-knit family. Zevon, with Springsteen’s accommodation, changed the name, wrote his own song, with Springsteen contributing new verses. “Jeanie” is a Zevon-Springsteen co-write, but they are different songs with similar moods. Reviewing Zevon’s album in Rolling Stone in 1980, Jay Cocks calls “Jeanie” “a Freudian Western about love, betrayal, and what seems like incest.”
Springsteen’s “Janey” is a waif abused or manipulated by a doctor, a priest, and a policeman. The chorus, though, is the best thing about it, and you can understand why a songwriter like Zevon would be attracted to the possibilities of this enigmatic title.
“If I Was the Priest” is also a western, (much more imaginative than anything in last year’s well-intended but overthought Western Stars). It’s also a spiritual fable that in the early 1970s, when Springsteen wrote it, likely had the air of irreverence. Jesus is the sheriff, the “Holy Ghost is the host with the most” running a burlesque show, and Mary is a saloon keeper and whore. But even then Springsteen’s rebellion against the Catholic Church of his upbringing had limits: The free-spending bootleggers who get to take Mary upstairs find out that she’s an addict who nods out before the act is done. As a result, Springsteen sings, “she’s only been made once or twice by some kind of magic,” suggesting that the mystery and miracle of the Virgin Birth is intact: Conscious or not, Springsteen’s belief ran deep.
The young Springsteen also believed in Bob Dylan, evident in “Song for Orphans,” the most fascinating and fully “Dylan-esque” song, and you can see why they left this off Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. The record company, like every other label in the early 1970s, was loading up with singer-songwriters, some of whom were cursed with the appellation of “The New Dylan.” Springsteen was aware of it. His mentor at Columbia, John Hammond, was mocked for it. Having signed the real Bob Dylan, as well as Billie Holiday, Count Basie, and Benny Goodman, the peerless talent scout Hammond was sidelined by the corporate whiz kids at CBS Records, where I worked from 1972 until mid-1974. Around Black Rock, CBS Records headquarters, Springsteen was known as “Hammond’s Folly.” The departments that drove the tremendous Columbia hit machine of the early 1970s: radio promotion, marketing, and sales, thought Springsteen had little commercial potential, that he would only sell a few thousand albums, but have some prestige among critics. (This was largely true until 1975 and Born to Run).
But while Clive Davis was in charge (before his July 1973 firing), Springsteen had some backing from top management. There is a meeting I attended famous in Springsteen lore: the weekly singles meeting, attended by department heads as well as me and my boss, Bob Sarlin, the two-person editorial staff for the label’s twice-monthly magazine, Playback. Davis sat at the head of the long conference room table and recited the entire unaccompanied lyrics to “Blinded By the Light,” while many of his VPs snickered and smirked. And they were wrong.
So “Song for Orphans” was much too Dylan-ish, which has clear echoes of “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands,” “My Back Pages,” and Robbie Robertson’s “The Weight.” But with the E Street Band, it’s now like hearing Dylan and the Band on a very good night.
The link to the new songs on Letter to You are memories of the Castiles, the Freehold, NJ, group that was Springsteen’s first taste of what it was like to be in a band, to seize that spirit in the night and hold an audience spellbound. The Castiles had a long run, from 1965-1968; the frontman was the charismatic George Theiss, who died at age 68 of lung cancer in July 2018. The departed members of the E Street Band, Clarence Clemons and Danny Federici, are honored here, are notable by their worldly absence and phantasmal presence on a number of songs: The garage-rock masterpiece “Ghosts”; the evanescent “One Minute You’re Here”; and the heartbreaking closer, “I’ll See You in My Dreams,” which will bring tears from a heart of stone like water from the rock hit by the staff of Moses.
But it is Theiss’s death that triggered these celebrations of rock amid ruminations on mortality. “House of A Thousand Guitars” sounds like a stand-in for an afterlife, where all the spirits gather for another toast, another drink, another encore. Technically, this is not an easy lyric to sing: It’s an awkward phrase: There’s nothing mellifluous about it. And Springsteen, pushing the air from his stomach like an opera singer might have done it, concludes the song by repeating the line “a thousand guitars” eight times. It is a triumph of endurance, of technique, of giving it all he’s got until there’s almost no breath left.
“Last Man Standing,” one of Springsteen’s greatest songs, begins with a portrait of Theiss and the Castiles, but nostalgia (“faded pictures in an old scrapbook”) is transmuted into something of the moment: of being a 71 year old man, surrounded by his essential partners in the E Street Band, still not at the end of the line, but at a peak of prowess. And for Springsteen, it’s a different kind of prayer. He put in the work, he put in the hours, he followed his dream with the single-minded dedication out of a singular need or set of needs. And he achieved those dreams beyond imagination, so much so that there still remains a mystery: how is one so blessed, and alert to accepting grace.
“Rock of ages lift me somehow/Somewhere high and hard and loud/Somewhere deep into the heart of the crowd,” he sings, and notes, “I’m the last man standing now,” the only survivor of the Castiles. But there’s something unexplained about how he made it this far, as the next verse seems to signal a continuing bewilderment: “Out of school and out of work/Thrift store jeans and flannel shirt.” They came from almost nothing; he was just the guitar player in the Castiles. How did he get here?
When Little Richard first gave up secular music for gospel and preaching, he quipped about “giving up the rock for the rock of ages.” Springsteen never had to choose. He stayed with the rock. And he has been “somehow” lifted by the rock of ages.
Maybe that’s the power of prayer.
Header image courtesy of Shore Fire Media/photo by Danny Clinch.