‘The older you get, the heavier the baggage becomes that you haven’t sorted through,” says Bruce Springsteen in his new concert documentary, ‘Western Stars’. “So you run. And I’ve done a lot of that kind of running.”
Springsteen turned 70 last month. On the big screen, his famous face has a monumental cragginess that makes him look like he belongs on Mount Rushmore, carved in rock (and roll). Behind the wheel of a battered American pick-up, he drives through the stark landscape of the Mojave Desert.
“I’m still writing about cars, the people in them anyway,” he says in ‘Western Stars’. “Cars have been a powerful metaphor for me. 40 years ago, they represented freedom. Today, not so much. A metaphor for movement at best. But are we moving forward? A lot of the time we’re just moving.”
‘Western Stars’ is Springsteen’s cinematic directorial debut, a feature-length companion piece to a new album of the same name. Created with his long-time collaborator Thom Zimny, editor of previous Springsteen videos and concerts, it splices live performance footage with talky interludes.
“We all have our broken pieces, emotionally, spiritually, in this life nobody gets away unhurt,” Springsteen says, pondering the parade of drifters, loners and struggling blue-collar workers who have populated his songs since ‘Greetings from Asbury Park N J’ in 1972. “Everybody is broken in some way. We are always trying to find somebody whose broken pieces fit with our broken pieces and something whole emerges.”
Springsteen calls the film “a meditation” and a “tone poem”. It continues the probing self-investigation of his 2016 autobiography, ‘Born to Run’, and his 2017 one-man stage show, ‘Springsteen on Broadway’.
“I’m gonna do professional wrestling next,” he jokes. “Maybe it’s all part of the act of getting older. The film is sort of the completion of that little trilogy, the tying up of philosophical threads that I’ve been working on my whole life, since I was a kid. Making the film allowed me to tell a story that I hadn’t directly told before, in a way I’ve never told it.
“There are two sides of the American character: the solitary side and the side that yearns for connection and community. That’s just been a lifetime trip for me, trying to figure out how to get from one to the other, how to reconcile those two things.”
‘Western Stars’ began, he says, as “just a collection of new songs that had a certain ambience that evoked the western part of the country”. Unlike the epic, muscular rock he plays with his E Street Band, for ‘Western Stars’ Springsteen dived into a lost strand of ’60s pop, combining lavish orchestrations with electric guitars on melodies that evoke the country baroque of Jimmy Webb and Glen Campbell, and the Californian dreams of Brian Wilson and Harry Nilsson. Rather than tour the album, Springsteen chose to shoot a concert upstairs in a 140-year-old barn on his farm in Colts Neck, New Jersey, a place where the atmosphere is “kind of gritty and intimate, which is what a lot of the songs are”.
He played two gigs for friends, family “and the horses down below”.
The show itself is a tour de force from one of the greatest performers in rock history. The original plan was to augment this footage with “interviews where people talk about how great I am to work with and what a pleasure and honour it was,” Springsteen laughs. “The usual s**t, you know! So we started that and it didn’t quite feel right.”
So one night, he sat down “in front of the TV” and in a couple of hours had written the script for a voice-over “that really traced the emotional arc of the album”.
The album opens with a blast of optimism, but the doubt, loneliness and regret in other songs suggest the dark consequences of cutting loose.
Turning 70 has, inevitably, brought Springsteen thoughts of mortality. “I miss a lot of people that aren’t here now to share in your defeats and your victories. Your family thins out a little bit. My mom hasn’t been well.”
Many shots in ‘Western Stars’ depict Springsteen as the last man standing.
Between songs, there are vivid American vignettes, nostalgic old footage filled with huge skies, wild horses, distant mountains and long straight roads. Dressed in black, carrying a Stetson, Springsteen walks beneath giant ancient cacti, an old cowboy haunting the plains.
“I grew up in the ’50s and the Western was king,” he says. “Henry Fonda or Gary Cooper were icons of manhood, so it naturally seeps into your bones.”
Although Springsteen’s songs roam far and wide, he still lives 10 minutes from his childhood home in Freehold, New Jersey, a suburban, industrial bit of the East Coast.
The cowboy is usually characterised as a loner, and ‘Western Stars’ wrestles with this aspect of Springsteen’s character. He has recently admitted to struggling with depression, a sense of inauthenticity (“I’ve never held an honest job in my entire life,” he declared, in ‘Springsteen on Broadway’) and a dark streak. “I’ve spent 35 years trying to let go of the destructive side of my character, and I still have days that I struggle with it,” he confesses in ‘Western Stars’. “For a long time, if I loved you or I felt a deep attachment, I would hurt you if I could.”
In his book, Springsteen revealed that he had been in therapy for decades.
“I was in my early 30s and I started to say, well, where is my everything? I love working, and the band was playing great, but there wasn’t a lot else. That was when I really started the analysis. I had hit a wall and I didn’t have any place else to go.”
Springsteen split from first wife, Julianne Phillips, in 1988, after just three years. Shortly after, he was linked to singer and guitarist Patti Scialfa, an old friend who had joined the E Street Band in 1984.
The couple married in 1991 and have three children. ‘Western Stars’ shows footage of the early days of their romance, sitting on a bench in New York where they would meet in secret, or goofing around in front of a log cabin in Yosemite.
“Those are my honeymoon tapes. Patti was a couple of months pregnant and we just drove up there. The only thing she said was, ‘Don’t take me anywhere it’s hot!’ So Yosemite was 70F (21C) but getting there across the California desert was 100 degrees (38C). So I didn’t earn many points!”
In the concert, Scialfa performs as part of Springsteen’s band. There is a palpable intimacy whenever they share the microphone, or Springsteen shoots her a smile, or Scialfa rests her head against his shoulder.
“We have been together a long time, so when we gather around that microphone, oh, there’s a lot of living there,” Springsteen laughs. “Of all kinds! Nobody knows me better than she does. So that look in her eyes is frightening but its lovely at the same time.
“The film is really kind of a love letter to my wife and the changes that we’ve been through.”
A suggestion that it shows life “before and after” Scialfa is shot down with quick humour: “There was no ‘before’ my wife!”
One of the final shots is of the couple’s weathered hands holding a steering wheel together. “It’s the old story, its love in the end, that’s all we have,” he says. “That’s all that really gets us through at the end of the day. So how do I find my way there? Really that’s what the film is about.”
He shakes his head, and laughs. “It was a hell of a road!” (© Daily Telegraph, London)
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