Bruce Springsteen is wrestling with death.
You hear him as you float high above leafless trees dusted with snow. The scene, captured in creamy tones of black and white, is one of beauty almost unbearably elegiac, sacred in its stillness. Then he speaks, giving words to a truth all too familiar to anyone who has lived long enough to see skin grow loose and hair turn thin and gray.
“Age,” he says. “Age brings perspective and the fine clarity one gets at midnight on the tracks, looking into the lights of an oncoming train. It dawns on you rather quickly, there’s only so much time left. Only so many star-filled nights, snowfalls, brisk fall afternoons, rainy midsummer days.”
All this is from “Bruce Springsteen’s Letter To You,” the Apple TV documentary on the making of Springsteen’s new album of the same name. It is, he tells you on film, a suite of songs born on a deathbed. Meaning that they were written after a vigil with George Theiss who, before he was a 68-year-old carpenter stricken with lung cancer, was a teenager playing in a Jersey Shore band called the Castiles with his girlfriend’s brother, Bruce Springsteen.
“With George’s death,” says Springsteen in voiceover, “I was the last living member of the mighty Castiles.” He says this by way of introducing “Last Man Standing,” a propulsive paean to gigs long past in days long gone, to being young and loud, rocking together against the world. Which makes it also, inevitably, a song about the swiftness and the thievery of time, a song that implicitly asks, “Hey, what happened to 1967?”
Not that memory and mortality are the only themes Springsteen wrestles. But they are the ones he keeps returning to, as if he can’t stop ruminating on the impermanence of life.
“I’ll see you in my dreams,” he promises a departed friend in one song. “I’m alive and I’m out here on my own,” he exults in another song, also offered to the spirit of lost friends. In yet another song, he sings a lament many have sung before: “One minute you’re here, next minute you’re gone.”
None of this is particularly surprising coming from an introspective poet who notched his 71st birthday in September. Yet the theme resonates beyond the AARP set in a godawful year that has gone out of its way to remind us that life makes no promises. We lost the Black Panther and the Black Mamba this year. We’ve also lost over 231,000 of our family and friends to a pandemic.
But, as Springsteen sings, you and me, we’re alive. Improbably, gloriously, so.
And what to do with that? He decided to convene the E Street Band, most of its members old friends of many decades and countless stages. They gathered in the studio on his New Jersey farm and recorded these songs. The music is muscular and lean, the keyboard chimes, the sax sasses, the drums punch as hard as Mike Tyson ever did. In other words, it sounds like Springsteen, same as he ever was.
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Yet, some of the best moments of the documentary are found not in the songs, but in between, as old friends toast, laugh and remember with that ease born of being, well ... old friends. It lends the music a kind of urgent joy that comes not despite the fact that we are finite, but through it. By way of it. Because of it.
Finite at 71, yes, but also finite at 31.
That’s the thing age knows that youth is slow to figure out, and it’s the moral of 2020, the wisdom whispered above snow-whitened trees. You get only so many star-filled nights and rainy midsummer days. Only so much baby laughter. Only so many carnivals. Only so much music. So it is always a good idea to take joy urgently.
One minute you’re here.
Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 3511 N.W. 91 Avenue, Doral, Fla. 33172. Readers may write to him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
© 2020 Miami Herald. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.