Last year, Bruce Springsteen was thinking about the death in 2018 of his friend and former bandmate George Theiss. Springsteen took his guitar and began writing a song about being the last living member of his first band, The Castiles.
He wrote about the places in the east coast state of New Jersey where the young band played their first shows. He described the clothes they wore while they performed. He recalled his first musical experiences as well as his longtime friends who have died. The 71-year-old Springsteen wrote: “Somewhere deep into the heart of the crowd/I’m the last man standing now.”
Springsteen named the song Last Man Standing, and more songs followed. He released the resulting album, Letter to You, last week.
“It was the key to the rest of the record,” Springsteen said of Last Man Standing. “My friend George passed away. Him and I were the last guys from my first band, which meant it left me sort of on my own.”
The songs document his difficult friendship with Theiss, who formed The Castiles, more than 60 years ago. Theiss invited Springsteen to join and he accepted. But quickly, Springsteen overtook Theiss as the lead musician. Tensions arose, and the band broke up.
The two men connected again later in life, but Theiss became sick and died.
Springsteen said writing about his friend was not easy. In fact, he said the new song Ghosts was “quite a storm to write.”
Ghosts is about his memories of Theiss. It is, in Springsteen’s words, “what it felt like if you had a close friend who you knew all the clothes they wore, the books they read, the records they listened to and all of those things meant something to you.”
The 12-song Letter to You, is the musician’s 20th album. It is a look back on the band members and other friends who Springsteen lost. They include Theiss, E Street Band players Clarence Clemons and Danny Federici as well as his longtime assistant Terry Magovern.
In the first piece on the album, One Minute You’re Here, Springsteen sings about being on his own. And on the last song, I’ll See You In My Dreams, he sings that he is ready to “meet and live and laugh again” with his old friends.
“Clarence is never out of our thoughts and neither is Danny. They’ll always be in the E Street Band,” Springsteen said.
The E Street Band came together again to record Letter to You.
“It was heavy. It was emotional. We’ve all had to learn our life inside the band and outside the band, how to coexist with the joy of life and the sadness of loss,” added E Street Band guitarist Nils Lofgren.
They recorded one song every three hours, Springsteen explained. “In four days, we were done. The fifth day we sat around, drank and listened to them…the band is at its very best. We’ve learned our lessons over the years,” he added.
While recording the songs last November, Apple TV+ filmed a black-and-white documentary called Bruce Springsteen’s Letter to You. It also was released last week.
The film is as emotional as the album. At one point it captures Springsteen’s longtime producer Jon Landau crying as he listens to the song I’ll See You In My Dreams.
“I didn’t realize it happened until I saw the film,” Springsteen said.
“I was sitting behind him and I was just listening to the track and I went, ‘Hey, that’s pretty good’ when it was done. I knew the song was very intense. It’s about people who have passed on.”
Springsteen said he was pleased that Landau agreed to keep the emotional scene in the final version of the film.
Springsteen said he wrote nine of the album’s songs in about 10 days. The other three songs were written almost 50 years ago but never recorded, he said.
Writing about death, the musician said, has caused him to think differently about life.
“I’m kind of a little bit thankful for every day that’s passing by. I have no regrets about things that I did or didn’t do…I had to struggle to get a good personal life together. That took a long time and a lot of work. I’m lucky that I got a great home and a great family right now…I have to thank my lovely wife, Patti Scialfa, for all of that,” he said.
“So, things are good at the moment. Once you reach my age, death is a part of life. You get in your 50s, 60s and 70s…it’s just a part of living.”
I’m Susan Shand.
The Associated Press reported this story. Susan Shand adapted it for Learning English. Caty Weaver was the editor.
Words in This Story
guitar – n. a stringed musical instrument, with a fretted fingerboard, played by plucking the strings
key – n. the most important aspect
joy – n. happiness
cathartic – adj. something that cleanses the heart, mind and body
scene – n. part of a movie that is in one place with the same characters