- 29 Oct 19
“I’m going to try and be an astronaut next,” quips Bruce Springsteen, who’s done just about everything else in a remarkable career that has included some historic Irish stop-offs. To mark our 1,000th issue, Stuart Clark can’t resist slipping a ‘Barn In The USA’ pun in as he joins The Boss for a preview of his new Western Stars movie.
The first time Bruce Frederick Joseph Springsteen got a major run-out in Hot Press was in June 1978 when Jack Lynch cast a critical ear over Darkness On The Edge Of Town.
The album, Jack noted, “is appearing after three years of silence. Springsteen had been involved in litigation with his ex-manager, Mike Appel, which vetoed any recording. This in turn dissuaded Bruce from performing any new songs for fear of them being bootlegged.”
Jack was spot-on with his assertion that, “Springsteen’s romantic attitude has taken some knocks since the lay-off. His characters may still be wild but they have lost their innocence to a worldly wisdom.”
With ‘Badlands’, ‘Adam Raised A Cain’, ‘The Promised Land’, ‘Prove It All Night’ and the emotionally-charged title-track among its numerous standouts, Darkness... got to number five in the US Billboard chart, confirming that Bruce’s music had lost none of its currency during his enforced sabbatical, and teeing him up perfectly for The River, which followed two years later and earned him his first Stateside number one.
Sales-wise, though, it was dwarfed by his next E Street Band-assisted album, Born In The USA, which sold over 30 million copies and on June 1, 1985 brought him to Slane Castle for what at the time was his biggest ever show.
Fast-forward 34 years and the thing that’s still astonishing about Bruce is his work rate. Since wrapping the E Street Band’s last tour on February 12, 2017 – a globe-straddling 89 date affair that grossed $306.5 million at the box-office – The Boss has published his bestselling Born To Run memoir; performed 160 solo Springsteen On Broadway shows, which spawned a much-watched Netflix special; scored yet another monster hit with this year’s Western Stars; and turned it into a movie that gets a one night only screening all over the world, including Ireland, on October 28 with the soundtrack dropping three days beforehand.
It’s this “part concert film, part visual album” which finds your humble correspondent sipping a skinny decaf latte in London Soho’s seriously salubrious Ham Yard Hotel at ten o’clock in the morning. Sticking to mineral water is The Boss who’s resplendent in a check shirt, faded jeans, cowboy boots and standard issue James Dean leather jacket. With him is his Western Stars co-director Thom Zimny, a longtime collaborator who cut his teeth editing three seasons of The Wire and also has a Johnny Cash film hurtling down the tracks.
The plan of attack is that a motley assortment of European print journalists are going to be treated to a screening of the film followed by a Q+A with Bruce and Thom conducted by broadcaster and über-Boss fan Edith Bowman.
My previous Close Encounter Of The Bruce Kind was in March 2012 when a similar bash was thrown in Paris for his Wrecking Ball album.
I just happened to be positioned at the right end of the La Mucide Marigny theatre bar when Mr. S arrived in for a post-playback flute of champagne.
It’s all a little bit hazy – they weren’t skimping on the bubbles – but we ended up having a chinwag about a mutual hero of ours, Joe Strummer.
“I ran into Joe in a bar in LA in 1990,” Bruce recalled. “What a guy. We were from very different backgrounds but singing I think from the same hymn-sheet. I really miss having Joe around.”
I’m still in a state of shock, but less so than my 13-year-old self who will never be able to compute that he got to talk matters Clash with The Boss.
Reflecting on his latest creative purple patch, Bruce said recently that, “The book came very organically, and from the book came the play, and from the play came an extension of tying up the philosophical threads I’ve been working on my whole life, really. As I say in the beginning of the movie, there are two sides to the American character: the solitary side and the side that yearns for connection and community, and I’ve spent a lifetime trying to figure out how to reconcile those two things.
“I knew I wasn’t going to go on tour for Western Stars,” he continued, “so I needed another way to connect with fans. I said, ‘Let’s just shoot the whole album from start to finish’, which we did.’ So I had the book and then I had the play, and now this film is the completion of that trilogy of work.”
Bruce is in ebullient form – is he ever in anything else? – as he greets the chosen media few (plus a somewhat incongruous looking Badly Drawn Boy) with a hearty “Hello, early morning movies watchers!” and then takes his seat for what must be his gazillionth gawp at Western Stars.
It’s apparent pretty much from the start that the 82-minute film is equal parts Bruce mythologising America’s southwest and demythologising himself.
While all of the themes are familiar – “My 19th album and I’m still writing about cars – or the people in them,” he jokes on screen – he’s never spoken with such candour about his relationship with Patti Scialfa who’s rightly credited as the special guest star.
As recently rediscovered footage of them honeymooning together in a log cabin plays, Bruce whispers the sweetest of nothings to the woman who’s accompanied him on a massive part of his rock ‘n’ roll adventure.
“We’ve been together for a long time, so that’s a lot of experience around the one little microphone,” he tells us after the end credits have rock ‘n’ rolled. “So we bring all of that the minute we lean in. Oh my Lord, there’s the whole 30 years of emotional life together between us. She’s wonderful. If you dig deep down into the centre of the film, she’s there.”
The movie performance of ‘Stones’ is notable for not only Bruce and Patti’s swoonsome vocal interplay, but also the tender kiss he plants on the top of her head at the end.
“I should have had Patti on the record,” he rues. “That was a big mistake because it’s all about men and women and Patti brings so much.”
Quickly followed by his proclamation that, “Love is one of the miracles that God has given us daily proof of”, it confirms what we already knew, which is that Springsteen is a hopeless romantic.
What makes Western Stars different to your average concert movie are the short film introductions to its fourteen songs, which is one more than you’ll find on the original album. Feeling that the ending might otherwise be too downbeat, Bruce came up with the last minute idea of covering ‘Rhinestone Cowboy’, the tune penned by fellow New Jerseyan Larry Weiss and turned into a stonewall American classic by Glen Campbell. It turns out to be a masterstroke worthy of the price of cinema admission alone.
“That was just tossed in at the end because, y’know, it was a little on the dark side, which the story was and was not,” Bruce says. “It was a tip of the hat to a lot of my inspiration. ‘Man, we’ve got to do ‘Rhinestone Cowboy’. This isn’t finished until we do ‘Rhinestone Cowboy!’”
The original plan to include sound bytes from the 30-piece orchestra and dozen or so other people on stage with him – “They say what a great guy I am and what an honour it is to work with me,” Bruce deadpans – was abandoned after a ‘eureka!’ moment he had whilst sat on the sofa.
“One night in front of the television I just started to scribble my thoughts down for each song,” he remembers. “And it was all there. So I ended up with the script that is the voiceover. And then once we had the voiceover, we needed something for it to voiceover. So Thom had some images and we shot a little film during the photo session for the record. We started to play with that: it felt good and then I started to score the voiceover and that got us into this whole other section. Which is really what turned it into a movie rather than just a concert film. It happened very organically and bit by bit.
“It was very enjoyable because I got to go inside the songs again, and try to have a deeper understanding of what they were actually about,” he continues. “I was working on a meditation about men and women and love and the difficulty of love and how do you move from being an individual actor into a life that’s filled with people and family and friends and some communal experience. Everybody has to walk that journey. And so the film was a study about what the trip is like. The spoken pieces end up being these little tone poems that lead people into a deeper understanding of the songs.”
In keeping with his automotive fetish, there are lots of shots of a Stetsoned Bruce behind the wheel.
“When in doubt I just get in and drive the car,” he laughs. “‘What are we going to do with this song? Ah, drive the car.’”
Among the locations that car gets driven to in Western Stars is the Joshua Tree National Park, a nod of respect, one imagines, to Gram Parsons rather than U2. This might be his first co-directing film credit, but Bruce has spent his entire musical career being cinematic.
“When I write in character, it’s a way of exposing your own inner life and struggles,” he proffers. “Whether it’s Nebraska or The Ghost Of Tom Joad or Devils & Dust, those are my little movies that I script out before. Those songs are always suggestive of a visual landscape.”
The film’s other special guest star is the century-old barn on Bruce and Patti’s ranch in Colts Neck, New Jersey, where, not for the first time, his family and pals were treated to beers and tunes.
“The barn is pretty cool,” he agrees. “It came with the property and we rebuilt the bottom for the horses. The upstairs hasn’t been touched since the late 1800s. It’s just an incredible, incredible space. We have our parties and weddings in it and built the little bar that’s up there. It’s not just for the film, that’s actually how we keep it.”
There’s a ‘Barn In USA’ pun to be made, but I shall refrain. As well as making Bruce’s New Jersey hoedown and road trip look stunning, it was Thom Zimny’s job to unearth the grainy Super 8 clips that are weaved into the narrative.
“If you look at the films that Thom chose it’s all ritual, ritual, ritual,” Bruce notes. “The things that connect us – weddings, parties, family, dancing – and keep our heads above water. He also found the footage of my honeymoon in 1988. He’d archived some of my home movies and pulled that stuff out. It was fun to get it in the film.”
Despite visual evidence to the contrary – the odd fleck of grey and fine laughter line aside, he still looks like the young gun that rocked Slane in ’85 – Bruce recently summonsed enough breath to blow out all seventy of his birthday candles.
“I’m a man of many talents,” he says of entering his eighth decade. “I write books and Broadway plays and now I’m making movies. I’m going to try and be an astronaut next. I’ll let you know how that goes! I think some of it might have to do with reaching that age where you’re sort of summing up a lot of what you’ve learned and what your life has been. I’ve had a good run over the past five years as far as feeling really inspired and being really creative. I’ve done things I’ve never done before. I feel very lucky because you never know…”
Appearing the previous night on a seriously star-studded Graham Norton Show – Robert DeNiro, Sienna Miller, Paul Rudd and, er, James Blunt – Bruce confirmed that next year will be an E Street Band one.
“Yeah, yeah, I got to go back to the day job and pay the bills,” he tells Bowman who then asks Bruce what his catalyst is for starting a record.
“I just hope I can write something because you always think you’re never gong to write again,” he reveals. “Writing is a mystery. Anything creative remains a mystery. Am I going to ever write another song? Because you often think, ‘I have no ideas.’ I’m wandering around for a year without any ideas or any inspiration and suddenly something comes along and you find another vein in your creative mind that you can tap. For this record it was sort of Southern California/Burt Bacharach/Jimmy Webb. I said, ‘Gee, I’ve never written with major 7th chords. What if I tried to write some songs that had that feeling?’ So you have all these new ideas. Your audience wants you to do two things. They want to feel at home and say, ‘Surprise me.’ You have to do those two things at the same time. I’m lucky to have such a big audience around the world that supports my work. I don’t ever take it for granted. It’s a wonderful thing.”
Sadly, I don’t get to talk Joe Strummer or any other punk rock icon with him today, but I do literally bump into Bruce in a corridor (apologies again, Bruce) where a handshake and a few quick words are shared.
“You guys are from Ireland?” he says tantalisingly. “Okay, I guess we’ll be seeing you soon.”
Make of that what you will…
• Western Stars and its soundtrack album are out now.
- Film & TV
- 20 May 22