We had arrived at Bruce Springsteen’s home recording studio a bit early. (I’ll admit, everything about that first sentence, as I read it back, sounds fake.) There was an unusually low amount of traffic on the way from Manhattan down to Bruce’s New Jersey residence, so to kill some time myself and the other four film writers who were invited all kind of just stood around, looking a little nervously at each other – because there was no way to really pretend any of this was “normal.” The room we were in, just off from Bruce’s recording studio, featured a plate of assorted bagels. On Bruce’s couch sat a Greetings From Asbury Park throw pillow.
It’s weird when Bruce Springsteen enters a room. Let me rephrase, it’s weird when he “casually” enters a room. I mean, it is his house. He’s not going to really have “people” with him. It’s funny, it’s as if over a half-century of performing for millions of people trained him just how to put a crowd (in this case, a “crowd” of five people) at ease and settle in for a good time. As he enters, it was kind of like a concert, “Hello, hello, hello!” He then greets us all individually, then looked skeptically at the plate of bagels. He then looked back at us, and in his “sarcastically enthusiastic” voice declares, “We have provided you with … FREE BAGELS!”
(Let’s back up for a second here, because the high comedy of all this was the shuttle bus we were on initially took us to the wrong house. We pulled into the driveway of not-Bruce Springsteen’s house and we found it odd there was no security and no one was there to greet us – and this house didn’t really strike any of us as a house Bruce Springsteen would live in. It was a little bit too green and there were way too many wind chimes. After about two minutes of trying to talk ourselves into it, or go up to the door, a colleague of mine, Erik, in his Long Island accent, screams, “There’s no fucking way Bruce Springsteen lives in THAT house!” So we drove off. And Erik was correct. Bruce Springsteen did not live in that house.)
Bruce Springsteen is making his directorial debut (co-directing along with Thom Zimny) with the wonderful Western Stars, which is part concert movie, part a continuation of his autobiography, as Springsteen wrestles with who he was and who he still wants to be. It’s a film about regret, reflection, and eventual love and understanding. This movie partially exists as a way to prolong the album of the same name’s lifespan as Bruce, like everyone else, tries to figure out how things work in this new era of media.
“You can’t depend on radio or the usual outlets for promotion,” says Springsteen. “And so I go, well, gee, you know, if I just put the record out, it’s going to come, people are going to buy it, it’s going to disappear. So how do I give the record a longer life?”
That longer life became Western Stars the major motion picture. And when you make a movie, you don’t make the rounds with the usual rock journalists. No, now you talk to the film journalists. Which basically translates to us five movie dorks somehow hanging out at Bruce Springsteen’s house. We are probably the only group of people who, by comparison, make rock journalists look really cool.
To be fair to us, Bruce actually seemed like he was having a nice time talking with us. Most of the group conversation was just shooting the shit about movies. I suspect he doesn’t get to do that very often. So much so that, at the end of our allotted time, he told us to keep going. (Which gave me my chance to ask Springsteen something I’ve literally wanted to ask him for the last 34 years. We’ll get to that at the end. But, yes, Bruce really loves movies.)
“I’d say, you know, at 27 and 28, Darkness on the Edge of Town and forward I became a bit of a film buff – and looked for other artists who were, and in a way that they were conceptualizing their work,” says Springsteen. “So, The Searchers and My Darling Clementine and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and Fort Apache, all the great Ford westerns.”
He continued, “And then there were more modern things like the Scorsese pictures. But also I remember at the time I wrote Nebraska, I’d seen Terrence Malick for the first time. And Terrence Malick films are, what are they? They’re meditative. Lots of voiceover. Days of Heaven, Tree of Life, you know? And that was always something that really drew me in. But also the guys like Monte Hellman and the Westerns he shot with Jack Nicholson: The Shooting, Ride in the Whirlwind. Of course, Two-Lane Blacktop.”
If you’ve ever been to a Bruce Springsteen concert, it may not surprise you to learn that when you talk to Bruce Springsteen in person, he’ll have a few asides about growing up in New Jersey. And Bruce didn’t disappoint, telling a story about how his mom would make him lie about his age to get the local movie theater discount.
“We had a great movie theater in the center of Freehold. It had one thing it advertised: “It’s cool inside!” That was it! It didn’t have the banner of the movie that was playing, it just had that, “It’s cool inside!” So when it got to be 95 degrees in 1957, when you were eight years old or nine years old, and no one in town had any air conditioning, people went to the movies and they saw whatever was on the screen. You went to the movies every week. It was just Saturday movie day. Initially, my mother would take us and it was 35 cents if you were 12, and a dollar once you hit 13. So my mother would just say, ‘Tell them you’re 12. Tell them you’re 12. Get down. Scoot down a little bit and just tell them,’ and the guy would say, “How old are you son?” I’d go, ‘T-T-Twelve?’ and feel really shitty about it.”
It’s kind of funny that one of the themes of the music in Western Stars is about an aging stuntman looking back at his life. Which, yes, sort of fits the themes of Quentin Tarantino’s One Upon a Time in Hollywood, which Springsteen has seen. “That’s a funny little coincidence, you know,” says Springsteen. “And I really loved it, that was one of my favorites pictures in the past year. I really like that picture a lot. It was just quite, quite touching and quite lovely.”
When Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman is brought up next, Bruce continues, “The Irishman was just beautiful to see that cast working together again and to see Marty at the top of his game. Those guys, they’re history. You’re never going to see that again, that group of actors. There are never going to be a group of actors quite like that again. And if you grew up with them as folks in my generation did, you know, it’s a powerful picture.”
Bruce is then asked if The Irishman has inspired him to get the gang together one last time. Springsteen started laughing after this question and replied, “Well, we got the band coming back together. I hope it’s not just for one! I got this farm here. I’m counting on at least a couple of more!”
An interesting footnote about Western Stars, the film, is that after Bruce plays the entire album, he ends the film with not one of his songs, but instead “Rhinestone Cowboy,” a song that was made famous by, of course, Glen Campbell. Why “Rhinestone Cowboy”? Springsteen says, “Because it was celebratory. And I could’ve left the film with ‘Moonlight Motel’ and then had the voiceover, but the character in the film makes this journey and it needed to be celebrated a little bit. And so that song was celebratory. So when it comes up, it’s a release for the audience. They may not know why, but that’s why. So that’s how that song came about. And it was slightly connected to the genre I was working in, and Glen Campbell, who was an inspiration for a lot of song styles.”
It’s interesting to think about the roads not taken, but there was a time when Springsteen toyed around with the idea of acting – even being considered for roles in Hair and King of the Gypsies. But, he eventually decided that wasn’t quite for him, outside of a cameo here and there.
“The cameos are just favors to friends, you know? But I always worry about, well, I haven’t done any homework. You know, I’m a believer in preparation and I had years of preparation to be a musician and to be a writer. And so even when I was young, I understood that when I was 25. And a couple of people were looking around to see if I had any interest in it. I said, well, you know, I feel like I just haven’t done the homework or the preparation to be an actor. And so I didn’t have the confidence, whereas in music I was completely confident in at least what I was doing, and I liked that feeling so I stuck with it.”
Alright, so … the question I’ve always wanted to ask Bruce Springsteen. And I’ve often searched the internet, looking to see if he’s ever answered this question and, for the life of me, I couldn’t find it. So, knowing this is the only time in my life I’ll ever have this opportunity, I decided to go for it:
In 1985, my grandfather took me to a St. Louis Cardinals baseball game, and the pitcher throws a strike and I’m like, “Oh yeah, got him with the great speedball!” And my grandfather says, “Speedball? Where are you coming up with that? It’s a fastball!” And I say, “Bruce Springsteen? That’s what he calls it in “Glory Days”?“ So, I have to know why do you say speedball instead of fastball?
Bruce starts laughing, “I don’t know, man! Speedball is a term from the ’50s, so it’s just an old term that I heard my grandparents use at different times. So, in the context of that, ‘Glory Days,’ I thought it was funny! I guess! I don’t know!”
And it’s probably not too big of a surprise that after that question, Bruce looks around at all of us, smiles, and says, “Alright, that’s it!”
(An epilogue to all of this was, after, Bruce wanted to get photos. A colleague, Josh, immediately joked, “These are for you, right?” To which Bruce fired back, “Yeah, they’re going up on our bedroom wall.” At first, it was supposed to be a group shot, but then Bruce wanted to do individual pictures for each of us. As someone who has seen Springsteen live 28 times, I’m still stunned any of this was happening. So by the time it was my turn – with my girlfriend, who was also invited, representing Indiewire – I can’t even hide my state of shock, which I tweeted out and was roundly both applauded and mocked. I don’t care. Again, there was no part of me pretending this was just another normal day.)
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