Fear and Loss: The Boss at 70

A couple of weeks ago, about three months in advance of his seventieth (!) birthday, Bruce Springsteen released his nineteenth studio album, Western Stars. It’s unlike anything he’s done before while remaining unmistakably Bruce.  It’s the voice in his lyrics and the characters he speaks through that  hasn’t changed.

Musically, it’s almost entirely acoustic, but unlike previous acoustic masterpieces like Nebraska  and The Ghost of Tom Joad, it’s much more than Bruce in a chair with an acoustic guitar and a harmonica.  Instead, it’s filled with lush, country-ish orchestral arrangements that hearken back to the late 60s and early 70s work of Harry Nilsson and  especially the hit making collaborations of Glen Campbell and Jimmy Webb; sounds of the American west, particularly Arizona and Southern California. Musically, it’s about as far away from the New Jersey sound of guitars and saxophones as one could get without leaving the USA.

Thematically, the album is about fear and isolation, love and death, all things he’s sung about before, but never as openly and urgently.

To summarize the themes of the album, let’s take a look at what in my humble opinion are its two best songs.

In the song “Western Stars,” Springsteen takes on the role of a washed up cowboy actor who is barely hanging on, to life, sexual potency, and relevance.  The song opens with the character pleased to be simply waking and that he hasn’t been taken to “the whispering grasses” of Forest Lawn cemetery.

Then he’s at work, filming a television commercial, refusing the makeup girl’s offer of a shot of gin and raw eggs in favor of a Viagra for an unidentified lover.

We’re only into the first verse, and, as is one of his gifts, Springsteen has told us everything we need to know in as few words as possible. We know this is a guy consumed with fear; fear of death, fear of sexual impotence.

The incredible second verse shows us more:

Here in the canyons above Sunset, the desert don’t give up the fight
A coyote with someone’s Chihuahua in its teeth skitters ‘cross my veranda in the night
Some lost sheep from Oklahoma sips her Mojito down at the Whiskey Bar
Smiles and says she thinks she remembers me from that commercial with the credit card

Nature is still exerting its dominance even amongst the encroachment of real estate represented by the reference to Sunset Boulevard. The desert remains a dark and wild place, a place where coyotes prey upon landowners’ small dogs. Then the verse takes a turn, referencing a new face, “some lost sheep from Oklahoma”, and the predator and prey metaphor is made, although it’s really not clear who is predator and who is prey.

The next verse had me puzzled for a bit, but the video I think helped clear it up for me:

Some days I take my El Camino, throw my saddle in and go
East to the desert where the Charros, they still ride and rope
Our American brothers cross the wire and bring the old ways with them
Tonight the western stars are shining bright again

“Charros” are Mexican cowboys who observe the old ways of doing things.  These days, it seems doubtful that they are still riding around the southwest U.S.  In the video, Springsteen is alone in this part of the song.  I think the sight of them “riding and roping” is illusory, that they are merely ghosts and that the old ways, like the singer himself, are fading and fading fast.

The next verse is devastating:

Once I was shot by John Wayne, yeah, it was towards the end
That one scene’s bought me a thousand drinks, set me up and I’ll tell it for you, friend
Here’s to the cowboys, riders in the whirlwind
Tonight the western stars are shining bright again
And the western stars are shining bright again

All he has left that’s of any interest to anybody is the same old story about how he was once shot by  the  Duke himself in a movie that has to be at least forty five years old now.  He’s been getting drinks off of that story ever since, and he offers to tell it again if you’re willing to pay the price.  He then raises a toast to all the cowboys, “riders in the whirlwind,” and we’re not sue if he’s referring to real cowboys or the movies version, western “stars” like John Wayne.

The song reaches its conclusion:

Tonight the riders on Sunset are smothered in the Santa Ana winds
And the western stars are shining bright again

The “cowboys riding in the whirlwind” have been replaced by commuters down Sunset Boulevard  “smothered in the  Santa Anna winds.”

The singer is left alone, aging, and irrelevant to the “riders on Sunset.”

. . .

“Moonlight Motel” closes the album out, and it’s as great a song as Springsteen has written in a long, long time. 

The song begins with the narrator looking back into his past, and his memories are rich with sensory detail that has retained its grip on him even after the passing of an unspecified period of time:

There’s a place on a blank stretch of road where
Nobody travels and nobody goes and the
Deskman says these days ’round here
Where two young folks could probably up and disappear into
Rustlin’ sheets, a sleepy corner room
Into the musty smell
Of wilted flowers and lazy afternoon hours
At the Moonlight Motel

The images are vivid and multi-layered, reflecting both the physical decay of the Motel and the aging of the narrator. The details that Springsteen chooses and the language he uses to describe them are nothing if not poetic:

Now the pool’s filled with empty, eight foot deep
Got dandelions growin’ up through the cracks in the concrete
Chain-link fence half-rusted away
Got a sign, says, “Children, be careful how you play”
Your lipstick taste and your whispered secret
I promised I’d never tell
A half-drunk beer and your breath in my ear
At the Moonlight Motel

The images of rust and decay are balanced with memories of the intimacy the lovers shared.

In the next verse, the responsibilities and routine of the everyday eat away at that intimacy, and it’s interesting that Springsteen gives us precious little information about the woman that is being remembered so powerfully.   Is he describing an extramarital affair? Or is it an ex-wife? Is he a widower? All we know is that for whatever reason, she’s gone, and he’s alone, feeling a profound sense of loss

Well then, it’s bills and kids and kids and bills
And the ringing of the bell
Across the valley floor through the dusty screen door
Of the Moonlight Motel

In the next verse, she visits him in a dream, and the wind blows icy cold.  He wakes up to something she said, that “it’s better to have loved.” His sense of loss is so powerful that he is compelled to drive to the motel in the middle of the night:

Last night I dreamed of you, my love
And the wind blew through the window and blew off the covers
Of my lonely bed, I woke to something you said
That it’s better to have loved, yeah, it’s better to have loved
As I drove, there was a chill in the breeze
And leaves tumbled from the sky and fell
On a road so black as I backtracked
To the Moonlight Motel

The images of the drive to the motel, of  “a chill in the breeze” and leaves tumbling from the sky to land on “a road so black” are beautiful and haunting even as they represent death, and it becomes clear that the lover being longed for has died.

He arrives at the motel only to find it “boarded up and gone.”  He pulls into his old spot in the parking lot and pours two shots of Jack Daniels and says his last goodbye to things once important to him – his lover, the motel and his  youth:

 She was boarded up and gone like an old summer song
Nothing but an empty shell
I pulled in and stopped into my old spot

I pulled a bottle of Jack out of a paper bag
Poured one for me and one for you as well
Then it was one more shot poured out onto the parking lot
To the Moonlight Motel

In   the end,  the guy in “Moonlight  Motel” isn’t the tragic figure of ”Western Stars,” he’s just a guy, the same guy  who’s inhabited so many of Springsteen’s songs for close to fifty years now. In Western Stars, we find this guy carrying the same baggage of loss and fear that we all carry as we approach our final destination.   By recognizing and exploring this baggage, Springsteen makes it a little lighter  for us to carry.

2 thoughts on “Fear and Loss: The Boss at 70

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s