Early in Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band’s just-released documentary, “Letter to You,” the group drinks a toast to the fans in San Siro Stadium in Milan, happily reminiscing about the audiences in Italy and looking forward to performing there on tour in 2020.
That was in November, 2019, after a five-day recording session at Springsteen’s home studio in New Jersey. The result of those sessions — the “Letter To You” album — is out today, and the documentary premiered Thursday on Apple TV Plus, a day earlier than scheduled, as a surprise for fans.
The tour, obviously, is another story.
“The real pain is that we can’t go and play now, because that is the normal course of events,” Springsteen told Apple’s Zane Lowe in an exclusive fan event held Thursday evening, as part of the new Apple Music TV’s all-day Bruce takeover. “It’s the sweetest part of the whole thing, and we are screwed at the moment.”
To make up for it, Springsteen went all in with a week-long blitz of events, sitting down for interviews via Zoom with Lowe and “Late Night with Stephen Colbert,” and releasing daily content on Apple Music and SiriusXM’s E Street Radio featuring conversations with Clive Davis, Eddie Vedder, Dave Grohl and Brandon Flowers of the Killers. He wrapped up the week with an exclusive “New Music Daily” album listening party and fan question and fan Q&A session hosted by Lowe.
The event — which included footabge of the band performing several songs from the album, as seen in the documentary — gave 1,000 “super fans” the opportunity to submit video queries as well as type questions in a rolling group chat. The special presentation was also aired simultaneously on Sirius XM’s E Street Radio and streamed on Apple TV Plus for fans to view, minus the special selection of joining in the live conversation.
Lowe read some kind words from devotees such as “Mrs. Outlaw” (aka Laura Maimone) thanking him for being “a constant in my life” and one lucky fan, “Cary [Wilson] in Five Points, NC,” getting a special shout-out. When one fan, TMG23, suggested that the new song “Burnin’ Train” sounds like a lock for a show opener, Springsteen looked straight into the camera and said he was “100% correct.” John Kotch from California was curious if Springsteen sensed at an early age that his career would be a continuing “conversation” with his fans. Springsteen said that became more evident as he grew older.
“I knew I was trying to communicate and I wanted to speak to people,” he said. “‘Letter to You’ is interesting because it is a direct reference to that conversation itself — writing a letter to all of those faces out in the crowd.”
Another group of fans located “near Maxwell’s” — the legendary, now-shuttered Hoboken venue where Springsteen filmed the 1985 “Glory Days” video — wanted to know which new song was the “most meaningful” to the singer. Springsteen was amused by the Maxwell’s reference before answering.
“‘House of 1,000 Guitars’ strikes to the heart pretty well,” he said.
Springsteen joked about the session’s 11 p.m. being past his bedtime (“I’m old,” he chuckled) before fielding a few comments and questions about the documentary and new album. The studio, he told Lowe, was designed by his wife Patti Scialfa and situated next to his garage, with his motorcycles and cars. In that studio, there is a peace that comes with an array of instruments waiting to be played.
“It’s lovely to be around instruments even if they’re silent, with stories waiting to be told,” he said, describing the guitars as “magical totems.”
“It still holds magic for me,” he said. “It makes me love being a musician.”
Throughout the broadcast, Springsteen was joined by “special guests” and members of the E Street Band, who wished him well on the evening of the album’s release: drummer Max Weinberg (still on duty, delivering his message as he pounded on his drum kit), guitarist Nils Lofgren (declaring “Music is the planet’s secret weapon”), saxophonist Jake Clemons, organist Charlie Giordano, director Thom Zimny and an “encore” appearance by Springsteen’s engineer early in his career, veteran producer, executive and Beats co-founder Jimmy Iovine — who, despite being an audio engineer, suffered some connection issues that muffled his responses and made him sound like the teachers on the Charlie Brown specials (interestingly enough, “It’s The Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown” debuts on Apple TV next Friday).
“He gets better lighting than me,” Iovine joked about Springsteen, before sharing in a virtual toast to the new album premiering at midnight.
“This is like ‘This is Your Life,'” laughed Springsteen.
“Letter To You” is dedicated to the “Memory of George Theiss and the Castiles of Freehold, NJ” — Springsteen’s high school band, of which he is the last surviving member, and its late lead singer — and the Freehold native waxed about how the album delves into the themes of “mortality,” with nods to the “Ghosts” of late E Streeters Danny Federici and Clarence Clemons (“They visit me in my dreams several times a year,” he said).
Still, “It’s not a dark record — there’s more joy in it than dread,” he said. “Hopefully it’s a small balm during these difficult times.”
Oddly enough, the challenges of the world post-virus turned out to be a “good thing” for the film, Springsteen revealed. The original concept was to have Zimny film the band recording the album and then interperse that footage with live performances of the music at a later date. Covid-19 social distancing regulations forced their hand to get creative and “reconceptualize” the presentation, similar to last year’s documentary film and companion piece to the album, “Western Stars” but “on a whole other level,” he explained.
The trick, Zimny said, was remaining invisible as a director and catching “small moments” on film, such as the “invisible language [they have].” Zimny captured that segue with archival footage, particularly in interactions with Springsteen and Steve Van Zandt talking chord changes or perusing 7” records, with quick cuts to the present day.
“As much as I could prepare, I knew I was walking into something different,” Zimny said. “This was a different project because I never had this magical experience of the E Street Band recording an album. I wanted to capture everything, but stay out of the way [and] keep up with the guys.”
One fan from Boston, Christina, pressed Springsteen in a video to describe how the documentary differed from his films of the past.
“I think it reveals some of the mechanics and inside magic of how we put a record together,” he said, revealing that most of the time he hears the song in his head, records it acoustically and makes a demo. This time, he skipped the demos and put trust in the band to flesh out the songs.
“I go back into that booth, count it off, and it comes roaring to life,” he said. “It’s an incredible moment, and one we haven’t captured on film. It’s an amazing moment for me when I first hear the band perform a piece of music I wrote.”