Bruce Springsteen stands at the bar, a glass of Jack Daniels in hand and a shy grin on his face, as he surveys the room. He’s about to put his lifelong battle with loneliness to the test.
It’s Thursday afternoon during the Toronto International Film Festival and Springsteen is inside the Weslodge Bar & Grill on King St. W., wearing dressy western attire of black blazer, jeans and cowboy boots, preparing to meet and greet dozens of movie and music journalists.
They’re supposedly there to talk about Western Stars, Springsteen’s film directing debut, with longtime collaborator Thom Zimny. Due in theatres Oct. 25, it’s based on Springsteen’s gorgeous new album of the same name, a series of frontier ballads that look bravely ahead at the open road while casting a longing glance in the rear-view mirror.
What the journos really want to do is shake the hand of “The Boss” and have a photo taken with him, as he’s obligingly happy to do, one after another.
He understands fandom. It was watching Elvis Presley on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1956, and later the Beatles on the same show in 1964, that made him want to get a guitar and “learn to how make it talk,” as he sings in his classic hit “Thunder Road,” from his breakthrough Born to Run album of 1975.
In that same song he refers to “Only the Lonely,” a tune by Roy Orbison, another of his heroes, and how much he identifies with its solitary man theme. It’s a leitmotif he pursues on “Hello Sunshine,” the first single off the Western Stars album: “You fall in love with lonely, you end up that way,” he cautions, to his listeners and to himself.
As he closes in on his seventh decade — he turns 70 on Sept. 23 — he’s more aware than ever of the danger of shutting yourself off from the world. The songs of Western Stars, which Springsteen, his wife/bandmate Patti Scialfa and a 30-piece string orchestra perform in the film inside a 100-year-old barn turned concert venue, speak of the things that matter and the things that don’t, and learning to tell the difference between the two.
Yet, still the New Jersey rocker struggles with the feeling of wanting to run away from all the acclaim of decades of superstardom, which he talks about in the film in his intro to new tune “Chasin’ Wild Horses.”
I ask him about that when my turn comes to briefly seize his attention. Why does he still feel the urge to hit the highway and drive away?
“I guess it’s talking about the fear of intimacy, you know?” he answers.
“When I was young, and you’re a musician, it took me a long time to get to a certain place where I felt comfortable with family and loving somebody and being loved.
“Really, that’s what’s the film is about. The film takes you on that journey. Like I say, there are two parts to the American character: one is very isolated and one is in search of community. So how do you make your peace with both of those things? That’s really what the picture is about.”
I remind him of a quote about the art of songwriting from Rolling Stone Keith Richards: “There’s just one big song in the sky. You reach up and pull down the parts you need.”
Does Springsteen find songwriting to be that easy? It sure seems so: the tunes off Western Stars, inspired by the breezily wistful Southern California pop of the 1970s by the likes of Jimmy Webb, Glen Campbell and Harry Nilsson, sound carefully crafted but also effortless, like they just poured out of Springsteen for his 19th studio album.
“Yeah, music comes out of the air,” he agrees.
“So it’s something that doesn’t exist. Then it exists and you make it physical. It’s a real magic trick. You take something from nothing, or you pull it up out of yourself. Whenever that happens it’s always a blessing.”
Springsteen performs all 13 tracks from Western Stars in the film and adds one more not on the record: Campbell’s “Rhinestone Cowboy.” It’s a song about the mixed emotions of being a star and trying to hold on to what’s real: “There’s been a load of compromisin’ / On the road to my horizon / But I’m gonna be where the lights are shinin’ on me.”
It just felt right to include that song, Springsteen says. He calls his film a “tone poem,” because he introduces each song with deep reflections drawn from a long life of wandering the world — the first two tracks are “Hitch Hikin’” and “The Wayfarer” — and wondering what to make of it all.
Springsteen’s spoken-word thoughts are heard over scenes inspired by classic Wild West movies, of horses on the run and endless landscapes, shot in the desert splendour of Joshua Tree National Park in California.
“It’s easy to lose yourself when you never find yourself,” he observes. He quotes the biblical proverb about how “you reap what you sow” in life. He also talks of his long battle to make a better man of himself.
He speaks of learning the virtues of humility and compassion, and of falling in love not just with his wife Patti, his partner of 30 years, but also with the homespun joys of family life with their three children: sons Evan and Sam, and daughter Jessica.
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The final song on the Western Stars album and the penultimate one in the film is “Moonlight Motel,” a heartbreaking ballad that sounds like a lament for a lost lover. It’s actually a tribute to Patti, Springsteen says, and how they used to have to “sneak around” when they first fell in love in 1988. He was still married then to model Julianne Phillips, with whom he had a brief and unhappy union, chronicled on his Tunnel of Love album from 1987.
He and Scialfa would furtively meet in the Empire Diner in New York’s Chelsea neighbourhood. They would often go from there to a bench in nearby Clement Clarke Moore Park, where they’d sit and talk for hours, sipping on beer from cans in paper bags.
Springsteen says they carved their initials into one of those park benches. Which sounds like something someone would do when they’re trying to stay put, not run away. But it took him a while to realize this.