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‘Bruce is like Jesus – either you love him or you don’t’: Springsteen’s new album, ‘Letter to You,’ is available now

UPDATED: Thu., Oct. 22, 2020

When the Spokane Arena asked local music fans who is on their bucket list in 2018, Bruce Springsteen placed 13th, somehow behind Imagine Dragons. After scanning various concert websites and checking with local music encyclopedia Bob Gallagher, who owns the West Central record shop 4000 Holes, it’s apparent that the Boss has yet to perform in Spokane.

“If Bruce played Spokane, it would be huge,” Gallagher said from his store at 1610 N. Monroe St.

Matt Meyer, director of entertainment of the Spokane Arena and First Interstate Center for the Arts, concurs.

“As I took over this position in January, I thought to myself, ‘Who does Spokane need to see? Who hasn’t been through the city in a while or in this case ever?’ A couple of names came to mind, but I kept coming back to the Boss knowing the kind of shows he puts on, the hits and the electricity that would shoot through the building for just one night. The generations of fans coming together to gather, ironically, by the river, to listen to Bruce Springsteen. We don’t know how much longer he’ll be producing music, let alone going out on tour. Bundle all that together, and that’s why he hit the top of my list.”

E Street Band guitarist Steven Van Zandt is up for a date in the Lilac City.

“We love the Pacific Northwest,” Van Zandt said while calling from his Manhattan apartment. “There’s a lot of musical history in that part of the country with Jimi Hendrix, Paul Revere and the Raiders and the Sonics. We’ve had fun out there, but we haven’t played everywhere.”

Perhaps Springsteen and his E Street Band can make its initial visit to town whenever the group tours behind its latest album, “Letter to You,” which drops Friday.

If Paul McCartney can play Missoula, anything is possible. However, live music performance is verboten throughout most of the country due to the novel coronavirus.

“We can’t wait to get back on the road,” Van Zandt said. “People are talking about the summer of ’21, but I think it’s going to be more like the summer of ’22.”

In the interim, Springsteen fans will have to be content with “Letter to You,” the 20th studio album by the bard. The poetic songsmith has much to say while touching on mortality, charlatans and his rich history as a musician, which is a wonderful surprise. Perhaps Springsteen was inspired by his terrific autobiography “Born to Run” and his recent Broadway run.

“The record is a nod to (Springsteen’s former band) the Castilles and the E Street Band,” Van Zandt said. “This is the first time Bruce has talked about his profession on a record. He’s paying tribute to his bands and what we do.”

Three of the 12 songs are from Springsteen’s salad days, such as the moving “Janey Need a Shooter.” It’s difficult to believe the melodic and urgent gem has been in storage for 42 years.

“Bruce told me a while ago he was thinking about putting out a compilation of songs and that he had this old song, which was ‘Janey Needs a Shooter,’ ” Van Zandt said. “I told Bruce the song is fantastic and should be on a regular album.”

The Boss seems to still be in autobiographical mode with “Letter to You,” after the release of his book and Broadway run from 2017-2018. “I totally agree with you about the autobiography connection, and it’s cool that Bruce set a whole new standard for autobiographical work,” Van Zandt said. “Bruce has certainly raised the bar.”

“Letter to You” is perhaps the rawest Springsteen and the E Street Band release, which is fascinating since albums are typically filled with overdubs, and it usually takes a while for recording artists to finish a project.

However, Springsteen and company recorded in an old school manner and finished “Letter to You” in just four days with scant overdubs. “We haven’t made an album like this, dare I say it, in 40 bleeping years,” Van Zandt said while laughing. “It’s absolutely old school, like you say, and that’s what we are. We did our Beatles schedule. Paul McCartney told me that the Beatles had to do a song every three hours because that’s all the time they had during their early days. They had to do it from scratch, and they knocked it out.

“The E Street Band basically produces themselves. How we do things is that a song is played naked on the acoustic guitar, and we make suggestions, say about an arrangement. We do typically no more than three takes. So we knock out a song in three hours. We recorded the songs live. We gave ourselves five days to make this album at Bruce’s home studio (in Colts Neck, New Jersey). We finished early and just listened to the tracks on the final day.”

Thom Zimny, who has directed, edited and produced a number of Springsteen films, including his latest, the documentary “Bruce Springsteen’s Letter to You,” has been privy to the act’s near infallibility for more than 20 years as the Boss’s filmmaker.

“What surprised me early on working with Bruce and the E Street Band is watching how they work in the studio,” Zimny said while calling from New York. “It’s shocking watching these guys work on a song they never heard before. They hear Bruce play it, and they start playing it, maybe altering the arrangements, and then they add solos.

“After hearing the song, they might play the song twice, they then play the song a third time like they knew it their whole lives. Then I’ll watch Bruce and Steven add hand claps or harmonies without even thinking. When you see that, you can’t help but be blown away.”

Van Zandt nailed it when he was asked about what makes his lifelong friend so special. The E Street Band guitarist, who portrayed Tony Soprano’s consigliere during the run of “The Sopranos” and serves the same role with the Boss, focused on Springsteen’s work ethic.

“Nobody is born great,” Van Zandt said. “That’s a fact. People might think greatness is in people’s genes, but that’s not true. To be a great musician, you have to work hard. Sure, some people can sing in tune and sing better than others, but it’s about that focus on something you love and putting aside distractions.

“Bruce has always been able to do that. Bruce works harder than anyone.”

The Boss, who will probably never unseat the Chairman of the Board in his home state, works relentlessly on his songs and even with speeches. Springsteen possesses a unique voice as a songwriter and singer. However, much like the aforementioned Dylan, Springsteen isn’t everyone’s cup of tea.

“Bruce is like Jesus – either you love him or you don’t,” Gallagher said. “But Bruce is totally special. I like some of his stuff, and some of his songs touch my soul like ‘One Step Up.’ I went to see the ‘Tunnel of Love’ tour (in 1987) in Tacoma, and I wasn’t that thrilled until Bruce hit the stage. We were six rows away, and it didn’t take long for me to be raising my fist. You don’t understand what a powerful musician and performer Bruce is until you see him perform live.”

It’s going to obviously be a while until Springsteen can perform in person, but perhaps Spokane can receive its bucket list wish with a performance by Springsteen and the E Street Band. Is that possible?

“I would love it,” Van Zandt said. “I’m not responsible for where we play. I just go to wherever I’m supposed to, but like I said, we love the Pacific Northwest. I would love to come to town.

“Hopefully, we’ll come your way at some point. You know we want to get back on the road, but we can’t do it. You’re just going to have to be content with the record for now.”

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