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After watching, Apple TV+’s Springsteen film, Letter to You (see here for how to view it free), my main thought was how well “The Boss” has aged--he’s now 71.

How should one live one’s life? How should one age? These two interrelated questions are, as Tolstoy realized, main ones we frequently should be asking ourselves.

These thoughts on Springsteen’s successful aging were partially prompted by David Brooks’ recent Atlantic article, “Bruce Springsteen and the Art of Aging Well,” where he wrote “Springsteen is the world champion of aging well -- physically, intellectually, spiritually, and emotionally. His new album and film, Letter to You, are performances about growing older and death.”

Brooks may have been engaging in a bit of hyperbole when he wrote “Springsteen is the world champion of aging well.” But he’s at least a major challenger for the title of wisest septuagenarian celebrity.

But having co-authored Growing Oldforty-five year ago, I have long thought about successful aging (see also here). And in a 2018 Hollywood Progressive review of “Springsteen on Broadway,” I ended it by writing that Springsteen “was one who was wise and humble enough to realize that he shared with all of us common human failings, as well as hopes and dreams.”

Thus, Brooks’ essay was not a revelation to me, but a confirmation of what I already thought, and in the words that follow I’ll indicate why.

Some six years ago I wrote on the Hollywood Progressive site that our main job in life is to love as much as we can and, as we age, gradually reduce our egos. A few other convictions I’ve developed over the years are:

  1. What values we choose to live by are of utmost importance.
  1. Love, wisdom, beauty, humility, and tolerance are five primary values we should seek.
  1. We should choose our professions/our jobs primarily based on what we love doing, not on how much money we earn.
  1. We should pursue our jobs with love, empathy, creativity, and imagination.
  1. Life and people are complex and we should avoid reducing them to simplistic categories.
  1. Count your blessings, be hopeful, and grateful for what life has given you.
  1. Maintain a sense of humor and be willing to laugh at yourself when you act foolishly, as we all do from time to time.

In his Letter to You video, also the title of his album, Springsteen touches all these bases as he weaves his philosophizing in with his singing most of the album’s songs with his E Street Band. (See here for the lyrics of all twelve songs). Most profound and germane to our considerations here are his closing words:

Age brings perspective. . . . It dawns on you rather quickly there’s only so much time left, only so many star-filled nights, snowfall, brisk fall afternoons, rainy midsummer days. So how you conduct yourself and do your work matters. How you treat your friends, your family, your lover.

On good days a blessing falls over you, it wraps its arms around you, and you’re free and deeply in and of this world. That’s your reward: being here. You realize how lucky you are, lucky to be alive, lucky to be breathing in this world of beauty, horror, and hope.

Because this is what there is: a chance. A world where it’s lucky to love, lucky to be loved. So you go until it fills you, until the sweat, blood, and hard tears make sense. You go until the light from the fading distant stars fall at your feet. Go, and may God bless you.

These words are mouthed while on the screen we see snow-covered trees and other outdoor beauty on Springsteen’s New Jersey property. But the video is set mainly in a cozy cabin studio in the midst of it and displays plenty of love, gratitude, and humility.

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At one point Springsteen states, “We have been given the tools and the property of the soul to be attended to and accounted for and that takes work, work that we might build on the principles of love, liberty, fraternity – ancient ideas that still form the basis for a good life and a humane society.”

Toward the end of the video, he adds that the “greatest thrill” for him is to be singing with his band, and he concludes. “It's just one of the deepest experiences of my life. I love all of you beyond words.”

At another point he says, “A Rock Band is a social unit based on the premise that all of us together are greater than the sum of our individual parts. That we can achieve something that we could not achieve alone and together higher ground awaits.”

Part of his band is his wife, Patti Scialfa, whom he married in 1991, and with whom he is a proud parent of three adult children. When she sings and the camera pans on her, her smile lights up the cabin. The love between her and him is evident, as is it is between him and band members like the guitarist Steve Van Zandt, sporting as usual a head bandana, who played a memorable Silvio in “The Sopranos.” 

In songs like “Ghosts, “Last Man Standing,” and “I’ll See You in My Dreams,” Springsteen’s love for others whom he performed with over the years but are now dead is also apparent. In “Ghosts” he sings, “Moving through the night / Your spirit filled with light / I need, need you by my side / Your love and I’m alive. ” In “I’ll See You in My Dreams” one stanza reads,

I'll see you in my dreams when all our summers have come to an end

I'll see you in my dreams, we'll meet and live and laugh again

I'll see you in my dreams, yeah around the river bend

For death is not the end

And I'll see you in my dreams

Springsteen and band members also drink toasts to now dead past band members like Danny Federici and Clarence "Big Man" Clemons. Gratitude for them, for the E Street Band, and for life generally, as Brooks notes, “oozes” from Springsteen.

Both humility and self-deprecating humor are expressed in his words “the E Street Band is not a job -- it is a vocation, a calling.” Its “one of the most important things in your life--and, of course, it's only rock 'n' roll.”

He also reflects humility when he says, “Where do we go when we die? Maybe we go nowhere. Or maybe everywhere. Maybe our soul resides in the ether, in the starless part of the sky.” In our age when so many people dogmatically proclaim about the afterlife (without having any personal knowledge of it) such words are refreshing.

We see a similar humility at the beginning of the video when he muses on why he feels such a strong need to communicate. “Is it loneliness, hunger, ego, ambition, desire, a need to be felt and heard, recognized, all of the above? All I know, it is one of the most consistent impulses of my life.”

Regarding Springsteen’s thoughts on creativity, beauty, and the complexity of life, as well as his political views, we learn more from some of his previous words, including in interviews. (See also my review of a previous Springsteen video.) In 2012, for example, he spoke at length on creativity at a music conference.

In addition to his recent Atlantic article on Springsteen and aging well, David Brooks had in June of this year written “Bruce Springsteen’s Playlist for the Trump Era.” It was based on an extensive interview with the singer. In it, he told Brooks, “I always tried to write what I thought were complicated character studies that had social implications, because I believe you have to create complex characters that you breathe creative, three-dimensional life into. And that’s how you find the truth in something.”

In that same interview he mentions the impeachment of Nixon and added that today we might have been free of a Trump presidency “if not for the gutlessness of the Republican Party.” In his more recent article on Springsteen, Brooks quotes him as saying “Joe Biden is like one of the fathers in the neighborhood I grew up with as a kid” [in New Jersey]. “They were firemen and policemen, and there was an innate decency to most of them that he carries naturally with him.”

Trump, he believes, has no such decency, a sentiment shared by Brooks, who writes “Trump is a prime example of an unsuccessful older person--one who still lusts for external validation, who doesn’t know who he is, who knows no peace.”

walter moss

Brooks may have been engaging in a bit of hyperbole when he wrote “Springsteen is the world champion of aging well.” But judging from the video Letter to You, his earlier “Springsteen on Broadway,” his 2016 autobiographicalBorn to Run, and various interviews, he’s at least a major challenger for the title of wisest septuagenarian celebrity.

Walter Moss