“Moonlight Motel,” the final track of Bruce Springsteen’s Western Stars album, has a strong feeling of … well, finality to it, as well as the album’s biggest emotional punch.
Like many of the characters on Western Stars, the singer of this tenderly sung ballad is getting old, and given to thinking about the past. He thinks specifically about the motel where he used to go with a woman to escape the realities of day-to-day life (“bills and kids, and kids and bills, and the ringing of the bell”). He thinks the motel is now run down and little used, with an empty pool and a rusty gates. But he imagines a young couple could still use it the way he once did, despite its “musty smell of wilted flowers.”
He remembers the woman — probably an extramarital lover, since he sings of “your whispered secret I promised I’d never tell,” and the motel seems like a place you’d go to hide — and has a dream of her. After he wakes up, he thinks of her saying, “It’s better to have loved.”
He can’t even bring himself to say the two words that usually follow these five (“… and lost”), so he just repeats, “It’s better to have loved.” The feeling of loss must be too strong. Still.
He drives to the motel. But it’s not just in disrepair, as he had thought. It’s totally empty, and boarded up.
He handles the moment like any stoic hero in an old Hollywood western would. He takes out a bottle of whiskey and pours a shot for himself and a shot for her, with a third shot poured onto the motel’s parking lot, as a kind of toast.
Background facts: Springsteen released “Moonlight Motel” as the last track of his 2019 album, Western Stars.
On each of the 70 days leading up to Bruce Springsteen’s 70th birthday (on Sept. 23, 2019), NJArts.net will do a post on one of The Boss’ best songs of the last 30 years. We’re starting with No. 70 and working our way up. For more on the project, click here.
We need your help!
CONTRIBUTE TO NJARTS.NET
Since launching in September 2014, NJArts.net, a 501(c)(3) organization, has become one of the most important media outlets for the Garden State arts scene. And it has always offered its content without a subscription fee, or a paywall. Its continued existence depends on support from members of that scene, and the state’s arts lovers. Please consider making a contribution of $20, or any other amount, to NJArts.net via PayPal, or by sending a check made out to NJArts.net to 11 Skytop Terrace, Montclair, NJ 07043.