It’s, for my money, the most rousing moment on Bruce Springsteen’s recent Letter to You album. “It’s your ghost moving through the night, your spirit filled with light/I need, need you by my side, your love and I’m alive!,” sings Springsteen, building up to a fever pitch, on the album’s second single, “Ghosts” (see video below).
The word “ghost” often has a negative connotation, meaning something scary or spooky. But as Springsteen uses it here, it couldn’t be more positive. These ghosts, the spirits of his deceased bandmates, are purely benevolent, inspiring him as he continues to make music.
This isn’t the first time Springsteen has referred to ghosts. He has done so in previous songs, in his “Born to Run” autobiography, and even in his “Springsteen on Broadway” show. His thoughts about ghosts, in fact, seems to be central to his concept of what life is all about, and so I decided to take a closer look. (The website springsteenlyrics.com, by the way, was invaluable in doing research for this article.)
There are mentions of ghosts in one of Springsteen’s early signature songs, “Thunder Road” (“There were ghosts in the eyes of all the boys you sent away”) as well as in 1980’s “Fade Away” (“Baby, I don’t wanna be just another useless memory holding you tight/Or just some other ghost out on the street to whom you stop and politely speak”) and in 1982’s “My Father’s House” (“Ghostly voices rose from the fields”).
It’s worth mentioning, too, that all of the ’70s-written songs on Letter to You contain references to ghosts: “If I Were the Priest” (“And the Holy Ghost is the host with the most”), “Janey Needs a Shooter” (“So I held her real close, she was more saint than a ghost”) and “Song for Orphans” (“left to ride the ever ghostly Arizona gusts”).
One of these six early references is just a little joke (“The Holy Ghost is the host with the most”). The other five use “ghost” the way it is usually used: As something from the past that haunts us in the present.
But later, things change.
In 1990, Springsteen and Patti Scialfa had their first child, Evan. “The room is filled with the light of blood spirits past, present and future,” Springsteen wrote of Evan’s birth, in the “Born to Run” autobiography. References to ghosts and spirits are sprinkled throughout the book; this is the first with a positive connotation.
In 1995, Springsteen released one of the most important songs of the second half of his career, “The Ghost of Tom Joad.” Springsteen doesn’t just sing about the protagonist of John Steinbeck’s novel “The Grapes of Wrath.” He portrays him as a “blood spirit” — a force that can still do good, after his death, in the present.
Writing about a 2009 concert in the “Born to Run” book, Springsteen says he felt that “old ghosts were there,” but he means it in a positive way. He also, in the “Western Stars” movie, refers to his barn, where the concert footage was shot, as “a space filled with the best kind of ghosts and spirits.”
In “We Are Alive” (see video below), from his 2012 album Wrecking Ball, he sings from the point of view of spirits continuing to co-exist with the living: “Though our bodies lie alone here in the dark/Our spirits rise to carry the fire and light the spark.”
In the “Born to Run” book, he writes that in the process of psychoanalysis, “you work to turn the ghosts that haunt you into ancestors who accompany you. That takes hard work and a lot of love, but it’s the way we lessen the burdens our children have to carry. … I work to be an ancestor.”
Springsteen expanded on this idea in “Springsteen on Broadway,” saying in his introduction to the show’s climactic number, “Born to Run”:
… we live amongst ghosts, always trying to reach us from that shadow world. They’re with us every step of the way, you know. My dead father’s still with me every day. … I visit with him every night. A little bit. That’s a grace-filled thing. And Clarence (Clemons), I get to … see and be with Clarence a little bit every night. And Danny (Federici), Walter (Cichon), and Bart (Haynes), my own family … the soul is a stubborn thing. Doesn’t dissipate so quickly. … They remain here in the air, in empty space … and in the songs that we sing.
You know, that is why we sing. We sing for our blood and for our people. … I just wanna commune with the old spirits. Stand in their presence, feel their hands on me … one more time.
So just remember, the next time you listen to “Ghosts” … this is not a word that Springsteen chose casually. It’s a word — and a concept — that is loaded with real-life meaning for him, not some abstract theory or fantasy.
“They’re with us every step of the way.” Springsteen really seems to believes it.
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