Springsteen on ‘Western Stars’: Dark days, mental health and one of his most personal works yet
Go West, Bruce Springsteen.
A trip to the West frames the vibrant “Western Stars,” co-directed and starring Springsteen and in movie theaters on Friday, Oct. 25. Think of the film as a companion, or part of a trilogy, with his “Born to Run” memoir and “Springsteen on Broadway.”
All three works look inward, into the alchemy of how a kid from Freehold became a rock superstar, best-selling author and now a star of a movie.
And Springsteen believes they are among his best works.
“I think probably coming up on 70 had something to do with it and just being at a certain point in your life and your work life where you felt prepared to sort of summarize the trip you’ve been on for quite a while. It all happened as an accident,” said Springsteen of the trilogy. “Obviously the timing was right and it was the kind of work I was ready and anxious to do. But all those three things, I’m very proud of all those three things. I think they’re three of the best things I’ve ever done.”
"Western Stars" is a performance film of Springsteen with a band and orchestra playing songs from his latest album, “Western Stars,” with filmed spoken interludes by Springsteen.
Springsteen on 'going West'
The Boss knows the terrain. His family left Freehold for California when he was in his early 20s.
“My dad (Douglas Springsteen) knew absolutely nothing about California or the West except that was where he wanted to go to begin his new life. And he took my mother and my sister with him and that’s where they went, and that’s what they did,” Springsteen told the USA TODAY Network New Jersey. “They spent $3,000, that was all the money they had. They spent two nights in the car and a night in a motel on the way out there. They just built everything from scratch when they got there.”
Springsteen, who was living at the Jersey Shore, soon made his way out, too.
“The first time I visited them they were in a tiny little apartment in San Mateo and I was 20 or 21,” Springsteen said. “The idea that continues to hold true for a large portion of the country when people think of creating something new, or becoming something new, — that lure of a place to restart your life, retrace your steps, erase your sins — continues to be westward.”
Springsteen himself was looking for a restart. Friend Carl “Tinker” West drove him out.
“I went with no plans on coming back,” said Springsteen, speaking on a recent morning in the basement lounge of a New York City hotel. “I thought I was going to go and begin a new career somewhere outside of San Francisco and I thought I would be able to do that with some difficulty, perhaps, but I thought I’d be able to do it. But at the end of the day I couldn’t.”
How the West won the album and film
California is the land of dreams and also broken promises. So it is in “Western Stars,” where the album vividly brims with scenic deserts, dusty highways and the last chance stands of wayfarers, cowboys, renegades and solitary figures on the fringes of show business.
The album’s aura is exquisitely brought to life in the film.
“Those were just characters I was interested in and I felt I could write about them in a certain moment,” Springsteen said. “I’ve been involved in writing these Western stories for quite a while. If you go back to ‘Tom Joad’ (1995’s ‘The Ghost of Tom Joad’), you have all the border songs that I wrote at the time.
"If you go to ‘Devils and Dust,’ ‘Silver Palomino,’ ‘Black Cowboys’ and ‘Matamoros Banks,’ so I’ve been writing in the geography for quite a while and this particular record allowed me to sort of draw on what are to me Western musical influences along with Western stories," he said. "So I said, ‘What’s the modern West?’ It’s Hollywood, it’s Los Angeles.
“I went searching there for a few interesting characters to write about.”
Springsteen on mental health, dark days
A closer look, however, reveals that the film is one of Springsteen’s most personal works, revealing an inner turmoil that has shadowed him throughout adulthood.
“For a long time, if I loved you or if I felt a deep attachment to you, I would hurt you if I could,” says Springsteen in a vignette setting up “Tucson Train” in “Western Stars.”
In the film, Springsteen thanks his wife, Patti Scialfa, and his loved ones and friends for pulling him through the darkness. He’s had bouts of depression and has been in therapy for more than 30 years.
“It’s sort of a thing where I just started talking about it because it was such a large part of my life and at some point something you’ve been doing for 30 years and it’s had such a deep influence on you,” Springsteen said. “It’s something that comes up in conversation at some point.”
His dad's struggles with mental illness are depicted in "Born to Run" and "Springsteen on Broadway."
“Everybody has to find their own way but if I had grown up in a house, say, where (treatment) had been part of our resources, it would have been a very different life,” Springsteen said.
“But, who knows? You don’t know at the end of the day where the fuel for the fire comes from. I don’t have any regrets, but it would have been a lot easier on my parents and on my father if he had recourse to some help.”
Springsteen’s speaking up about his plight may help others seek help, said Frank Ghinassi, president and CEO for Rutgers Health University Behavioral Health Care.
“When someone who is a position like that says in the face of troubles that they sought care, I think that can give hope to others to seek that care as well,” Ghinassi said.
Love letter to Patti Scialfa, nods to John Wayne
The film is, in part, a love letter to Scialfa. Springsteen tenderly recounts romantic getaways to a park bench in front of the Empire Diner in New York City early in their relationship.
The couple have three children: Evan, 28; Jessica, 27; and Sam, 25.
“Patti was an enormous, enormous part of bringing all of that into my life, that I had resisted and failed to be able to do earlier,” Springsteen said. “You know, she’s a very strong and supportive and powerful woman, very loving. I got into a place where I was, I kind of dug myself into a black hole. It took quite a while to dig myself out of it and it took a lot of help from a lot of different places. So I’m very grateful for it and a part of what the film is is a thank you to my lovely wife.”
And there’s a nod or two to John Wayne in the film. Hey, it’s a western, after all.
“If you grew up as a child in the '50s, of course, he was just a huge western star, he was the western star and the civilized western man all through the ’50s and ’60s,” Springsteen said.
“The films he made are eternal. They’re just beautiful and forever, and his performances in them are things of wonder as far as I’m concerned. I’ve always been a big fan, you know. I always found a sweetness and a tenderness in them, particularly in ‘She Wore a Yellow Ribbon.’ ”
Western Stars' Jersey roots
The musical performances in “Western Stars,” released by Warner Bros., were filmed over two days in May inside a barn on Springsteen’s property in Colts Neck, New Jersey.
“(As I wasn’t) going to tour (for ‘Western Stars’), maybe I’ll just do a film of me doing a performance of the music with a big orchestra somewhere — in a theater or around home somewhere,” Springsteen said. “We ended up doing it in the barn and once it was finished, we said OK, we’ll do the normal sort of interviews: ‘What was it like to play on the sessions?,’ ‘What a nice guy I am,’ ‘How great it was to work with me,' all the usual stuff (laughs).
"But before that actually happened, I started to look at some of the performances, and it’s all new music. How am I going to draw people into what I’m doing? Well, I think I need some sort of exposition that occurs before each song. So I sat at home one night and spent about two hours and wrote the whole script for all the spoken parts for the rest of the film.”
Labor of love in Colts Neck kitchen, studio
Springsteen earned his co-director title, said "Western Stars" co-director Thom Zimny, a Point Pleasant native.
“Bruce was there with me in the cutting room, he was there discussing things on set with me. He was bringing references. We collaborated together 100 percent on this, and he was there when I was color correcting and when I was mixing,” said Zimny, a long-time Springsteen collaborator who recently won an Emmy for his directing of the Netflix version of “Springsteen on Broadway.” “Bruce was deep in the cave of the editing room, working away. I actually cut it right at a studio next to him, in an edit room set up in his kitchen area that was directly up next to his studio (in Colts Neck).”
The stories were in the songs of the album “Western Stars,” mostly composed in 2012. A preview showing of the movie is scheduled for Oct. 23 on www.fathomevents.com.
“It was all there waiting to come out. It was in the record, it just hadn’t been verbalized,” Springsteen said. “Then we started to use them as just voiceovers, and then we needed images to accompany the voiceovers. So Thom (Zimny) had some found images. We had a little bit that we shot in Joshua Tree National Park with Danny Clinch. Those fit really well.
"Then we went out and spent a couple of days shooting our own footage and came back. Then I scored all of that and suddenly we had something that turned into an actual movie, turned into an actual film.”
An actual film that Springsteen considers one of his brightest stars. Western or not.