Springsteen’s Ghosts: Living proof that a truly great rock song can be written in any era by an artist of any age

To my knowledge, there aren’t many arena rock anthems about dead musicians haunting the singer, but somehow Springsteen manages to pull it off by blending the old and the new, combining old things in new ways in classic form.  Who says an artist can’t produce some of their best work at 70 years old?

It’s not easy to capture what makes a great song in words.  Between the melody, the underlying beat, the bridge, chorus, and lyrics combined with the overall sound, something just clicks and the merely good becomes great, on its way to classic status.  At the same time, great songs are a product of both their era in time and the artist’s own journey through life.  They don’t exist in a vacuum and there are some commonalities between the artists producing them and the time period they worked in.

Generally speaking, I think most people would agree that artists tend to produce their greatest work when they are relatively young and hungry, and the greatest work in a genre tends to either precede the overall popularity of the genre or at least coincide with peak popularity.  At some point, it seems like the well simply runs dry, individually and culturally.  Putting this another way, if you were to ask hard rock aficionados to name a great rock song written in the last twenty years, many of them might say there were none.

Conversely, if you asked them to list out the greatest rock songs ever recorded, chances are the list would be filled with bonafide classic bands, Led Zeppelin, The Who, Eric Clapton, The Beatles, and others, of course, while most of the songs would come from their early or middle career.  There aren’t many people who believe Eric Clapton has done his best work in the 21st century, for example, but Derek and the Dominos’ hit “Layla” often tops the list of the best songs ever.

Sometimes, however, a song comes along that defies the traditional wisdom.  I submit to you that Bruce Springsteen’s “Ghosts,” from his 2020 album, Letter to You, is such a song.  All of the key elements of greatness are in place:  A thrashing guitar riff, pounding drums, a catchy bridge and chorus, plus clever lyrics, all wrapped in Springsteen’s unique storytelling gifts.

Ostensibly, the song is about a member of Springsten’s first band, George Theiss, who passed away a few years ago from lung cancer.  Back in the 1960s, The Castiles were a highschool band that needed a guitarist and Theiss, already the would-be lead singer, had been dating Springsteen’s sister, Virginia.  As Springsteen himself described it, “I was sitting in my South Street home one afternoon when a knock came at our front door. It was George Theiss, a local guitarist and singer who’d heard through my sister that I played the guitar. I’d seen George around the Elks. He told me there was a band forming and they were looking for a lead guitarist. While I hesitated to call myself a lead guitarist, I had been hard at it for a while and worked up some very rudimentary ‘chops.’”

Fast forward fifty plus years, and those chops are on full display.  “Ghosts” opens with a literal bang as long-time E Street drummer Max Weinberg lays out the beat before Springsteen blares, “I hear the sound of your guitar, Coming from the mystic far” and then lays down the main, driving riff.  From there, the song blends traditional rock and roll with arena-style anthems, both genres Springsteen is quite familiar with of course, alternating between the relatively sparse, guitar, bass, and drums verse with the full band kicking in for the bridge and the chorus.

“Ghosts” prominently features Springsteen’s talent for turning the highly personal into something universal.  Throughout his career, he’s exhibited a storytelling gift to simultaneously place us clearly in the headspace of the speaker while capturing universal themes, hopes, and dreams.  In some sense, we’re all tramps that were “Born to Run,” either “Out in the Street” or hiding on the “Backstreets,” and we’re still “Dancing in the Dark” looking for a lover that will “Cover Me,” even as those songs contain no shortage of specific details of the characters and the relationships.

With “Ghosts,” we’re consciously aware he’s singing about a lost friend and the details including the sound of his guitar, the “stone and gravel” in his voice, even his choice of clothes, the “buckskin” jacket and “spurs you used to ride” are unique to this individual.  Further, the additional tidbits about his Fender Twin amplifier and Les Paul guitar, plus the places he used to play, are far beyond the day to day of a non musician’s experience.  Most of us have not been on stage, shouldered a Les Paul or burned the house down, much as we may want to.  At the same time, the details to some extent, while poignant and evocative, are irrelevant because we’ve all experienced loss and needed to continue with our lives, whatever our day jobs or weekend hobbies.

Thus, the bridge and chorus generalize the overall meaning into a sadly defiant cry against mortality itself.  In less capable hands, the lyrics themselves might border on morbid or melancholy.  First, Springsteen imagines his dead friend as a literal ghost, sharing his sense of loss, “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.”  The lyrics themselves seem to suggest the singer can no no longer go on without the subject present in the real world, but the crescendo of music and the tone of voice make the overall meaning far more cathartic.  The emphasis is on “alive.”  Instead of gone entirely, the deceased loved one remains  a presence in some sense, making the love still real.

This turn from sad to survival becomes unmistakable when the second part of the chorus rings out in defiance, “I can feel the blood shiver in my bones, I’m alive and I’m out here on my own, I’m alive and I’m comin’ home.”  Once again, Springsteen mixes the loss with the hope:  He’s on his own, but he’s alive and coming home regardless.  The overall progression also nicely encapsulates the cycle of grief:  There’s the presence of loss, the power of the emotion, the recognition you must continue alone, and then the desire to overcome.

Classic Springsteen also figures into the ghost metaphor itself, a concept that changes several times throughout the song.  First, it’s clear he doesn’t believe his friend is an actual phantasm stalking the night, anymore than “Spirits in the Night” on his debut album is about literal spirits.  Instead, the ghosts in this song start out as a stand-in for a presence in his dreams, then his memory.  In the first verse, he notes that the subject’s guitar and voice appear in his dreams, and that the dream image is in fact the ghost:

Stone and the gravel in your voice
Come in my dreams and I rejoice
It’s your ghost moving through the night

In the second verse, however, the metaphor shifts.  He still has his friend’s buckskin jacket hanging on his door, and then imagines the sound of his footsteps outside:

Boots and the spurs you used to ride
Click down the hall but never arrive
It’s just your ghost moving through the night

From there, however, the metaphor is further expanded to include the listener when Springsteen imagines himself on stage at a club they used to play.  The subject’s amplifier is still there from years before, still set at maximum volume to “burn the house down,” and for the first time in the song, Springteen takes an active role as a performer in his own right, counting the band in and then kicking into “overdrive.”  The singer plays with his new band and “By the end of the set we leave no one alive.”  From there, we are all ghosts now:

Count the band in, then kick into overdrive
By the end of the set we leave no one alive
Ghosts runnin’ through the night
Our spirits filled with light

At this point, it’s tantalizing to consider that Springsteen might not even be talking about ghosts at all, at least not  in any normal sense of the word.  A song that began as a metaphor for loss is now focused on the power of the communal experience:  The ghosts are an image representing the almost undefinable magic of participating in a performance, connected somehow to total strangers, as if a part of us becomes a part of someone else for a brief moment as we all shout the chorus to a song we love.

The moment passes, however, and Springsteen closes the song with a return to the highly personal, delivering what passes for an elegy before a jam session with the band.  The full musical arrangement drops away, the mood turns more somber than we’ve heard so far, almost as if he’s not sure he should continue.  “I shoulder your Les Paul and finger the fretboard, I make my vows to those who’ve come before, I turn up the volume, let the spirits be my guide, Meet you, brother and sister, on the other side.”  Even then, the personal is subsumed by the general.  We might not all be musicians, but most of us have experienced making promises to a deceased loved one, and hoping we meet them again someday.  Springsteen makes a point of this as the song kicks into gear once more, going out with an instrumental section and some traditional non-verbal vocal accompaniment.

To my knowledge, there aren’t many hard or arena rock anthems about dead musicians haunting the singer, but somehow Springsteen manages to pull it off by blending the old and the new, combining old things in new ways in classic form.

In some sense, the song harkens back to his previous work.  Rolling Stone compared it to the rollicking songs from 1980’s The River; I see that, but I also hear echoes of the under-recognized anthem “We Take Care of Own” from Wrecking Ball, much later in his career.  In another, it something totally new:  An elegy turned performance rock, hinging on the interplay between memory and experience, played out in a unique combination of striking chords, full band breaks, and Springsteen’s signature changes, where the song itself skips that perfect beat of a heart.

It’s also proof that an artist need not be defined by age or an era.  Great songs are great songs, regardless.  We’re fortunate to have this one.  The only thing that might make it better is playing it in a packed stadium. One can hope…

Ghosts

I hear the sound of your guitar
Comin’ from the mystic far
Stone and the gravel in your voice
Come in my dreams and I rejoice

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


I can feel the blood shiver in my bones
I’m alive and I’m out here on my own
I’m alive and I’m comin’ home

Old buckskin jacket you always wore
Hangs on the back of my bedroom door
Boots and the spurs you used to ride
Click down the hall but never arrive

It’s just your ghost moving through the night
Your spirit filled with light
I need, need you by my side
Your love and I’m alive

I can feel the blood shiver in my bones
I’m alive and I’m out here on my own
I’m alive and I’m comin’ home

Your old Fender Twin from Johnny’s Music downtown
Still set on ten to burn this house down
Count the band in, then kick into overdrive
By the end of the set we leave no one alive

Ghosts runnin’ through the night
Our spirits filled with light
I need, need you by my side
Your love and I’m alive

I shoulder your Les Paul and finger the fretboard
I make my vows to those who’ve come before
I turn up the volume, let the spirits be my guide
Meet you, brother and sister, on the other side

I’m alive, I can feel the blood shiver in my bones
I’m alive and I’m out here on my own
I’m alive and I’m comin’ home
Yeah, I’m comin’ home

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