David McCullagh, fan of Bruce Springsteen, and RTÉ Six-One News co-presenter, talks about the Boss’ new album, and his own new gig.
Donal O’Keeffe: David, it’s great to have you in The Avondhu. Thanks a million for doing this.
David McCullagh: My pleasure, Donal. Any excuse to talk about Springsteen!
DOK: Bruce Springsteen’s new album, Letter To You, his twentieth studio album, has been out ten days or so. How many times have you listened to it so far?
DMC: Errrr… Between ten and fifteen times? … Probably more. Between fifteen and twenty times?
I’ve put it away now and I’m not going to listen to it for a couple of days, because you can ruin a thing by playing it constantly. I’ve given it a good road test, put it that way.
I think it’s brilliant. But that would probably surprise nobody, ’cause whatever he does I tend to think it’s brilliant, but I think it’s right up there with the really classic albums he’s produced this century, which in my book would be The Rising, Magic, and Wrecking Ball.
Where it rates among those, I’m not so sure. The fact that it was recorded more or less live in studio with the whole band together makes you wonder why he spent so long fannying about getting them all to do their bits separately and then trying to stick them together, because I think it gives it a cohesive sound and atmosphere that’s really fantastic.
People have been comparing it to Born To Run, but of course Born To Run was kind of the opposite. It took him months and months and months to get every track down, whereas this seems to have come together really quickly, and I think it benefits greatly from that.
Part of the charm of this album is that he’s included three songs from the very start of his career, which not many artists could do, I would imagine, and at least two of them are crackers. I’m not that gone on Janey Needs A Shooter. You’re probably familiar with them. I certainly was familiar with them in various different recordings over the years that obsessive weirdos tend to hunt down. Not that I’m calling you an obsessive weirdo, but I certainly am calling myself an obsessive weirdo.
DOK: I wasn’t familiar with If I Was The Priest. It’s amazing, isn’t it?
DMC: Great song, yeah. He had a kind of a cowboy fixation back at that stage, and some of the songs are very, very good, and some of the songs not so much. There’s a song called The Ballad of Jesse James which is a cracker, and there’s another called Cowboys Of The Sea which hopefully will never see the light of day on an official recording. Terrible rubbish altogether.
He had that cowboy fixation going on, and also religious imagery that he’s gone back to again and again over the course of his career. It was very fresh then as well. That kind of married the two of them together. It’s a great song.
Song For Orphans is really obscure. He played it live there sometime in the last decade, I think. He said “This is for the people who know more about me than I know about myself”, and there were people in the crowd who would have recognised it, but it’s very obscure.
DOK: Out of interest, when he said people in the audience who know more about him than he does, was that you? [Laughter]
DMC: No, no. He always refers to the Sirius radio station that’s devoted to him as being for people who know more about him than he knows about himself. I wouldn’t quite classify myself in that level. Would I? I’m getting there. It’s a hobby.
DOK: For the benefit of The Avondhu readers, how many times have you seen him live now?
DMC: Thirty-three. I’m in the ha’penny place. There’s a good pal of mine who has seen him over a hundred times. I keep telling Anne-Marie [Smyth, to whom McCullagh is married] “He’s an obsessive, I’m not an obsessive, it’s only thirty-three times, like”.
Hopefully we’ll get to see him again, but that’s in the lap of the gods.
DOK: Have you watched the making-of film?
DMC: Only once. So far.
DOK: It struck me watching it that he really is the Boss. I mean, it’s not just a nickname. His word is law.
DMC: Yeah, absolutely. I thought what came across as well a little bit was that the lads [in the E Street Band] were making suggestions, particularly Stevie [Van Zandt] at one point, and they weren’t dismissed. He obviously will hear suggestions, but at the end, I don’t think there’s any doubt whose word is the final word.
I would say it’s like any well-managed autocracy. You can make suggestions but you know who’s going to make the final decision. It’s a bit like my work, actually, now that I think of it…
DOK: “A benevolent monarchy” is how Stevie describes it, in this month’s Uncut magazine.
DMC: Yeah, that’s exactly it. Benevolent, but I think at times if the monarch feels displeased, you would be in no doubt about the displeasure.
I think he had to lay down the law at certain points in the band’s history and the law was laid down in no uncertain terms. It’s not a democracy, and that’s possibly a good thing, in terms of longevity, because if you think of acts that have been going that long, there’s few enough of them that are bands. You can talk about U2, you can talk about the Stones, but if it’s a group of equals, people’s status can change over time, and it can lead to rows, whereas if nobody’s in any doubt from the start who the Boss is, that possibly makes things easier.
DOK: I know Springsteen has a tendency to work on things for years, and to revisit songs he’s had in drawers for ages, so we’re not necessarily getting songs he wrote right now, like, for example, a lot on last year’s Western Stars was actually written a good while back. That said, in this album and Western Stars, do you see, or feel, a certain wistfulness that’s innate to both? I mean, are they very much of a piece?
DMC: Yeah, I think Western Stars was a lot about ageing, which I suppose is natural enough for a guy his age, but particularly this one is a lot about ageing, a lot about death, a lot about the death of people that you were close to when you were young, and that bringing you back to those days. Last Man Standing is all about the death of George Theiss [the last surviving member of Springsteen’s first band, The Castiles].
It’s interesting that it’s an album about ageing, about loss, about death, but it’s also an album about remembering your youth, about remembering the times when you were starting out, and that is reflected in the three old songs being there as well. It was probably a deliberate way of looking back at his early days, prompted by the death of people who were close to him in that era.
It’s kind of a curious mixture of a guy writing from the point of being 71, and being the last man standing and all the rest of The Castiles being gone. I think he said most of these songs came out very quickly and fairly freely after George died, and you can certainly see a thematic thing going on.
There is that feeling to Western Stars as well. He’s said that he can get into a mode of writing, so he writes for the band, as he did in this case, or he writes in a different frame of mind, which you would have got in Western Stars, but obviously all of his material these days is based on his life experience, and the length of life experience.
I don’t know that wistful is the right word; perhaps it’s more taking stock, and looking back and thinking of the people you’ve lost along the way, and also having that feeling that they’re still there with you, that they’re still a part of you, of who you are, and a part of the music every night, which I think is a beautiful thought.
DOK: Your wife managed to get tickets for Bruce’s Broadway show for your fiftieth birthday.
DMC: That was fantastic. Of the thirty-three times I’ve seen him… [laughter] Of any artistic performance by any musician or actor, or anything that I’ve ever been at, or ever been part of – and I think it is that you are part of something that the audience is participating in – it was just an amazing thing. You can hear it on the album and watch the film, but there was something about actually being there that was mind-blowing in such a small space, being so close to him.
Anne-Marie was so brilliant to get the tickets. We were only six or seven rows back from the stage. Fantastic. So that was kind of a stand-out. You know, turning fifty isn’t great, but that was certainly a very pleasant side-effect!
One of the things about that show, and about the autobiography, is that he was so honest about stuff that a lot of people would probably want to keep personal, in terms of his relationship with his father, in terms of his own dealings with mental health issues. It really was unusual, I guess, for somebody in his position to be so open about that, but I think it was probably very helpful to a lot of people to able to read it, to be able to hear him talk about it.
He was even making a joke about it with Ryan Tubridy last week, but the fact that people nowadays are more prepared to talk about stuff has got to be a help to other people who are dealing with their own struggles, to be able to see someone who is coping with it, and also to be able to see that no matter what walk of life you’re in, or how successful you are, you can have difficulties along the way that have to be dealt with, that require professional help, and in his case pharmaceutical help as well, and there’s no shame in that.
DOK: In these Covid times, we don’t know when we’ll get back to normal, or when we’ll see him next…
DMC: Ah… Summer of 2022? This album is absolutely just made to be played live, and for me the opening of the concert has got to be Ghosts. It’s such a crackin’ song.
DOK: “By the end of the set we leave no one alive…”
DMC: There’s something about going to a show, there’s something about being part of a collective experience, that no amount of listening to music or watching DVDs or whatever can ever hope to match. I really do hope that things can get back to normal at some stage, or some kind of normal.
Looking at him in the film, he’s in fantastic shape, so one would hope that he remains that way, and remains healthy, and remains able to do it, because it must be killing him not to be out on the road with this.
It’s certainly killing me…
The other thing I meant to say about the album is that when I heard the first song that was released, Letter To You, I was thinking “Yeah, it’s good, but I would have kind of liked something a bit political, given the times we’re in”, and I saw in an interview he was saying that an album on his views about the president would be really boring.
But he does cover it, and cover it well. There’s that line in House Of A Thousand Guitars, “The criminal clown has stolen the throne / He steals what he can never own”.
There’s also that song Rainmaker, which I really, really like.
One of the things that always struck me about Trump’s victory four years ago was you could see a lot of the characters in Bruce’s songs voting for Trump. The guy in My Hometown, definitely a Trump voter.
Possibly the guy in The River, although I know he’s based on Bruce’s brother-in-law, so I don’t want to do him a disservice, but you can see any of the characters in Wrecking Ball voting for Trump out of that feeling of desperation, out of that feeling of alienation, of being ignored by the elite, and I think that song goes into that, and explains it in a really intelligent way, about people feeling so desperate that they’re willing to try anything, and they end up putting their trust somewhere it doesn’t belong.
You can see why it happens. I think that’s just a fantastic song, and it really explains a lot, I think.
DOK: How is the new gig on the Six-One News? Is it very different from Prime Time?
DMC: It’s really fast-paced. The Angelus goes, Bong, Bong, and then zip, what seems a few seconds later it’s the sports news. It goes really fast, like a freight train. It’s quite exhilarating.
It’s quite striking, the viewing figures at the moment, because obviously people are very invested in what’s going on in the news at the moment, and a lot of people are turning, thankfully, to more reputable news sources at the moment, in print, on radio and on TV.
DOK: Has it been strange following your late friend Keelin Shanley onto Six-One?
DMC: Keelin was a wonderful, wonderful, wonderful person, and a fabulous journalist, and I am under no illusions that I’m either of those things. It is a difficult thing to think that you are taking over a job that you would not have got had life worked out in a more just way for somebody who died far too young. You’d much prefer to be taking over a job because someone got a promotion, or whatever, but the only thing I can do is continue with Catriona [Perry, McCullagh’s Six-One co-presenter] to do the job that Keelin wanted to do, which was to make Six-One the best possible vehicle for people to get the news that they want, and in my own small way to try and follow on from what she wanted to do.
DOK: Last question. Thirty-three Springsteen concerts, beginning with Slane in 1985. What’s been your favourite? New York?
DMC: Yeah, Broadway. It was really special. Apart from that, my favourite Bruce concert is always the next one!