It's been too long since I've posted on here. I still have pages upon pages of LETTER TO YOU discussion to catch up on.
But, from what I have seen, it seems some of the initial response to "House of a Thousand Guitars" was... not negative, certainly, but maybe lukewarm, compared to the rest of the album.
Maybe that's not the case anymore, but at any rate, I think this song's purpose—on the album, and in the broader context of Bruce's work—has gone unappreciated, at least by some... and it's one of my immediate favorites off the new album... so, let me take a second here to highlight it.
~ MY LETTER TO YOU ~
By now, it's clear that Letter to You is a very meta, self-referential album, reflecting on Bruce's work, his band, his fans, and the connection between the three—both in general and, at times, specifically.
As Letter to You centers around his metaphorical letter to us, as written and released over the past half a century, it's full of tie-ins to his previous work; look no further than not only the three 1970s songs dusted off for a 2020s Bruce and a 2020s audience ("Janey Needs A Shooter", "If I Was the Priest", "Song for Orphans"), but, indeed, the direct connection between "If I Was The Priest":
"In a buckskin jacket, boots and spurs so fine"
and "Ghosts", the very next track on the album:
"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"
While some of the lyrics I immediately took as references may just be coincidences (is the "mystery ride" in "Last Man Standing" a callback to the "mystery prize" of "Walk Like A Man"—or is it a coincidental overlap by a guy who's written hundreds of songs? Or, maybe, is that meant to be ambiguous?), the buckskin jacket, boots, and spurs make it undeniable that at least SOME of these allusions are intentional.
And "House of a Thousand Guitars" is, in its entirety, an allusion.
While it wasn't even written by Bruce, I've thought for a couple years now that "How Can I Keep From Singing?"—a song that espouses the value of art and human connection in the face of love, loss, God, and tyrants—makes for an effective mission statement for Bruce's entire body of work. And I believe that, to those of us who know our Bruce history, "House of a Thousand Guitars" asks that same rhetorical question.
It's a song that cannot be analyzed in a vacuum... so let's set the clock back about thirteen years. (And more, when the need arises.)
The year is 2007... and as it happens, as much as "America needed Bruce", the country and its government did not quite follow the lessons, advice, and philosophies of The Rising. We didn't "get things started"... nothing like the positive community of "Mary's Place", at any rate. We damn sure didn't "ask questions before [we shot]." The seed of betrayal's bitter fruit has proven, as Bruce foretold, hard to swallow.
His vision of "a blood moon rising in a sky of black dust" from 5 years earlier has proven painfully, painfully accurate.
The result is Magic, an album that I (hot take impending) consider an absolute modern classic and even a top 5 Springsteen album of all time. From the sheer grief of "Devil's Arcade" and "Gypsy Biker", crushing commentary of the latter track, foreboding threats of "You'll Be Comin' Down", "Magic", and "Livin' in the Future", and sheer, fiery, cyclical nihilism and tragedy of "Last to Die", the album basically runs the gamut of what you could want a protest album to say or do.
But where many of these songs are very specific in their statements, their scopes, and their images, Bruce, in order to set the stage for the whole thing, opens the album on a song—and an image—that's very general - an expression not of any specific protest or political standpoint, but rather of the broad feeling of alienation that the many gaps between these values and the world around Bruce, in their entirety, have instilled in him.
A simple, sad statement of a man who feels lost, confused, and betrayed—not only by his fellow man, but by his community.
"I was trying to find my way home
But all I heard was a drone..."
It's the sad proclamation of someone so jarred, shocked, and sickened by what he sees that he feels alone, adrift, and isolated.
Refashioning a classic hype line from shows as a metaphorical, social, and really even rhetorical question, our desperately isolated narrator asks, "Is there anybody alive out there?"
"A lost number in a file, searching for a world with some soul..."
This is a man searching for an identity, and for a community.
A man who doesn't want a drone. He doesn't want the lying, the emptiness, the overload, the loneliness.
He wants something that works. Something artistic. Something he can connect to, that lets him know someone else IS alive out there and feels the same way he, "trying to make a connection", feels.
To this end, he wants to feel some rhythm—and, should you feel the same, he wants to give you rhythm. The give-and-take between human beings whereby 1 and 1 makes 3. He wants the community and frantic, intermingled confusion of a million different voices speaking in tongues.
And he wants it to be a rhythm loud enough, booming enough, to crush and stomp the drone utterly into the dust.
He wants pounding drums.
And he wants a thousand guitars.
MAY THE TRUTH RING OUT FROM EVERY SMALL TOWN BAR
We find ourselves in similar times today, for obvious reasons. When Bruce sings "The criminal clown has stolen the throne, he steals what he can never own", whatever anyone here may believe, for Bruce, we all know who he means. The blood moon has rose once more.
I don't think it's a stretch to say many people were hoping for and/or expecting another "political Bruce album" at some point - hearing something that was to Trump what Magic was to Bush. But clearly, that's not what Bruce is interested in writing anymore. I mean, he's already done The Rising and Magic; past that, what more is there to say? Go back and listen to the title track of "Magic", and if you agreed with it then, you'll agree with it today.
Bruce's focus is now more internal, more interpersonal, and more focused directly on art in itself, and so, too, is Letter to You.
But "House of a Thousand Guitars" stands as at once an exception to, yet also an affirmation of, this change in focus from the days of Magic.
The Rising was an album that posited that maybe, through the power of community, optimism, love, and positive human connection, we as a society could effect a positive change in the world, "pull strength out of that black hole on the horizon", and create something positive out of the negative.
When that didn't happen, Magic was an album about that failure, an album about what it looks like, how it affects people, and how that makes them feel. The Rising is the hope; Magic is its deferment.
But that is not the end of the story.
The hopeless isolation of "Radio Nowhere" may feel, at times, very real, for very good reasons... but if you think Bruce Springsteen's philosophy is one of hopelessness and isolation, you haven't been paying very close attention over the years.
Is the man who offers to walk you "All the Way Home", even when "the bar's comin' on closin' time", one for giving up?
The songwriter who, even when "waist-deep in that black river of doubt", aspires to "rise and WALK"?
Is the man who firmly believes that in love, in life, and at the rock 'n' roll show, one plus one equals THREE—who places such a value upon the unique worth of human beings and even more infinitely unique worth of their ability to influence each other, to form some type of intangible connection and impact on each other that goes beyond what either one could be individually—one to let the intense, hopeless individualism of "Radio Nowhere" go unchecked?
...Well, if he were, he probably wouldn't have made an entire album about how much he loves working with his bandmates and connecting with his fans, now would he?
In case I'm being too abstract, let me make it clear:
It's a "Radio Nowhere" sequel.
And it's one wherein our narrator has found his rhythm.
He's found a million different voices.
And he's found a thousand guitars.
It's not just an over-the-top image; it is, in a song that opens with counting your scars even as a blood moon rises, and doing it with everyone from the churches to the jails (I know I don't need to provide a link for that one), a direct homage to one of the most acclaimed Springsteen songs of the new millennium to date.
It's an image not just of music and the love thereof, but a metaphor specifically for the harmony between people that can be provided through any type of human connection but, for our purposes here, especially through the arts, especially music.
Again, let me reiterate: "House of a Thousand Guitars" is literally a direct sequel to "Radio Nowhere", wherein the writer has, at long last, FOUND the thousand guitars, the pounding drums, and the million different voices speaking in tongues.
And maybe it's just that I love Magic more than a lot of people, maybe it's just that I love this type of self-referential thing, but that, to me, is magical. (...No pun intended.)
In this way, while The Rising is a hope that we can, through the love of our community, improve it, and Magic laments and protests our failure to do so... Letter to You posits that we need not end at lamentation, we need not "keep from singing", but rather can still connect with each other to, on a micro level, recapture that love and beauty from the most optimistic tracks off The Rising, use it to improve our own lives and thus the lives of those around us, and, in so doing, still form and enhance a social, interpersonal community of love and empathy, even if the political community and state of the world has us down.
Is it idealistic? Sure. But so's friggin' "Thunder Road", and that's the best one of them all, so y'know.
In the face of mounting political pressure and diseases in society both literal and metaphorical, where "Radio Nowhere" responds by collapsing inward, "House of a Thousand Guitars" finds the hope and strength "Radio Nowhere" could not, and emphasizes reaching outward to those around you to help comfort, support, and uniquely uplift each other.
And that, of course, is as Springsteen as it gets. That is, in various forms, LOHAD, "Valentine's Day", "The Ties That Bind", "Frankie Fell in Love", "Thunder Road", "Dancing in the Dark", "All the Way Home", and heaven knows how many others. But while many of those songs are psychological and individual, "House of a Thousand Guitars" is explicitly community-driven and social.
As for forming that connection through music... I mean, again, that's just LOHAD for you. That's shades of even a more purely light-hearted song like "Where the Bands Are" or "Out in the Street", or even an offhand reference to James Young and the Immortal Ones in "County Fair". I'm a sucker for well-crafted music about music, and this song is 100% that.
If there's one theme Springsteen has been singing about since album 1, track 1, when "some fresh-sown moonstone was messin' with his frozen zone to remind him of the feelin' of romance", and has especially started emphasizing in the past decade, it's the redemptive, healing power of love and interpersonal connections.
And with its distinctly community-driven approach and explicit references to the fanbase listening to the song itself, on a level really only matched by "Land of Hope and Dreams"; with its utterly grand, absolutely beautiful, "Jungleland"-esque imagery of people spilling out across the world into music performances to find and form connections with people who feel the same way they do; and with its meta status as a direct sequel to an incredibly bleak song that suggested the exact opposite, I'd argue that "House of a Thousand Guitars" is one of the best and most beautiful songs in the "one plus one makes three" tradition to date.
It's classic Springsteen at its core, romanticizing music itself on a scale arguably not seen since LOHAD and "Jungleland" before that, yet with a melodic sensibility and musical delivery clearly and exclusively of these last two albums. And if putting such a fresh spin on themes so true to the essence of his work isn't an instantly great Springsteen song, then I don't know what is.