Music | October 20, 2020 10:16 am

Bruce Springsteen and the Art of the Friendship Song

His new single "Ghosts" is the latest entry into a surprisingly sparse canon of songs about friends

Best buds
Best buds
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Bruce Springsteen has written songs featuring women named Sandy, Mary, Wendy and Rosalita. He’s written about boarded-up mill towns, souped-up hot rods and used-up characters brooding over their better days. He has songs about economic inequality, estranged brothers, tattered romance and even the triumph of eliciting a smile from a weary supermarket cashier. Until his new song “Ghosts,” though, Springsteen had never recorded a tune that simply celebrates friendship.

“‘Ghosts’ is about the beauty and joy of being in a band, and the pain of losing one another to illness and time,” Springsteen says in an Apple Original Films documentary accompanying his new album, Letter to You. “‘Ghosts’ tries to speak to the spirit of the music itself, something none of us owns but can only discover and share together.”

More specifically, the song is a loving paean to a handful of his compatriots who have been key parts of the journey, at least based on footage in the lyric video. There’s George Thiess, a high school friend who was the lead singer of Springsteen’s first band, the Castiles. Thiess died in 2018. Danny Federici, who played keyboards in the E Street Band until he died in 2008. And of course, Clarence Clemons, the Big Man, whose saxophone helped define the E Street sound before his death in 2011.

“Some things imprint themselves on you and never let go,” Springsteen says in the documentary.

True enough, yet those things don’t always make for compelling music. Songs celebrating friendship are rare enough that it’s hard to think of more than a handful. One of them, maybe the most iconic of all, is “Wind Beneath My Wings,” made famous by Bette Midler in the 1988 movie Beaches. The movie was a tear-jerker about the ups and downs of a friendship that proved redemptive in the end. The song was a huge hit that won Grammys for Song of the Year and Record of the Year in 1990. Naturally, it started as a love song.

“We thought it was a great way for a man to tell a woman that she was his hero,” says Jeff Silbar, who co-wrote “Wind Beneath My Wings” with Larry Henley in 1982.

Sheena Easton, Lee Greenwood, Gladys Knight and Lou Rawls each recorded versions of the tune before Midler’s take zipped to the top of the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart in 1989. Because the heart of Beaches was the friendship between two women, “Wind Beneath My Wings” came to be seen as something more than a standard love song — even by the writers. “We had become aware that that song had more facets than we had realized,” Silbar says (Henley died in 2014). “It was a thank-you song, a way to say thank you to anyone in your life: your father, your teachers.”

By 2014, “Wind Beneath My Wings” was the fifth most performed song in the catalog of music publisher ASCAP, behind “Happy Birthday,” two Christmas songs and the Temptations’ “My Girl.” Given that level of success, and the music industry’s penchant for rampant mimicry, it’s a wonder there haven’t been more songs along the same lines.

“It’s easier to write about girls, especially in country,” cracks Al Anderson, who has written tunes recorded by Jimmy Buffett, Bonnie Raitt, Tim McGraw, Chris Stapleton and Vince Gill, among others. Anderson recalls submitting a friendship tune for consideration as a theme song for a TV show, but his entry wasn’t chosen, and he couldn’t think of any others he’d written in a career stretching back nearly 50 years.

Part of what makes friendship songs a tough sell is the lack of an obvious dramatic arc. Good love songs have a relatable sense of yearning, or infatuation, while break-up songs, unrequited-love songs, done-me-wrong songs or any of the vast galaxy of angry songs have built-in conflict that’s usually missing from friendship songs.

“I guess there’s not that much to say about friends after a while,” Anderson says. And even when there is, a lot of songs that mention the subject are about friendships that have flamed out.

Still, friend tribute songs do exist, and not just on Bette Midler CDs and in the opening credits of The Golden Girls. “I write a lot about friends,” says New York singer Cassandra Jenkins, often as characters who populate her tunes. Jenkins’ upcoming album, An Overview on Phenomenal Nature, includes a quietly celebratory track called “Hailey,” about, well, her friend Hailey.

“It is a love song,” says Jenkins, who hadn’t yet told her friend about the song. “It’s a song of adulation. It’s really celebrating a person who’s alive and who’s in my life who I really admire.”

At their heart, of course, songs celebrating friendship are love songs. Canadian singer Kathleen Edwards makes that clear on “Simple Math,” from her latest album Total Freedom. Written about reconnecting with her childhood best friend, Edwards sets memories of their youthful exploits alongside present circumstances and expresses gratitude for the rekindled relationship. “I’m just one and you’re one and we’re two together,” she sings. “I’m OK being friends forever.”

“We picked up where we left off, and she reminded me of so many beautiful things about friendship and how powerful childhood love is,” Edwards says in press notes for the album.

Springsteen feels a similar power. The rest of Letter to You isn’t as directly about friendship, but it’s an undercurrent that flows through the entire album. Toward the end of the documentary, Springsteen gathers the E Street Band together in the recording studio for a toast, and tells the musicians he’s been playing with, in some cases, for more than 45 years, how grateful he is to make music with them.

“It’s just one of the deepest experiences of my life,” he says. “I love all of you beyond words.”