It was sometime in early November, 1980. It was my senior year of high school. I was visiting friends in Watson Hall at Jamestown College – which, in a few years, would be my own home for three years.
I was keenly aware of a bunch of things; that I was on the brink of having to go out and take on the big world, on the one hand. On the other, I had no idea what I was going to do. Ideas swirled through my head – college, the Army, moving somewhere else and joining a band and playing guitar for a few years, the usual stuff…
…that’s faded with the years, of course; “what am I going to do with my life?” has pretty much answered itself over the past few decades.
What happened next hasn’t faded a bit over thirty years, though.
I was walking down a hall on the second floor, heading toward the bathroom. The place smelled like a guys’ dorm – dirty laundry and disinfectant. There was a low din of voices and TVs and boomboxes.
And echoing down the hall on someone’s stereo through an open dorm door came a sound that stopped me in my tracks; a howling, mournful harmonica over a foreboding, minor-key acoustic guitar part. I turned toward the sound as the vocal started:
I come from down in the valley, where mister when you’re young,
they bring you up to do like your daddy done.
Me ‘n Mary, we met in high school, when she was just seventeen.
We drove on out of the valley, out to where the fields grow green…
We’d go down to the River, and into the river we’d dive,
oh, down to the River we’d ride…
“Valley? Doing “what your daddy done?”
In that way that adolescents find to link everything to their own situation, I found resonance. Jamestown was a valley! Everyone expected I was going to be a high school English teacher, like Dad!
I leaned up against the wall and listened some more:
Then I got Mary pregnant, and man, that was all she wrote
and for my nineteenth birthday I got a union card and a wedding coat.
We drove down to the courthouse, and the judge put it all to rest,
no wedding day smiles, no walk down the aisles, no flowers, no wedding dress.
That night we went down to the river,
and into the river we’d dive.
Oh down to the River we did drive.
This was…well, friends of mine, anyway.
I choked back my (believe it or not) crippling shyness and walked to the open door as the harmonica solo kicked in. “Er – ‘scuze me – sorry, but what’s this playing?”
“The new Springsteen!” said the guy (who in two years, it turned out, would be my next-door neighbor), hunched over a nursing textbook. “Great, ain’t it?”
He had no idea.
It was thirty years ago today that The River came out.
The last of what Springsteen fanatics call “The Holy Trinity” (along with Born to Run and Darkness On The Edge Of Town)
The lasting impression of The River for me, though? In some ways, it’s Bruce’s most satisfying album.
Greetings from Asbury Park and E Street Shuffle were both fun, funky, disjointed romps that swerved from Bleecker Street to the Jersey Shore, from Greasy Lake to Puerto Rico, all full of shadowy characters and inside jokes. Born to Run was a classic, of course – but in much the same way that the Beach Boys were classics, drenched in the culture of young lower-middle America; it raced at full throttle, but covered a small piece of turf. Darkness On The Edge Of Town, still and always my favorite Bruce record notwithstanding, is an album about finally growing up.
The River? It’s about being a grownup. It’s about ups and downs, joy and depression, faith and abandonment. It’s about pulling up your pants and moving on with your real life.
It’s a double-album – which, it occurs to me, means nothing today. Back in the seventies and eighties, when vinyl records were still king and were complex enough that their manufacture required the clout of a huge record company, complete with pressing factories and huge distribution operations, a single vinyl disc held about 30-40 minutes worth of music. The double album was the sign of huge commitment on the one hand, and huge motivation on the part of the artist.
And so it was with The River. Springsteen had grown over in the previous five years into an amazingly prolific songwriter. Steven Van Zandt told the story; when they recorded Born to Run, Springsteen had maybe one extra song written. By the time the legal wrangling with his previous management ended and he released Darkness on the Edge of Town three years later, he had dozens, including a couple of albums’ worth that were candidates for inclusion. He started giving music away; he gave Patty Smith his live staple “Because The Night”, recorded for Darkness but not included; it became her only Top Forty hit. Likewise “Fire” (Robert Gordon and the Pointer Sisters), “Hearts Of Stone” (Southside Johnny), “This Little Girl” (Gary “US” Bonds), and a slew of others.
And by 1980, when Springsteen had his legal, fiscal, artistic and personal houses in order for the next big step? He had hundreds of songs. It’d be more accurate to say he had hundreds and hundreds of pieces and clips and riffs and lines, which he’d combine and break apart and recombine with other riffs and lines and passages in various combinations, into songs where different lines would pop up over time in different songs. Listening to his four-CD box set “Tracks”, released in the late nineties, you can hear lines and passages in songs you’ve never heard, that popped up much later on other songs…
…and the sessions for The River (and for the next two albums, Nebraska and Born in the USA) were like tsunamis of music.
At any rate, torn between making an upbeat rocker about growing up and getting on with one’s life and a darker, harder “Son Of Darkness”, Bruce released both.
Disc one starts with the glorious, redemptive “The Ties That Bind”…:
…which is, truth be told, among my favorite Springsteen songs ever. Thirty years later, I’m not sure if I can even pin down why; “you walk cool, but darlin’ can you walk the line/to face the ties that bind/ you can’t break the ties that bind”; it’s a little bit of emotional tough love combined with the single most infectious chorus hook I had heard in my life to that point, and still one of the best.
There was also the joyous romp, “Two Hearts”…
…which has been a live, top-of-the-lineup staple at Bruce’s shows for most of the past thirty years,
Following closely, “Out In The Street” – the album’s homage to “Born To Run”…
…only for people who have to cut back on the “Suicide Machines” and keep their hands off other peoples’ engines because they’ve got to be at work in the morning.
And perhaps my favorite – at least at the moment – “Jackson Cage”, a dark-but-irresistably-danceable thrill ride about…well, growing up and watching doors starting to swing shut…
…albeit from a little bit of distance, yet.
Disc One was all about the hope and the joy – from the beach-bar singalong “Sherry Darling” to the gloriously cheery “I Wanna Marry You”, awash in faith in the whole boy meets girl thing.
It was on disk two that things start to unravel. ”Fade Away” (my favorite back then, and the followup to “Hungry Heart”, which became Bruce’s first Top Forty hit single), a song that actually sparked my push to learn how to play the organ – was the flip side of “I Wanna Marry You”. The “boy meets girl” thing has by this point gone terribly awry:
Dave Marsh once described The River as an album full of upbeat songs about death, and down-beat, “downer” songs about hope and redemption. The bookends, of course, are “Cadillac Ranch” – a four on the floor barroom singalong raveup about mortality..:
And of course, the title cut…
…about shelving your dreams but holding on anyway. It resonates with me, thirty years later, like few pieces of music ever.
And for me, it all leads up to “The Price You Pay” – the song that ties all those themes together, and sends them off with a hopeful nudge (this version has an out-take verse that’s not on the album)…:
…that, truth be told, has stuck with me during the hard times as much as anything else Bruce has written:
Little girl down on the strand
With that pretty little baby in your hands
Do you remember the story of the promised land
How he crossed the desert sands
And could not enter the chosen land
On the banks of the river he stayed
To face the price you pay
Pretty dismal, really; everything Moses hoped for got yanked away at the last moment. Just like the guy in The River. Just like the lady in Jackson Cage.
And yet we soldier on:
So let the game start, you better run you little wild heart
You can run through all the nights and all the days
But just across the county line, a stranger passing through put up a sign
That counts the men fallen away to the price you pay,
and girl before the end of the day,
I’m gonna tear it down and throw it away
And that may be the great life lesson, here – or as close to one as a pop album ever gets. Life’ll kill ya. Wear a helmet and get out there.