Bruce Springsteen has always written about the past, and as I’ve spent time with The Ties That Bind: The River Sessions, a multi-CD/multi-DVD set that focuses on music Springsteen made during sessions for The River (and includes a fantastic live show from November 1980, three weeks after The River was released), I’ve been reminded of how a yearning for the past (the high drama of youth) was so much a part of Springsteen’s Seventies recordings.
At age 23, on his first album, Greetings from Asbury Park,Springsteen was already looking back on songs such as “Growing Up’ and “It’s Hard To Be a Saint in the City.” Even on their release, Born to Run, Darkness at the,Edge of Town and The River came across as romantic exaggerations of a time long gone. This wasn’t just due to the lyrics, which sometimes referred to events in the past tense.
The sound of Springsteen’s music leaped back past the innovations of mid-to-late ’60s rock, a period that prominently included long-haired psychedelia complete with feedback, distortion and wah-wah pedal effects, to draw on Phil Spector’s Wall-of-Sound, the rhythm and blues of The Coasters, Sam & Dave and others, and party-rock hit-makers like Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels and Gary U.S. Bonds.
Consider that in 1975, when Born to Run was released, including a saxophone in the lineup was akin to using a horse and buggy for transportation. Springsteen’s E Street Band, of course, proudly featured the great Clarence “Big Man” Clemons on sax, and the Big Man took a solo in practically every song.
Even when Springsteen wrote in the present, as he did for “Thunder Road,” his line about “Roy Orbison singing to the lonely” placed the time period of the action in the early/mid-‘60s; “Only the Lonely (Know How I Feel)” was a hit for Orbison in 1959, so it would have been an “oldie but goodie” by 1965, say, when Springsteen was 16 and could have entreated his girl to “take that long walk from your front porch to my front seat.”
Really, Really Personal
The music that one bonds with becomes really really personal. A song like “Independence Day” off The River, which is clearly autobiographical, might as well have been about my relationship to my own father; Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone,” as I’ve written previously, let me know what personal freedom could be, and suggested a way to live that my parents couldn’t even imagine (and that was all in the sound of Dylan’s voice); Brian Wilson’s “Caroline, No” was about my ex-high school girlfriend, and no other.
Bruce Springsteen’s music, like Dylan’s music, was mine. It didn’t matter if one other person or ten million could also relate to the sounds and the words, because the songs told my stories, or stories close enough that I could make them mine.
In 1975 when Born to Run was released, I was 22. Two years later I was married and by 1980, the year The River saw release, I was 27 with a wife and a three year old son, holding down one of those nowheresville jobs (copy person at the San Francisco Chronicle), living in a two-bedroom $190-a-month shotgun apartment in San Francisco’s Mission District, fantasizing about how I’d leave the “town full of losers” behind when I became a successful writer.
When one creates art, which is what the best musicians, writers, filmmakers and artists do, things show up in the work that sometimes have nothing to do with the artist’s intentions. So whatever Springsteen thought he was doing on The River, the music also told other stories.
By 1979, when he began working on The River, Springsteen was a rock star with a national audience. He had escaped many of the day-to-day problems described on The River. He sang about driving a “Stolen Car,” but a photo from the late ’70s shows him posing in front of his 1960 Corvette Ragtop. His rise from a lower class childhood to rock stardom infuses much of the music on The River, and but when he sings about those that didn’t escape their hometowns and the 40 hour week, he is singing about his observations of others, even when the song is sung first person.
I don’t mean to say that Springsteen is some heart-on-his-sleeve writer who was/is unloading his personal life in his songs. He’s more like a fiction writer who draws on personal experience and real life observations for the raw material. But as he became famous and wealthy, as the distance widened between his daily life and that of this audience, it became harder for him to write the kind of songs that caused many of us to become his fans. Obviously, he wrote many excellent songs post The River, but I think that album is a career peak.
It’s doubly strange, 35 years after its release, to be listening to The River (as well as the outtakes). There’s another layer of romance, and nostalgia. There’s the nostalgia that was built into many of the songs that made it onto the album, and then the nostalgia for what was going on in my (your) life when I (you) first listened to those songs.
One only has to look at the photos of Springsteen from the late ’70s and 1980 that are included in The Ties That Bind: The River Sessions, to see how young Springsteen was when he wrote and recorded The River, an album about what it means to become an adult, what it means to deal with marriage and kids and a 40-hour work week, what it means when realize that no matter how fast you drive, and how far you go, there is no escape from who you are.
Listening to The River now, it sounds like Springsteen was trying to hang onto his youth in up-tempo rockers like “Ramrod” and “Sherry Darling” and “Hungry Heart” and “Cadillac Ranch,” while also portraying the nightmare nowheresville depression that some experience as adults in “The Ties That Bind,” “Stolen Car,” “Drive All Night” and others.
In the lyrics of songs on The River, the escape imagined in “Born to Run” and “Rosalita” is pretty much nowhere to be seen (“Independence Day” being an exception). But it’s there all the same, in the sound of the up-tempo songs, and in the energy and focus Springsteen and his band brought to each recording.
The River Sessions comes with last years remastered The River, plus a CD with the single disk version of The River, originally titled The Ties That Bind, an early version of the album that Springsteen gave to the record company, but then took back because he felt it didn’t capture the huge Technicolor vision he had in mind for his fourth album.
There’s a CD containing 23 outtakes, and a nearly three-hour to-die-for concert film of Springsteen’s spectacular 1980 performance in Tempe, Arizona at the University of Arizona, a brand new hour-long documentary in which Springsteen talks about The River and plays some of the songs from it on acoustic guitar, plus a half hour or so of The River tour rehearsals.
Finally, the set includes a coffee table book of photos from the period that I haven’t seen and so can’t say much about. It’s a lot of material, and obsessive Springsteen fans won’t be disappointed.
The highlight here is the Tempe, Arizona show, which finds Springsteen at his finest hour. I saw quite a few Springsteen live shows in the ‘70s and early ‘80s including shows on the Born to Run and Darkness tours. One of the best rock concerts I saw was Springsteen at Winterland in San Francisco in 1978 (of which a recording is available). The Tempe, Arizona show is as good or better than that Winterland concert.
By 1980 Springsteen’s band was one of the best rock bands in the world, capable of the huge, thunderous sounds that his music demanded. Springsteen himself had become a seasoned performer, and it’s fascinating to see how he paces a nearly three-hour concert, constantly upping the ante so that he manages to leave the audience wanting more. Oddly, ten key songs are missing from the video – just before Christmas audio versions of those songs were made officially available for free download from this site:
While the documentary is worth watching, and Springsteen provides insight into what he was after way back when, it’s not something I’ll likely go back to, and the same is true of the five songs from the tour rehearsals.
The retracted single disc album, The Ties That Bind, includes a wonderful early version of “Stolen Car,” and some songs that didn’t make the two-disc album: “Cindy,” “Be True” and “Loose End.” It’s not surprising that he dropped those tracks as they pale beside the 20 songs that he did include on The River.
The 22 outtakes, a little less than half of which have previously been released, are a mixed bag. The epic “Meet Me in the City” is classic anthemic Springsteen. “The Man That Got Away” sounds like Springsteen had been listening to Elvis Costello’s This Year’s Model, released shortly before Springsteen began recording The River. Other standouts include “Little White Lies,” “The Time That Never Was” and “Chain Lightning.” But if you’re a serious fan, you’ll need to hear them all.
So what to make of all this? Thirty-five years after release, The River has achieved classic status. Of course, it sounded great all those years ago, but listening now, removed from the times in which it was recorded and released, it’s much easier to see what a magnificent achievement The River was for Springsteen. It may even be his greatest album.
Michael Goldberg is the author of True Love Scars. His new novel The Flowers Lied: A Novel (The Second of the Freak Scene Dream Trilogy http://www.theflowerslied.com) will be published soon.