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Thoughts on the continued resonance of Springsteen's 'The River'

In 1984, I was freshly dumped by my first “serious” girlfriend, and bummed out in the way only 16-year-old bleeding hearts can be bummed out. I turned to Bruce Springsteen’s “The River” for solace – in particular, the epic, heart-rending “The Price You Pay,” a song that somehow made suffering (even of the juvenile variety) seem like a noble endeavor.

I’m now 48. Last week, while getting myself pumped for Thursday’s Springsteen concert at First Niagara Center, I went back down to “The River.” And once again, it hit me, hard.

In particular, I was crushed for the thousandth time by the line from the title tune that neatly wraps up the theme of prices paid for decisions made or avoided and ties that bind. It’s the one Springsteen poses as a question: “Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true/Or is it something worse/that sends me down to the river, though I know the river is dry?”

It’s a line that always has knocked me to my knees, and within it is the key to what is quite likely Springsteen’s greatest and most enduring theme – the nature of hope.

Springsteen serenades the Darien Lake Performing Arts Center crowd in 2003. (Buffalo News file photo)

Springsteen serenades the Darien Lake Performing Arts Center crowd in 2003. (Buffalo News file photo)

“The River” is held by many to be Springsteen’s greatest album. There are records of his I prefer from a musical standpoint – the jubilant, R&B- and jazz-informed funk and strut of “The Wild the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle,” or the “dark night of the soul” austere, haunted folk of “Nebraska.”

But “The River” is, in many ways, the album where Springsteen the lyricist ran out of cars to stuff his romantic heroes and heroines into, and highways for them to run away on.Here, Springsteen was contemplating life at the end of that highway. What happens when you run out of road, but the dreams that propelled you to hit the highway in the first place didn’t get the memo, and refuse to die?

Springsteen knew the characters he’d assemble for “The River” well. He’d grown up among them, a lower working-class New Jersey punk with few options for success, living in a house haunted by a father whose broken dreams would echo throughout his son’s greatest work.

In many ways, “The River” is an album about fathers, though it also showed its author making serious strides forward as a conjuror of believable female characters. Springsteen watched his father work an unfulfilling job he hated to support his family. He watched him drink his evenings away. He watched him shut down and view life as something to be endured, rather than celebrated. And it made him wonder about this whole “American Dream” thing.

“The River” is often described as a killer party record, a collection wherein Springsteen and the band – and in particular, wingman Stevie Van Zandt – celebrated the 1960s garage rock that had so enthralled them when they were first learning to be the musicians they’d become. It is that, in some ways.

But the throwaway jubilance of “Crush on You” and “I’m A Rocker” is ultimately subsumed in the nigh-on-impenetrable darkness Springsteen summons and examines in the songs that form the artistic core of the album. “Independence Day,” the title track, “Point Blank,” “Fade Away,” “Stolen Car,” “The Price You Pay,” “Drive All Night” – these are songs depicting desperate lives painted over by a thin veneer of civility, community and kinship.

There is the sense that the illusion of “everything being OK” could be wiped away at any moment. These are people driven to the edge by dreams that were, in the end, nothing but a tease, a glimpse of an imagined world refuted by cold, hard reality.

Wrapping the quandary in Biblical terms, Springsteen asks during “The Price You Pay”: “Do you remember the story of the Promised Land?/How we crossed the desert sands/but could not enter the chosen land?/On the banks of the river we stand/to face the price you pay.” This is John Steinbeck viewing the world through Roy Orbison’s shades. I thought it was dark when I was a kid. Now, I know just how dark it is, as does anyone else who has lived long enough to observe the growing chasm between dreams and reality.

Springsteen takes this sense of imperiled hope he has so artfully summoned throughout “The River” right to the edge as the album winds down. “Wreck on the Highway” and “Stolen Car” suggest possible endings for the hopeful young lovers who hit the highway and blow town during the earlier “Thunder Road.” It’s as if he is wondering who is luckier – the character who didn’t make it in “Wreck on the Highway,” or the one who lived, only to find himself cut off from his own country and traveling with the fear that “into this darkness, I may disappear” in “Stolen Car”? Is corporeal death really worse than the death of the soul? It’s a tough question he leaves unanswered.

And yet, when Springsteen & The E Street Band perform this album in full on Thursday, they will be railing against the dying of the light, not surrendering to it. The show, like every Springsteen show, will offer an embodiment of the hope that keeps us returning to a river forever in danger of running dry. Maybe those dreams that didn’t come true weren’t lies after all. Maybe the dreaming is, in the end, the whole point.


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