There's something wrong with beauty — don't you know that? If it could stay inside, if it didn't touch the world, why then it would be fine. But it makes its way into your heart and then you burn. Can you take a live coal into your heart and not burn.
— Jonathan Valin, Final Notice
Bruce Springsteen's The River is a contemporary, New Jersey version of The Grapes of Wrath, with the Tom Joad/Henry Fonda figure – nowadays no longer able to draw upon the solidarity of family – driving a stolen car through a neon Dust Bowl "in fear/That in this darkness I will disappear." Quite often, he does.
Since The River is the culmination of a trilogy that began in high gear with Born to Run (1975) before shifting down for Darkness on the Edge of Town (1978), you might expect it to stand and deliver weighty conclusions, words to live by. Well, they're there, if you want or need them, and they're filled with an uncommon common sense and intelligence that could only have come from an exceptionally warmhearted but wary graduate of the street of hard knocks. Here's one example: "Now you can't break the ties that bind/You can't forsake the ties that bind." Or: "Two hearts are better than one/Two hearts girl get the job done." Or: "Everybody needs a place to rest/Everybody wants to have a home . . . /Ain't nobody like to be alone." Quoted out of context, without the evocative musical accompaniment of the E Street Band and Springsteen's unsparingly emotional singing, these lines seem incredibly simple yet sturdy. Not very cosmic but they'll do, I suppose, if you feel the necessity to nail some sort of slogan to the wall. Then you can sit back and stare at it and miss the whole point – not to mention the scope – of the album.
Scope, context, sequencing and mood are everything here. Bruce Springsteen didn't title his summational record The River for nothing, so getting hit with a quick sprinkle of lyrics is no solution when complete immersion is called for. Each song is just a drop in the bucket, and the water in the bucket is drawn from a river that can take you on a fast but invigorating ride ("Sherry Darling," "Out in the Street," "Crush on You," "I'm a Rocker"), smash you in the rapids ("Hungry Heart"), let you float dreamily downstream ("I Wanna Marry You") or carry you relentlessly across some unknown county line ("Jackson Cage," "Point Blank," "Fade Away," "Stolen Car," "Ramrod," "The River," "Independence Day"). When the surface looks smooth, watch out for dangerous undercurrents. You may believe you're splashing about in a shallow stream and suddenly find yourself in over your head.
Keeping the trilogy in mind, if Springsteen's archetypal journey from innocence (Born to Run) to experience (Darkness on the Edge of Town) taught him anything, it was that he wasn't even halfway home – that, contrary to what F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, most American lives do have second acts. And that these postexperiential acts are usually the ones in which we either crack up or learn to live with our limitations and betrayals. In a way, Bruce Springsteen's journey started in 1973 with Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J.'s "Growin' Up" (in which the singer "found the key to the universe in the engine of an old parked car") and gathered momentum that same year with his "for me, this boardwalk life's through" declaration in The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle's "4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)" before he saw himself finally "pulling out of here to win" in Born to Run's "Thunder Road." Throughout much of Darkness on the Edge of Town, Springsteen discovered the meaning of despair.
What makes The River really special is Bruce Springsteen's epic exploration of the second acts of American lives. Because he realizes that most of our todays are the tragicomic sum of a scattered series of yesterdays that had once hoped to become better tomorrows, he can fuse past and present, desire and destiny, laughter and longing, and have death or glory emerge as more than just another story. By utilizing the vast cast of characters he's already established on the earlier LPs – and by putting a spin on the time span – Springsteen forces his heroes and heroines into seeing themselves at different and crucial periods in their lives. The connections are infinite (and, some would say, repetitious).
When an artist ties these kinds of knots around several compositions, it's impressive. But when he also uses jump-cut juxtapositions of mood (the one between "I Wanna Marry You" and "The River" is particularly stunning) and more than a few characters in completely contrasting situations, it's downright brilliant. One labyrinthine example: the randy rocker of "Ramrod," who sings
Hey, little dolly won't you say that you will
Meet me tonight up on top of the hill
Well just a few miles cross the county line
There's a cute little chapel nestled down in the pines
like he no longer believes a word of it but has to keep pushing anyway or he'll die, is probably the same guy who went racing in the street with his buddy, Sonny, and later sang, in "Darkness on the Edge of Town": "I lost my money and I lost my wife/Them things don't seem to matter much to me now/Tonight I'll be on that hill 'cause I can't stop...." He could easily be the reformed husband in "Drive All Night," too (there's an "on the edge of town" reference).
Though they're separated by eight songs, "Drive All Night" is linked with "I Wanna Marry You" by a set of "my girl" refrains that don't appear on the lyric sheet. Yet the shy, naive narrator of "I Wanna Marry You" (who sweetly and secretly yearns for someone's estranged wife, whom he watches on the street every day) clearly isn't the fortunate protagonist of "Drive All Night." That man wins his wife back. As the reunited couple get ready for bed, they hear a crowd of kids partying in the street. "Fallen angels" and "calling strangers," the husband says. "Let them go... do their dances of the dead/ ... There's machines and there's fire waiting on the edge of town/They're out there for hire but baby they can't hurt us now." What he's saying, I'm sure, is that those kids are who we were, but we've survived and this is who we are. (Check Darkness on the Edge of Town's "Racing in the Street" and "Streets of Fire" for the "angels" - "strangers" - "fire" imagery, and Born to Run's title track for "suicide machines.")
Immediately following the fantasy of "I Wanna Marry You" (whose main character gently debunks the "fairytale" of "true love" while, in fact, daydreaming about achieving it with a total stranger) is the grim reality of "The River," one of the record's two Dreiserian American tragedies and the second chapter of "Racing in the Street." In "The River," there are no idle thoughts about how nice true love might be. Instead, fate and the new Depression shoot the working-class hero and his high-school sweetheart (Mary from "Thunder Road"?) straight between the eyes:
Then I got Mary pregnant
And, man, that was all she wrote
And for my 19th birthday I got a union card and a wedding coat...
I got a job working construction for the Johnstown Company
But lately there ain't been much work on account of the economy
Now all them things that seemed so important
Well, mister they vanished right into the air
Now I just act like I don't remember
Mary acts like she don't care.
But, of course, he does remember the good times, and it's killing him: "Now those memories come back to haunt me/ They haunt me like a curse/Is a dream a lie if it don't come true/ Or is it something worse...."
After "Drive All Night," the singer witnesses – or imagines he witnesses ("there was nobody there but me") – the results of a bloody car crash in which a young man has been either badly hurt or killed. Since he feels personally involved, it frightens him. "Wreck on the Highway" is The River's last song, and this is the album's hard-won, semi-happy ending:
Sometimes I sit up in the darkness
And I watch my baby as she sleeps
Then I climb in bed and I hold her tight
I just lay there awake in the middle of the night
Thinking 'bout the wreck on the highway.
Obviously, there are other ways to ford The River and its twenty tunes (e.g., picking out the imagery picked up in John Ford movies would help), but any approach you take is liable to lead in circles. Cars, work and love need the gasoline of the heart to avoid smashing. "Independence Day " – more Dreiser – is both a beginning and an end: one of the greatest ever. As is a scary little noir named "Stolen Car" that's wound so tight it practically twitches ("I'm driving a stolen car/Down on Elridge Avenue/Each night I wait to get caught/But I never do").
Musically, The River floats more influences than I'd have thought possible: folk balladry, soul singing and R&B, rockabilly, country music, goofy – or not-so-goofy – teen anthems about cars and death (the terrific "Cadillac Ranch"), Gary "U.S." Bonds, Byrds-like folk-rock with ringing twelve-string guitars, party numbers, lots of rock & roll, David Johansen and the New York Dolls ("Crush on You"), Jackson Browne (lyrically, the first half of "The Price You Pay" sounds like a downbeat rewrite of "Before the Deluge"), Elvis Costello (the vocal in "Fade Away") – the list could go on and on.
Throughout much of the LP, producers Bruce Springsteen, Jon Landau and Steve Van Zandt lean toward a live sound, meeting the songs head-on, like the aural equivalent of, say, action-movie director Howard Hawks' camera placement. As a result, though it can't be compared with a Springsteen concert, The River seems livelier and more loose than Darkness on the Edge of Town. Of the trilogy, I still prefer the innocent zest and relative openness of Born to Run, however.
While most of The River runs wide and deep, there are a few problems. Ever since he started conceptualizing and thinking in terms of trilogies, Springsteen has lost some of his naturalness and seemed more than a bit self-conscious about being an artist. At times, you think he's closed off his casualness altogether, that he can't bear the idea of playing around with a phrase when he could be underlining it instead. Will we never hear the spring and summer of "Wild Billy's Circus Story," "4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)," "Thunder Road" and "Born to Run" again? Must even the brightest days now be touched by autumnal tones and winter light? Bruce Springsteen isn't an old man yet. Isn't it odd that he's trying so hard to adopt the visions of one?
From the stark, homemade look of their predominantly black-and-white packaging to their gritty, straightforward, to-hell-with-the-state-of-the-art sound, the Clash's London Calling and Bruce Springsteen's The River are passionately political: i.e., deeply, often desperately concerned with how working-class men and women are getting along in times as troubled as ours. Both Springsteen and the Clash are morally and historically committed to the directness and honesty of rock & roll – and to what this music can mean to those whose hearts are smoldering with anger or shame. In their Apocalypse Now manner, the Clash come right out with it, though they're not incapable of dreaming about "Spanish songs in Andalucia/The shooting sites in the days of '39" or recording a tune called "Brand New Cadillac." Next to Bruce Springsteen, however, they sometimes seem very innocent: they still believe in total victory.
Springsteen doesn't. His protagonists – all veterans of their own foreign wars – may hope for the big win, but they've been through the mill (or factory) enough times to realize that even the smallest success can be tremendously shaky. While lines like
Once I spent my time playing tough guy scenes
But I was living in a world of childish dreams
Someday these childish dreams must end
To become a man and grow up to dream again
Now I believe in the end
ring true, such sentiments are usually surrounded by an aura of omnipotent dread that makes them sound more like reveries from the past or wishful thinking than statements about the future. There's nothing apocalyptic or innocent about The River. Try listening to it right after Born to Run and you'll understand what I mean.
Though I consider The River a rock & roll milestone, in a way I hope it's also Independence Day.