How Bruce Springsteen Got Back to 'The River'

Behind the scenes as the E Street Band launches their first tour in nearly two years. Plus: Springsteen's plans for his next album

Credit: Daniel Boczarski/Getty

"Mood lighting — we need mood lighting," Bruce Springsteen says from the stage at the Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh. Then he turns to his left and shouts, "Professor!" — the singer's nickname for E Street Band pianist Roy Bittan, who begins his long signature introduction to the ballad "Point Blank" from Springsteen's 1980 double album, The River. As the rest of the E Street Band takes up the song's walking-wounded rhythm, Springsteen is aptly lit at his mic, half in shadow, like a New Jersey-boardwalk Sinatra in a T-shirt, jeans and loosely laced work boots.

It is the start of Springsteen's final rehearsal before he and the E Street Band open a 24-date tour here the following night. The concerts, their first in almost two years, will feature complete performances of The River with what Springsteen calls a "set after the set" of hits. The January 16th show in Pittsburgh will place a high bar for the gigs to follow: 34 songs over nearly three and a half hours, including a memorial cover of David Bowie's "Rebel Rebel."

But at this practice session — which is a show in itself, running for close to three hours — Springsteen is drilling his band through sides three and four of The River, yelling cues and calling out missteps. "By myself," he orders during a jubilant "Cadillac Ranch," reminding guitarists Steven Van Zandt and Nils Lofgren, violinist Soozie Tyrell and singer Patti Scialfa, Springsteen's wife, to hold their backing vocals in one chorus. After a moving finale of "Drive All Night" and "Wreck on the Highway," Springsteen calls the four to a huddle next to Max Weinberg's drum riser to refine the harmonies in "The Price You Pay," their voices quietly ringing in the empty arena, without a mic, like private prayer.

"We spent everything we had, literally, to make that record," Springsteen says of The River, his fifth studio release and first Number One album, in his backstage dressing room after rehearsal. Released in October 1980, The River was the product of nearly two years of writing, recording sessions and last-minute changes, including the retraction of an early single-disc sequence. "When the record came out, we were down to peanuts," Springsteen goes on. "But I wanted it to have scope, to appeal to the different parts of what we did. I wanted it to be fun. I wanted it to be crushing." He and the E Street Band accumulated enough material for four albums: the 20 songs on The River, and more than two dozen outtakes included in the new, lavish audio-visual box set, The Ties That Bind: The River Collection

Springsteen characterizes his earlier albums as "outsider records. I was part of a marginal community at the Shore. The records were an imagined version of that outsider's scene." The River, he contends, "was the first insider record, where the character is meditating on those elements — marriage, work, love, faith, death — that you have in common with everyone else.

"You're asking people to retrace some miles with you from 35 summers ago," Springsteen says of the current tour, noting that he's played The River in its entirety only once before, at New York's Madison Square Garden in November 2009. He warns that the album is "not gonna say the same things now that it said at the time. It's gonna say that — and something else. I have an idea what it's gonna be, but" — he leans forward for emphasis, grinning — "I'm anxious to feel it."

It is a recent hunger. Until November, Springsteen had no plans to tour with the E Street Band in 2016. Last summer, the singer completed a new solo album that he had started almost four years ago, prior to 2012's Wrecking Ball. "I was probably gonna go out and perform it on my own," Springsteen says. But in November, as he and manager Jon Landau discussed promotion for The Ties That Bind, Landau suggested that Springsteen and the E Street Band perform The River at a couple of small-hall shows in New York and Los Angeles. 

"Bruce said, 'It takes as much time to rehearse for two shows as it does for 20. Why don't we do 20?' " Landau recalls. "I fell out of my chair." Weinberg says he got the call about the tour after Thanksgiving. Concert dates were announced the next week.

Weinberg says he was "absolutely delighted" to hit the road. "In all of my professional engagements, I have what I call the Springsteen Clause. It's inviolate. It's my own version of force majeure. It's an act of God or Bruce Springsteen. And it works all the time."

Springsteen dropped the horn section and vocal choir that illuminated his 2013-'14 concerts with the E Street Band. "I knew the basis of the show was going to be The River, and that was a small rock group," he says. The tighter lineup "feels much more like the old days." Indeed, of the 10 musicians who take the stage in Pittsburgh, five — Springsteen, Van Zandt, Weinberg, Bittan and bassist Garry Tallent — were on The River, while keyboard player Charlie Giordano and saxophonist Jake Clemons fire up the parts originally played by late E Street members Danny Federici and Clarence Clemons, Jake's uncle.

"You're competing with people's memories of what we've done," Springsteen admits, acknowledging the legendary status of the 1980-'81 shows he played behind The River — two-set marathons with the E Street Band that often ran up to four hours a night. "I don't have a problem with that. We stand toe-to-toe with any version of our band that's been out there. And that shared history you have with people makes the night very full, very beautiful." 

Springsteen was on the verge of turning 30 when he began recording The River at the Power Station in New York in March 1979. He was also in the middle of a furious, searching torrent of songwriting that had spilled over from Darkness on the Edge of Town. Several songs cut for The River — including "Point Blank," the party grenade "Sherry Darling" and the poignant father-son conversation "Independence Day" — were written for the previous album. "I've always read that Bruce is a perfectionist," Weinberg says over a cocktail at the band's hotel after rehearsal. "But it was more like, 'You keep writing until you get what makes sense.'"

The drummer remembers getting a call from Springsteen at 9 a.m. one day, asking him to come to the singer's house to work on a song that he had written overnight. Later that day, Weinberg says, the entire band was in the studio cutting that tune, "Roulette." It was the first song the band recorded for The River — and it was eventually left off the album, along with other deep-fan favorites such as "Loose Ends" and "Be True." 

Van Zandt, who co-produced The River, estimates that Springsteen wrote 100 songs circa Darkness and The River. "He was getting 10, 12 songs very quickly," the guitarist says over lunch the day of the Pittsburgh show, "and I'd be like, 'OK, let's put that out. You want to do 12 more? That's the next album.'

"But he thinks about this stuff so deeply, so comprehensively," Van Zandt continues. "He just had a thing: 'I'm doing it my way, the way I feel.' That continues to this day. He's his own genre."

Springsteen declines to reveal details about his new solo album. Van Zandt, who has heard it, says it's "very good" with "real nice things on it, nice orchestrations." And Landau confirms that "it will be the next thing we release. It's something Bruce wants to stand behind."

For now, Springsteen is on what he calls "writing hiatus," concentrating on the live resurrection of his turning-point songs on The River. "If you wrote them well, they sustain," he says. "Not only do they sustain, they grow and find their current context. That's what I'm hoping for on this tour, that the music finds its life in the here and now. That would be wonderful," Springsteen adds with a hopeful smile. "I'd go home a happy player."