The River, which Bruce Springsteen released in 1980, was an album of contradictions. It was an expansive double-album, half party-time rockers, half introspective ballads about people wanting to grow up and settle down, but often failing at both. I was a 23-year-old Bruce fan when The River came out, and, in my inexperience, I didn’t quite know what to do with it. Where were the restless, rebellious young-adult souls of his previous album Darkness on the Edge of Town, with whom I fiercely identified? And why did he close The River with a sobering song about a wreck on the highway that seemed to contradict the adolescent melodrama of that “Born to Run” mantra, “I wanna die with you Wendy on the streets tonight in an everlasting kiss”? I thought the album was all over the map and that Springsteen was trying too hard. Ah, youth.
And then John Lennon was murdered. He was the first of my rock idols to die. Three days later, still numb, I saw the Providence stop on Springsteen’s 1980 River tour, and the emotional energy in the Civic Center could best be described as manic-depressive. The ballads from The River seemed laden with an extra measure of heartbreak. Everyone in that arena, in the crowd and on the stage, needed to cut loose on “Sherry Darling” and “Cadillac Ranch” as if our lives depended on it. Which, in a way, they did. Our generation had lost a Beatle, and in that awful week, a lot of us shed a layer of innocence.
If I had been perceptive, I would have realized then what The River was all about: life, in all its joy and sorrow. Only now, nearly 40 years later, am I well-seasoned enough to understand what Bruce had done on the album. The river — which would figure so prominently in Springsteen’s later work — makes its first appearance as a metaphor for the flow of life, of hope and loss and rebirth. Being able to love and commit to another person, to commit to life, while knowing that we are all mortal, is the point of everything on The River. It was an older man’s masterpiece made by a young man.
And that became even clearer seeing Springsteen and the E Street Band play The River in its entirety, in order, 36 years later. At Oracle Arena in Oakland Sunday night, Springsteen seemed a bit hoarse, as if fighting a cold, but he was intensely committed to putting across The River as a whole. And it was fascinating to see this material interpreted by the Boss in his maturity. After a lights-up overture of “Meet Me in the City” (a new track from the 2015 River reissue set The Ties That Bind), he offered some scene-setting commentary about trying to “work out where I fit in” by writing the album. And then the band (minus the absent Patti Scialfa) charged into song one, side one, “The Ties That Bind,” and that underrated, twangy, mid-tempo rocker sounded as fresh as if it had been released yesterday. The party tunes were as fun as ever, Pirate King Steve Van Zandt acting as a mugging, rollicking foil (and playing killer roadhouse guitar) on “Crush on You”, “You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch)” and “Ramrod.”.
But it was on the slower songs that the concept behind this show truly revealed itself. During Roy Bittan’s lush extended piano intro to “Point Blank,” my companion whispered to me, “Operatic.” The current River tour is less rock show than theater, almost like a semi-staged production of a musical. And on the three-song arc that comprises the emotional high point of the show, Bruce’s pre-song commentary and intense delivery of the lyrics almost suggests an autobiographical one-man show.
Before “I Wanna Marry You,” the band vamped softly in the background as Bruce, shaking maracas, recalled how he wrote the song as an imagining of what true, committed love would be like, but admitted that he was still naive enough then to have no idea of the consequences and responsibilities such a love entails. He was imagining “a love that didn’t exist.” And then he and Van Zandt began singing a sweet doo-wop passage (“Here she comes, walkin’ down the street … someday I’m gonna make her mine …”) that eventually transformed into a heart-soaring version of the song about pledging himself to the young single mother who passes by his house every day, with whom he has never spoken. But then the romantic daydream vanished, and we went down to “The River,” where Springsteen gives us stark reality — unintended pregnancy, marriage too young, and the grind of trying to make ends meet.
Springsteen sang “The River “absolutely still, eyes closed as if lost in memory, his right hand making occasional pointing and sweeping gestures as if to punctuate and underscore his lyrics. After this song, which closes side three of the album, he faced the band, made a circling gesture that suggested turning over a record, and began “Point Blank,” the side four opener. In 1980, I thought I heard disdain for the former lover’s surrender to despair and conformity. But watching the 66-year-old Springsteen sing the song now, slowly and deliberately, with Van Zandt floating chilling Morricone-meets-Eno fills, what I heard was a man fighting to hold on to youthful hope and idealism while acknowledging, with tenderness, those who tried and failed.
There were gorgeous moments to come after that stunning trio of songs, including the rarely performed “Stolen Car” and “The Price You Pay” (the latter song hadn’t been played live in California since the original River tour). “The Price You Pay,” especially, showcased the E Street Band at its mightiest, their lithe yet muscular playing adding a thunderous, majestic sweep to the Old Testament imagery of one of Springsteen’s greatest modern folk songs. And the River set-closer “Wreck on the Highway” was both devastating and graceful. When he wrote “Wreck on the Highway,” Springsteen borrowed the title and bare-bones of plot from an old country song: a man randomly witnesses another man’s death in a car wreck and is shaken to his core. “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.”
What a strange, depressing song to close on, I thought, when I was a kid. But now, is there any other way to end an album “about life”? After he had finished “Wreck on the Highway” at Oracle, Springsteen summed up the album’s message as being about how once you enter adulthood “the clock starts ticking” and you come closer to your own mortality — the idea is to fill your time with people and work that you love, and “to do something good with your life.”
And after those autumnal words, without a break, Springsteen and the E Street Band kicked into a breathless, near-90-minute set of 13 crowd-pleasers, including “Badlands,” “Rosalita” and “Dancing in the Dark,” to send us home with the comforting, if illusory, notion that rock and roll can stop the clock from ticking and the calendar from ever moving past summer.
Oh, about that 23-year-old girl who first heard The River in 1980 … Something about the album’s message must have sunk in. Spooked by Lennon’s death, she ended up getting married the following year (and remains so), had a career, had a child, lost friends, lost a father, lost many more idols, and got old. She’s grateful that Springsteen showed her how to live.
©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2016