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The River - Bruce Springsteen

In 1980, two years after "Darkness on the Edge of Town" (see last post), Bruce Springsteen's next LP was the double album "The River". There are two sorts of double album: some are merely two records (examples of this are live albums, excellent though they may be, or compilations and just ordinary doubles) and others are the great records, records whose density and variety you can get lost in, like the Beatles' "White Album", or "Tommy" or "All Things Must Pass" to name a few. "The River" is Springsteen's contribution to this canon.

"The River" is a musical book of short stories about the economic recession in America of the mid seventies, the lives of those in the country's central states as they struggled to recover towards the end of the decade, the failing farmlands, the closing factories, what felt like the betrayal of the American dream. The prevalent uptempo numbers are there to lift the tone, to cheer the listener so that they're not dragged down by the sad beauty of the five era-defining songs of economic and resultant social depression: "Independence Day", "The River", "Point Blank", "Stolen Car" and "Wreck on the Highway". I could have picked any of these, each tells a story of sadness and beauty, exquisitely and tenderly rendered.

In 1982, his next album "Nebraska" had none of the lighter relief that's in "The River". Instead it's unrelentingly dark and stark, stripped right back to basics with Springsteen playing all the instruments himself, mainly just an acoustic guitar, no E Street Band. The title track, "Nebraska", tells the story of Charles Starkweather who with fellow teenager Caril Ann Fugate went on a killing spree resulting in the deaths of 11 people. The song is a narration by Starkweather and is in its bleakness, an iteration of the paucity of their lives, no prospects, no hope.

When I was younger for a long time I used to think that Flannery O'Connor was a male, Irish writer so when I found out after many years that she was a young woman from Georgia, USA, I was surprised, as much by the originality and quality of her short stories as who she was. Her tales are often dark, humorous explorations of the nature and causes of evil, set amongst the same working class American reality that was the background for Springsteen's fictional sketches from "The River" onwards.

Springsteen is on record as citing O'Connor as one of his favourite authors and certainly his first person lyrics owe much to her spare prose style. The final words of the song "Nebraska",

"....they wanted to know why I did what I did,

sir, I guess there's just a meanness in this world"

echo lines from her story "A Good Man is Hard to Find":

"...."....then it's nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can - by killing somebody or burning down his house or doing some other meanness to him. No pleasure but meanness," he said and his voice had become almost a snarl.

To me, it's no coincidence that another of her most celebrated stories is entitled "The River" although the storylines have little in common except for, perhaps, a failed effort to grasp redemption. In Springsteen's "The River" life is a series of defeats and the melody, the words, the song itself, all become an attempt to rise above them, transcend them.

"....We went down to the courthouse

and the judge put it all to rest

no wedding day smiles, no walk down the aisle

no flowers, no wedding dress....

....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..."

Then there's the intensity of the moment he remembers, maybe the thing that's keeping him going, or conversely the failed dream that's destroying him:

But I remember us riding in my brother's car

her body tan and wet, down at the reservoir

at night on them banks I'd lie awake

and pull her close just to feel each breath she'd take.

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

that sends me down to the river

though I know the river is dry?

Springsteen at his very, very best, moving, important, a timeless short story with a universal question that lingers in your mind like the haunting harmonica melody.


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