One way to understand the prime real estate of Bruce Springsteen’s career is as one grand narrative told through a single actor. From 1974’s Born to Run through 1992’s Human Touch/Lucky Town we can draw – sometimes smoothly, sometimes roughly – an arc of one person’s triumph, defeat, defiance, and redemption. In Born to Run, the protagonist hustles Mary out of a town full of losers, the future boundless before them. In Darkness on the Edge of Town, things get tricky in the face of resistance; Mary’s turned out to be a bit more complicated than originally thought, and working at the factory sucks, but it’s nothing that some grit won’t cure – our hero’s ready to walk into that twister with his bags packed, absolutely sure that there’s a Promised Land.
In The River, originally released on October 17, 1980, the party is over for the protagonist. He’s run headlong into one of the most persistent – and most tragic – of all Springsteen constructs: the idea that a single moment, a bad decision, a cruel twist of fate, can obliterate one’s soft shell of fulfillment, stability and connection, completely and irrevocably, and leave you alone on a long road toward despair. The River is replete with applications of this hard lesson: get your teenage girlfriend pregnant? Man, that’s all she wrote; you’ll spend the rest of your life trying to forget what could have been. Draw the blinds in your crappy Jackson Cage apartment, because there’s no getting out of here. They shot you, point blank. You learn to settle. You learn to sleep at night with the price you pay.
And so, The River is positioned to be the next chapter in the grand narrative, heartbreaking and desperate though it may be. In fact, it nestles perfectly as a depressing epilogue for our optimist from Darkness, and a troubling, but natural, prologue for what’s coming next in Nebraska (spoiler alert: it ain’t good).
There’s just one problem: the foregoing accounts for only half of the The River. There’s an equal number of tracks that can only be construed as good time, Friday Night, let your hair down rock and rollers. We’re meeting out in the Street, gonna do some Ramroddin’ (whatever that is), ‘cause, you know, I’m a Rocker! Wait — what?
Now, it’s no great insight to suggest that The River is really two albums in this way (it’s literally a “double album”). And this isn’t the only place that Bruce makes us deal with wildly conflicting emotions in a short space – “Workin’ on the Highway” co-habitates with “My Hometown”, after all. But The Riverpresents this contrast so starkly, so consistently, that it leaves the thinking Bruce Fan to wonder just how to reconcile it all. How can one understand the grand narrative, while attending to Frat Rock homages like “Sherry Darling”? Is there something that can be gleaned by this dialectic? Or should we just relax and rock out?
This conflict has vexed me ever since I laid ears on The River (probably to the point where I don’t appreciate the album as much as I should). And it’s why I most wanted to see The Ties That Bind, the HBO documentary to be released concurrent with a CD/DVD box set of River outtakes.
The film is what it purports to be – a penetrating explanation from Bruce (and Bruce alone) on the motivations, influences, characters and process that ultimately rendered The River. For one, there’s confirmation here that the record is, in fact intended to be the next episode of the grand narrative – a conscious effort to broaden the focus of Darkness into an “age-appropriate” (e.g., early-30s) exploration of more complex relationships (marriage, parenthood, how young adults decouple from their parents).
On the whole, the film is an illuminating peek into the building of a record by what we know as the “Bruce Springsteen Brand” – sweat, brotherhood, conflict and collegiality. Anyone who has read Peter Ames Carlin’s biography Bruce knows the relentless attention to detail that Springsteen demanded from his camp in those days; the film adds color to the benefits – and costs – of this approach. Also of interest is the selection and deselection of songs for the final cut. Bruce even suggests that there are any number of songs that would be different if the album were made today, leaving fans to wonder what might have been (I’ll never understand how a snoozer like “I Wanna Marry You” made it over the earnest “Loose Ends” or the excellent, driving “Take ‘em As They Come”).
But, still, why the contrast in content? Springsteen is absolutely forthright in admitting that the record has its “heart and soul tracks” and its “trashy”, “fun” bar band singles. Fortunately, he also spends a fair amount of time explaining why.
First, there’s the popularly understood explanation that the record made a concerted attempt to recreate, in album format, the exhilaration of the band’s live shows (I think it fails miserably at this, if only because it’s an unreachable goal; I challenge anyone who’s ever seen “Ramrod” live to convince me they got the same vibe from the album version). There’s even a subtle suggestion by Springsteen that the motive was commercial in that, at least outside its core following in the Northeast, the public’s familiarity with the band’s body of work was limited to only the two commercially successful albums to that point.
But ultimately the film delivers the real answer: the core, “cinematic” narrative songs, according to Bruce are all too slow. And, according to the Boss, you can’t have too many slow songs. There needs to be room for “fun”; there needs to room for capital “R” Rock, incongruence with the narrative be damned.
That’s it, Bruce Fans. That’s your answer.
It’s not necessarily the artistically appropriate answer – it’s not even a consistent one considering other Springsteen records that, while excellent, aren’t a whole lot of “fun” (Darkness, Tunnel of Love). But it’s an answer that’s satisfying as hell, and it’s why Bruce fans love Bruce. It is not, in fact, a sin to be glad you’re alive, and even souls condemned to pay for their mistakes for eternity have permission from the Boss to meet out in the street, and walk the way they wanna walk. This is a crystallization of why Bruce has sustained his place as the goddamn GOAT of American popular music – this perfect calibration of substance and style.
So go ahead, self-important Bruce Fan – enjoy the last party shouts of “Sherry Darling” as it fades into “Jackson Cage”. It’s not incongruity, it’s not inconsistency; it’s Rock and Roll.