“The River”, Bruce Springsteen says, “was sort of a gateway to a lot of my future writing. It was a record we made after Darkness On The Edge Of Town. It was a record made during a recession, hard times in the States. The title song is a song I wrote for my brother (in-law) and sister. My brother (in-law) was in the construction industry and lost his job and they had to struggle very hard back in the late ’70s like so many people are doing today.
“It was a record when I first started to tackle men and women and families and marriage. There were certain songs on it that led to complete records later on. The River sort of led to the writing on Nebraska. ‘Stolen Car’ led to the writing on Tunnel Of Love.”
Originally it was a single record. I handed it in with just one record and I took it back because I didn’t feel it was big enough. I wanted to capture the themes I’d been writing about on Darkness. I wanted to keep those characters with me, and at the same time add the music that made our live shows so much fun and enjoyable for our audience.”
Deconstructing The River in 200 words or less can’t be done much better than that. The quote is Bruce Springsteen’s introduction to the sequential full-album performance of The River at Madison Square Garden on Nov. 8, 2009. But come on now, in your heart of hearts, wouldn’t you have loved to have heard from the man himself if he plans to release the unreleased songs recorded for the single album, songs like ‘The Man Who Got Away’, a powerhouse slated for side two, or ‘White Lies’, an outtake championed by Max Weinberg? Or why he couldn’t have found 1 minute and 15 seconds of vinyl space on The River for ‘Held Up Without a Gun’? And while we’re at it, does he regret leaving off ‘Roulette’, one of his greatest, most blistering commentaries ever?
Here’s one more — will there be a 30th anniversary release of The River, joining the Born To Run and Darkness On The Edge Of Town specials (the latter inexplicably scheduled for release 37 days AFTER the The River anniversary)? Hopefully there will be, and maybe then we’ll learn a great deal more about those epic recording sessions at The Power Station in New York that stretched from April 1979 through August 1980.
Those marathon sessions produced an album that today, on its 30th anniversary, remains a powerful, gut-wrenching statement by a rapidly maturing artist. Dozens of reviews contained in The Bruce Springsteen Special Collection document the near unanimity of critics, domestic and foreign, that Springsteen’s songwriting took significant steps forward on The River. In Rolling Stone (12/11/80) Paul Nelson described The River as “a contemporary, New Jersey version of ‘The Grapes of Wrath,’ with the Tom Joad/Henry Fonda figure driving a stolen car through a neon Dust Bowl.” To Stephen Holden, The River was “Bruce’s Springsteen’s dictionary, encyclopedia, and bible of rock & roll.” (Village Voice, 10/29/80.) Time magazine raved: “Like Francis Coppola’s Godfather, another great work of popular art, The River creates a whole world in an instant” (12/22/80). Juke, a leading Australian magazine, said that while many records celebrate the agonies and ecstasies of rock and roll, “none like The River have captured it as evocatively and as lovingly” (11/22/80). The UK’s notoriously cynical music reporters were only slightly less awed. Phil Sutcliffe in Sounds (10/11/80) said The River “is as good as blood,” and Melody Maker’s Paulo Hewitt summed up the listening experience like this: “It’s a walk down all the streets, all the places, all the people and all the souls that rock has ever visited, excited, cried for, and loved” (10/11/80). In New Musical Express (10/11/80), contrarian Julie Burchill said The River’s “pervading air is one of what can only be called Drudgery Chic.”
The biggest surprise for many critics was the album’s thematic inconsistency, the way the songs seemed at first to contradict each other while meandering emotionally. Whereas Born to Run was a grand statement, and Darkness followed a more precise emotional path, The River was filled with paradox, reflecting Springsteen’s acceptance that life is hot and cold, with heartbreaking choices lurking unexpectedly in the shadows.
The River’s inconsistencies flowed in part from the uncertain lives of Springsteen’s characters, who, by 1980, were struggling with pivotal life moments — the luring beauty of family and marriage juxtaposed with a desire to avoid terrifying traps. Few find answers; for most, there is ache, compassion, sadness, and reflection. A love that tears people apart on the title track, the drive through a broken heart on ‘Stolen Car’, the lesson of true love on ‘Drive All Night’ — these powerful, authentic emotions course through the veins of Springsteen’s characters until they crystallize into decision points, which more often than not seem destined to end badly.
It took a songwriter as skillful and ambitions as Bruce Springsteen to pull it off, and he did so in what was, at the time, the riskiest of formats — the double album. The double album had proven to be the death of many commercial and artistic ambitions; far too many doubles were little more than self-indulgent single albums crying out for editing. Discussing a staggering number of double album flops, Billboard reported in early 1981 that Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk, released with a sticker price of $16.95, was “currently making the rounds as schlock at $3.” The first line of Rolling Stone’s review of Bob Dylan’s disasterous Self-Portrait read: “What is this shit?” (Conversely, Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde, The Beatles’ White Album, and Pink Floyd’s The Wall were commercial and artistic successes.) The River not only sold well, but at 20 songs, was large enough for the E Street Band to loosen up and play in a way that for the first time on vinyl more accurately reflected their live performances.
The musical variations on The River were so diverse that even a double album seemed too small to hold them. Springsteen slotted an unlikely mix of dance hall rockers next to immensely complex relational songs, which in turn coexisted with short stories describing some of life’s “suckier” moments.
It shouldn’t have worked, but it did, due to the cinematic nature of Springsteen’s songwriting, the emotional grip of his stories, and his ability to analyze the impact of social crises. In a lesser hand, the party songs would have seemed totally out of place in this environment. Here, not so. As Springsteen told Anthony DeCurtis of Rolling Stone, the workouts like ‘Crush On You’, ‘Ramrod’, ‘Cadillac Ranch’, and ‘Sherry Darling’ were the types of songs his characters listened to while hanging out in bars.
Following the last show on the Darkness tour Springsteen spent several months writing for The River; and eventually the E Street Band recorded 50 songs during the sessions. Four of these were re-recordings of versions first considered for Darkness: ‘Drive All Night’, ‘Sherry Darling’, ‘Ramrod’, and ‘Independence Day’.’Ramrod’ was later selected for side two of the single album Springsteen withdrew prior to completing The River.
As a Darkness outtake, ‘Independence Day’ bridged two songwriting eras and would have blown away expectations no matter when it was released. To this day that sense of inevitability in the song — his ache, his guilt, his need, and his awareness of powerful forces of change — all these resided in a territory defined by Bruce Springsteen somewhere far beyond the normal boundaries of pop music.
The River also gave us ‘Hungry Heart’, Springsteen’s first No. 1 hit, a song anointed as “great” by John Lennon. If today it is also the Springsteen song most likely to be heard as background music at a supermarket, it also introduced us to what author and biographer Larry David Smith once called “a uniquely Bruce Springsteen phenomenon- that is, people standing on their feet, cheering to dreadful scenarios,” in this case, a guy who hopped in his car and left his family.
Here, from the archives of The Bruce Springsteen Special Collection, is a River sampler:
‘Bruce Springsteen: Of Time and The River’
“The River is Bruce Springsteen’s dictionary, encyclopedia, and bible of rock & roll. From the opening Byrds-like chords of ‘The Ties That Bind,’ through the shambling, country-rockish ‘Wreck on the Highway,’ The River makes the final, logical connection between Springsteen’s life, his myth, and the music that’s nourishing both, by presenting them as one and the same. The details of Springsteen’s Asbury Park background, which dominated his first two albums, have by now faded into a larger vision of blue-collar romance and the American dream – a vision fixed entirely in the past, in which every word, hook, and inflection assumes a ritualistic significance.” — Stephen Holden, The Village Voice, 10/28/80.
‘Springsteen has winner in River‘
“The River is a great album. It confirms every hope that has been pinned on Springsteen, and places him squarely in line for the title dropped by the King – the late Elvis Presley. It is a neat summation of the history of rock to this time, and a flat-out statement on its future as a vital street-wise art form. In other words, The River delivers the goods…(Springsteen) succeeds because he believes that the love that one human being can have for another is still stronger than all the forces that are set out against it, and he triumphs because the incredible energy that is at the source of his rock ‘n’ roll is powerful enough to counter any attempts to put it under institutional wraps…The album feels like he and the band went into the studio and played together nonstop for the year it took to put the whole thing together. The rockers are livewire-hot …(and) the surprising number of ballads have beauty, directness and a bone-cutting honesty that cannot adequately be described.” — John Griffin, The Gazette (Montreal), Oct. 16, 1980.
‘River Runs Deep, Strong’
“It isn’t an immediately impressive set. On first listening, these two records sound full of throwaway songs sorely lacking the epochal impact of, say ‘Thunder Road’ or ‘Badlands.’ At first, this simply sounds like Springsteen’s party record, full of nods to Buddy Holly, Duane Eddy and the Byrds, and far happier than the brooding, unsettling Darkness on the Edge of Town. That feeling is reinforced by the decision to put mostly rockers on Sides 1 and 2, mostly ballads on 3 and 4. Later, the remarkable cohesion, consistency and depth emerge. The record’s uptempo highlights are already the best thing on FM radio…The ballads are even stronger.” — Steve Pond, The Los Angeles Times, Oct. 19, 1980.
‘Let us now praise famous men’
“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 focuses his heroes and heroines into seeing themselves at different and crucial periods in their lives. The connections are infinite (and, some would say, repetitious.)” — Paul Nelson, Rolling Stone, Dec. 11, 1980.
“On The River, Springsteen becomes his own man, a singular voice and vision that makes no concessions to fads, fancies and ephemeral styles. It is an album without reference points outside his own work. He is so fully in command of his own style that he finally feels free to move around, express himself in many different ways, and never lose the deeply personal vision that runs strongly through each cut on the album.” — Joel Selvin, San Francisco Chronicle & Examiner, Oct. 26, 1980.
‘Abdicating the Rock ‘n’ Roll Pedestal:
Bruce Springsteen Gets Down’
“The material on The River that aims at some sort of mythic resonance – ‘Point Blank,’ ‘Stolen Car,’ the title cut – is either material left off Darkness or written shortly afterward. Since the production never attempts the studied grandiosity of Born to Run or the epic heavy-handedness of Darkness, themes that might previously have been overladen with bombast are rendered more powerful through understatement.” — Don McLeese, Chicago Reader, Oct. 24, 1980.
‘The River Covers A Lot of Ground’
“The E Street Band, surprisingly, takes a lighter role in this project than it did the last time around, or at least its role has been redefined. One hears very little in the way of scorching guitar from Miami Steve Van Zandt or Springsteen himself. Most of the instrumental texture is supplied by pianist Roy Bittan and organist Danny Federici, and greater emphasis is placed on the rhythm section of bassist Garry Tallent and drummer Max Weinberg. Clarence ‘Big Man’ Clemons only steps out every so often, and he rarely blows any solo horn that leaves either a creeping chill in one’s spine or a pulsation in one’s feet. The accent is on the totality of the music, and Springsteen has gone to great lengths to make sure that this material stands up by itself.” — Jeff Tamarkin, The Aquarian, Oct. 15, 1980.
‘More songs about Life and Death’
“I emerge from a weekend with this record feeling as my parents did when they’d survived the blitz. Tattered and frayed round the edges and yet with a glow for men and womankind which might lead to dangerous excursions like embracing someone I’ve never met before. Springsteen and the E Street Band have that quality of making you feel more alive – because, I’m convinced, you actually are more open and aware after allowing such music inside you. The River is as good as blood.” — Phil Sutcliffe, Sounds (UK), Oct. 11, 1980.
‘Cry Me A River’
“Listening to Bruce Springsteen’s The River is like taking a trip through the rock ‘n’ roll heartland as you’ve never experienced it. It’s a walk down all the streets, all the places, all the people and all the souls that rock has ever visited, excited, cried for and loved. The River is an unashamed celebration of rock music, all of it’s 25 years, and only Bruce Springsteen could have pulled it off with so much drama, panache and excitement.” — Paulo Hewitt, Melody Maker (UK), Oct. 11, 1980.
‘Bruce Springsteen, The River.’
“[W]hen an entertainer gets such a grip on your life that a good deal of it (two years in the case of The River) is spent waiting for said entertainer to throw a few new songs your way, that entertainer becomes a bad thing. This double album is supposed to concern the concerns of Springsteen’s golden youths grown up, the aging process that started with Darkness On The Edge of Town. He did well there… Here Bruce is a D.H. Lawrence dream of earthly manhood – a divorce here, a baby carriage there thrown in for mature measure, but basically more bad songs about girls and getting ground down… This is great music for people who’ve wasted their youth to sit around drinking beer and wasting the rest of their lives to.” — Julie Burchill, New Musical Express (UK), Oct. 11, 1980.
‘The River’s Risen’
“I hadn’t realized I was thirsty until I tasted this album. Four sides of pure magic: the current running strong and true throughout. There’s no padding anywhere and the only possible criticism is that on a couple of tracks the production gets a little out of control, but much of Springsteen’s style depends on a gradual build to hysteria, barely contained. By the end, Springsteen’s street credibility is intact and I’m sated.” — Rosalind Russell, Record Mirror (UK), Oct. 11, 1980.
‘Bruce Springsteen’s The River – In Need of Editing’
“Like most double albums, The River could have benefitted from some careful pruning. There are 14 ‘serious songs’ that deal with Mr. Springsteen’s principal themes, and while several of them are individually impressive, their sameness of tone and sheer accumulation of detail become numbing. One can only listen to so many portentous piano and organ introductions, pregnant opening lines, and soul ballad chord progressions before they all begin to sound alike, especially since several songs return to images and musical ideas already explored on Born to Run and Darkness on the Edge of Town… If he learns to edit himself, he should be able to produce an album that finally lives up to his stage shows and to the promise of his exceptional talent. The River comes close.” — Robert Palmer, The New York Times, Oct. 19, 1980.
‘His River of Talent Rolls On’
“You keep wondering if Bruce Springsteen is going to waver, to slip out of control, to become jaded. You keep wondering if his creative well is going to run dry, his energy is going to slow down. And, once again, your wondering is needless, because his new double-record set, The River, is nothing less than his foremost career achievement. It is a remarkable distillation of the past 30 years of American pop music – from the dance mania of rockabilly to the soul of R&B; from the pathos of country to the electric stomp of modern rock ‘n’ roll.” — Steve Morse, Boston Globe, Oct. 23, 1980.
‘Springsteen: The Boss Grows Up’
“Simply put, The River takes my breath away. Most strikingly, the two-record set crackles with a live sound never heard before on a Springsteen release, as if the studio itself and all its machines had somehow been circumvented. There are new melodic ideas being explored, along with new economy in the composing. Always a singer of consummate expressiveness, Bruce has never sung with a more exacting commitment. Even the weaker tracks (like ‘Hungry Heart’) glow from the artistry in his vocals. And what’s this nonsense about depressing songs or too many slow ones? Fourteen out of the 20 tracks are fast or medium tempo, for chrissake. And I suppose you could call some of the songs depressing, if feats of spiritual courage are not your idea of a good time.” — Laura Fissinger, The Twin Cities Reader, October 22, 1980.
”The Boss’ is back’
“This album is not a complete success mainly because Springsteen has been unable to prove wrong the maxim that there never was a double album that wouldn’t have been better off as a single album…Pared down to 12 or 13 cuts, this would be close to the best album I’ve reviewed all year. As it is, The River provides an impressive but flawed testimony to the considerable and growing talent of Bruce Springsteen. We’re still waiting for the best of ‘The Boss.'” — Bill King, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Nov. 22, 1980.
‘Springsteen: The essence of American rock’
“There is no doubt that The River, with its mix of uptempo, feel-good rockers and moving, bittersweet ballads, is clearly Springsteen’s most commercial work to date. But he has made no concessions to commercialism and has sacrificed none of the heartfelt sentiment that characterizes the best of his work. The characters Springsteen sings of in his husky voice are, like him, products of the working class: people trying to connect and hold on and usually failing, urban loners who cruise the night in search of the illusory romance that beckons in the darkness on the edge of town. These have been Springsteen’s signature themes for the last half-dozen years, though with The River, his characters have matured and grown. So has Springsteen’s range of emotion.” — Lynn Van Matre, Chicago Tribune, Nov. 2, 1980.
‘The Man Who Would Walk On The River’
“The River sees Springsteen take his art to higher levels than before. He remains as passionate about his music, and as absolute about his statements. There have been many records celebrating the agonies and ecstasies of rock and roll: but none like The River have captured it as evocatively and as lovingly.” — David Horowitz, Juke (Australia), Nov. 22, 1980.
‘Bruce Springsteen: The River’
“Four sides, 20 songs, a clarity and artistic ease and breadth of passion unequaled by any other rock record this year. Like Francis Coppola’s Godfather, another great work of popular art, The River creates a whole world in an instant. Lives spring up and play out in the time it takes a Polaroid snapshot to develop, private and separate destinies all united into a single truth. Springsteen’s characters in these songs are the proud, hopeless dwellers on the ragged fringes of the urban landscape. The compassion in the writing will come as no surprise to anyone who knows Springsteen’s work. What is new is the deceptive simplicity of the lyrics, and the glistening energy of the music, played and produced with such precision that it almost seems to stand clear of the record.” — Time, Dec. 22, 1980.
‘Bruce Springsteen Has No Price’
“(The River) sums up seven years of work, and it does not shy away from the errors of his career thus far, nor does it disown them. He remains a romantic and a bit of a juvenile, after all this; who but a romantic juvenile could conceive of a purposeless car thief as a genuine figure of tragedy? But he is also capable now of tying together his hopes and fears. The most joyous of songs are awash with brutal undercurrents.” — Dave Marsh, Musician, February 1981.
The River, song by song:
‘THE TIES THAT BIND’
“Owes something to the Jackie De Shannon School of the wiry guitar riff which links the two parts of the song. It establishes the high standard of the music and places the lyrics firmly on the East Coast. As with all Springsteen songs, the story line is simple, striking, and well within reach of anyone’s experience.” — Rosalind Russell, Record Mirror (UK), Oct. 11, 1980.
“The cut that does the best job of capturing the vitality of Springsteen’s live performances is ‘Sherry Darling,’ a delightful upbeat rocker reminiscent of the music of the early ’60s.” — Bill King, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Nov. 22, 1980.
“Heartbreaking emotion, where people are feeling so trapped in their situation they lose their respect and dignity.” — David Horowitz, Juke (Australia), Nov. 22, 1980.
“‘Two Hearts’ is a high-energy kicker where Springsteen the eternal romantic takes his bow: ‘Alone buddy there ain’t no peace of mind/ That’s why I’ll keep searching till I find my special one.'” — Steve Morse, Boston Globe, Oct. 23, 1980.
“It perfectly sums up what Bruce Springsteen and his work is about: A respect for tradition as shown in his rock ‘n’ roll roots and music, but still that undeniable search for freedom and soul. It’s one of the finest songs he’s written, and Clemons’ sax break is inspired.” — Paulo Hewitt, Melody Maker (UK), Oct. 11, 1980.
“Amazingly catchy, a track that would be even more appealing if Springsteen’s voice hadn’t been artificially altered, presumably to take off some rough edges and thus make him likelier fodder for pop radio.” — Steve Pond, The Los Angeles Times, Oct. 19, 1980.
‘OUT IN THE STREET’
“[T]he cool ‘Out In The Street’ is a short-but-sweet knockout which finds Jersey’s finest proclaiming that he’ll ‘walk the way I wanna walk/and talk the way I wanna talk.’ That, coincidently, is just the way so many rock ‘n’ rollers wanna hear him talk.” — Jeff Tamarkin, The Aquarian, Oct. 15, 1980.
‘CRUSH ON YOU’
“[One of] five junk-rock raveups – all more or less indebted to Gary ‘U.S.’ Bonds’ early ’60s hits, reveal Springsteen and the E Street Band as supreme cutups.” — Stephen Holden, The Village Voice, Oct. 28, 1980.
‘YOU CAN LOOK (BUT YOU BETTER NOT TOUCH)’
“Must be a song that Dave Edmunds would like, with its sustained bass beat pacing the old rock ‘n’ roll style that bounced the floor and bends the walls. Roll up the skirting board and watch the plaster pulsate.” — Rosalind Russell, Record Mirror (UK), Oct. 11, 1980.
‘I WANNA MARRY YOU’
“(This) track is jolting if only because it is so surprising to hear Springsteen nakedly announce that he wants to marry a girl he saw walking down the street. Although the song is performed in a certain tongue-in-cheek style, Springsteen’s pleas are believable.” — Jeff Tamarkin, The Aquarian, Oct. 15, 1980.
“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. But, of course, he does remember the good times, and it’s killing him.” — Paul Nelson, Rolling Stone, Dec. 11, 1980.
“Simply breathtaking. To an almost jazzy intro (which strangely recalls the David Bowie of ‘Alladin Sane’), Springsteen is again restless and hurt as he watches a former lover give up her sense of life…With a lyrical genius for setting a time, a place and an atmosphere, Springsteen recalls an incredibly romantic incident of them dancing cheek to cheek, building to his anguished accusation that she’s been shot ‘Point blank/right between the eyes.'” — Paulo Hewitt, Melody Maker (UK), Oct. 11, 1980.
“The ballads leave the deepest imprint, but the album is also rife with sturdy rockers, (including) the vibrant rush of ‘Cadillac Ranch’… In the hands of a lesser artist, all of this commingling of styles and themes would be a futile act of hubris, but in Springsteen’s care it is grist for a masterpiece.” — Steve Morse, Boston Globe, Oct. 23, 1980.
‘I’M A ROCKER’
“A couple of weeks ago, I was driving around when a song called ‘I’m a Rocker’ came on the radio – a tough, take-no-prisoners little battery-burner that practically blasted through my windshield. It sounded a little like Springsteen, or somebody obviously influenced by him. But it was both blunter and freer than anything I thought we’d ever hear from him again. And a lot more playful as well – references to 007 and ‘Secret Agent Man,’ a fade out lifted from ‘California Sun.’ Instinctive stuff, no overwrought social significance whatsoever. This is the kind of stuff he should be doing, I thought to myself.” — Don McLeese, Chicago Reader, Oct. 24, 1980.
“Springsteen’s love songs, always a strength, have declined sickeningly.” — Julie Burchill, New Musical Express (UK), Oct. 11, 1980.
“‘Stolen Car’ is a tender drive through a man’s broken heart, with Springsteen’s understated reverbed guitar saying it all as it gracefully betrays the son’s sentiments of fallen hope and love.” — Paulo Hewitt, Melody Maker (UK), Oct. 11, 1980.
“The E Street Band cuts loose, playing with good time abandon, and Mr. Springsteen sings like a Saturday-night bar-band rocker.” — Robert Palmer, The New York Times, Oct. 19, 1980.
‘THE PRICE YOU PAY’
“The stories and their language reach you as literal first, literary second by a distance. The only exception on this album is ‘The Price You Pay’ which is overly philosophical and travels on symbols abstracted from any specific sequence of human events – consequently it’s only saved from ponderousness by a beautiful high harmony Springsteen pitches against his lead vocal, saving the sense with sound.” — Phil Sutcliffe, Sounds (UK), Oct. 11, 1980.
‘DRIVE ALL NIGHT’
“The fortunate protagonist wins his wife back (and) as the reunited couple get ready for bed, they hear a crowd of kids partying in the streets. ‘Fallen angels’ and ‘calling strangers,’ the husband says. ‘Let them go…do their dances of the dead/…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.” — Paul Nelson, Rolling Stone, Dec. 11, 1980.
‘WRECK ON THE HIGHWAY’
“Superb. For me, the best song of the set…You couldn’t say a song about blood and glass and road accidents is exactly tasteful, but it doesn’t descend into the morbid (well, not much) or rise to histronics. It’s a perfectly crafted song. Watch out for the key changes and the false ending.” — Rosalind Russell, Record Mirror (UK), Oct. 11, 1980.