Every so often you can feel your heart running on empty. For forty years I’ve been managing that condition by refilling with Bruce Springsteen. Diane, Sarah and I just returned from a road trip to the KFC Yum! Center in Louisville, Kentucky where we spent three and a half incredible hours with the Boss and the E Street Band who are about half way through the 2016 Ties That Bind / The River Tour.
The Ties That Bind Tour features the performance of the 1980 double album The River in its entirety. At the time, I did not appreciate the transformative significance of The River when it was first released. Prior to playing the first track, “The Ties That Bind”, Springsteen explained that on The River he was trying to explore meaningful connections. Prior to The River, Springsteen had been a leather-clad, Asbury Park punk, a rebellious, born to run, Jersey guy and a disillusioned outsider hiding in the darkness on the edge of town. At age 29 he thought that if he could imagine an album full of love, laughter, companionship, ties that bind, broken faith, loss, lonely nights, and tight-lipped desperation that he might be a little closer to realizing the same in his own life.
Now 35 years later, surrounded by his teenage friends and bandmates and his wife of 25 years, Patty Scialfa, it is clear that Bruce has successfully made those meaningful connections. The stories and characters who populate The River all have added colors, dimensions and poignancy when viewed through the lens of a 35 year old camera. Nowhere was this more poignant than on “Independence Day.”
“Well Papa go to bed now it’s getting late
Nothing we can say is gonna change anything now
I’ll be leaving in the morning from St. Mary’s Gate
We wouldn’t change this thing even if we could somehow
‘Cause the darkness of this house has got the best of us
There’s a darkness in this town that’s got us too
But they can’t touch me now
And you can’t touch me now
They ain’t gonna do to me
What I watched them do to you”
Written as an exploration of his relationship with his father, the words were the same, but the emotion that flowed from Jake Clemon’s saxophone had changed. The original River Tour performance was by an angry son who’d never realize his hopes and dreams until he escaped his claustrophobic house and town. This past Sunday, Springsteen, now with children almost the same age as when he wrote “Independence Day,” infused the same lyrics with an understanding and compassion for the unappreciated compromises that his own father must have made as he watched his dreams leave him alone at the kitchen table.
On The River, Springsteen peels back the layered mysteries of adult romantic relationships. He systematically questions obsession (“Crush on You”), love (“I Want To Marry You”), the in-laws ( “Sherry Darling”), infidelity (“Hungry Hearts”), regret (“The Price You Pay”) and despair (“Stolen Car”). Probably the most popular single from The River was Springsteen’s “Two Hearts” which seems to fully endorse the importance of finding the type of meaningful relationship that he found with Patty.
“Sometimes it might seem like it was planned
for you to roam empty hearted through this land
Though the world turns you hard and cold
There’s one thing mister, that I know
That’s if you think your heart is stone
And that you’re rough enough to whip this world alone
Alone buddy there ain’t no peace of mind
That’s why I’ll keep searching till I find my special one
Two hearts are better than one
Two hearts girl get the job done
Two hearts are better than one”
In 1977, when Diane and I got married, we used Billy Joel’s “You’re My Home” as our wedding song. If we had gotten married three years later I think we would’ve used “Drive All Night” for our first dance. I believe that “Drive All Night” may be Springsteen’s most passionate and redemptive love song. If you’re planning a wedding or just need to remember why you so badly need the person you’re lying next to in bed, take a few minutes to listen to this recording of “Drive All Night.” And it’s not even as good as the version Bruce did in Louisville.
“When I lost you honey sometimes I think I lost my guts too
And I wish God would send me a word
Send me something I’m afraid to lose
Lying in the heat of the night like prisoners all our lives
I get shivers down my spine and all I want to do is hold you tight
I swear I’ll drive all night just to buy you some shoes
And to taste your tender charms
And I just want to sleep tonight again in your arms”
The centerpiece of the album is the song ‘The River” itself. “The River” is a lyrical masterpiece. It is a story of young lovers with the stars aligned against them from the very start. A couple whose every joy is compromised and are forced to watch their hopes dry up like the river. I cannot understand any person who doesn’t feel pain for these working class kids who don’t ask for anything other than a chance at a future together. The final stanza asks one of the most existential questions ever posed in a rock and roll lyric.
“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”
Not all of The River though, is from the heart. There’s plenty that comes from the hips and loins. “Out In The Street”, “Cadillac Ranch”, “I’m A Rocker”, and “Ramrod” all got 15,000 Viagra-taking 50 and 60 year olds on their feet with hands in the air. The River is dominated by drummer Mighty Max Weinberg who pounds out memory after memory of the pleasures of the flesh.
“Hey, little dolly with the blue jeans on
I wanna ramrod with you honey, till half-past dawn
Let your hair down sugar and pick up this beat
Come on and meet me tonight down on Bluebird Street
I’ve been working all week, I’m up to my neck in hock
Come Saturday night I let my ramrod rock”
After completing the entire River album (20 songs over two hours), Bruce quietly announced, “Well, that’s The River.” As any Springsteen fan well knows, the Boss has a pathological fear of leaving a single unsatisfied person in the crowd. After completing The River, Springsteen called out for 13 encores- or what it really was- a complete second concert. Springsteen and the E Street Band proceeded to tear through fan favorites (and my favorite) “Badlands,” “Lonesome Day,” ”Because the Night” ( written by Springsteen and made into a hit by Patty Smyth), “She’s the One,” “Human Touch” ( harmonizing with wife Patty Scialfa), “The Rising” (for my son Bryan, and all firemen), “Born in the USA” (rarely played in concert but requested by 2 guys behind the stage), “Born to Run,” “Dancing in the Dark,” “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight),” The Isley Brothers’ “Shout,” and an unexpected “Bobby Jean.” On a half dozen occasions we were all sure that the concert was over as Bruce walked to the back of the stage. Each time he just changed out his guitar.
Sometimes it is also okay to go all the way back when you were a bit of a punk as well and really didn’t care what other people thought.
“Workin’ in the fields
’til you get your back burned,
Workin’ ‘neath the wheels
’til you get your facts learned,
Baby, I got my facts
Learned real good right now,
You better get it straight, darlin’
Poor man wanna be rich,
Rich man wanna be king,
And a king ain’t satisfied,
’til he rules everything,
I wanna go out tonight,
I wanna find out what I got
Well, I believe in the love that you gave me,
I believe in the faith that can save me,
I believe in the hope and I pray,
That someday it may raise me
Above these Badlands”
It’s actually hard for me to understand how anyone can listen to a Springsteen performance and not be moved. There is so much more to the music than just melodies and a back beat. Maybe the music requires a history so that the songs can take you down into the deep well of memories, feelings and emotions that we all have. I’m not sure if that’s true, but regardless, dipping some crystal clear water out of that well from time to time is what fills the heart back up.
Of all the blogs that I have written this one may have been the most difficult. It’s challenging to convey the soul-filling power of a Springsteen concert. The three and a half hours that Bruce commands the stage is transformative. I grew up as a Southern Baptist, but have never heard an evangelical better able to call out the spirit or was part of a more connected and engaged congregation. No one around me was talking in tongues, but it’s every bit as amazing to hear 15,000 people perfectly singing each and every lyric with raptured intensity.
As a child, Sunday service never ended until at least one person walked to the front of the pulpit to publically request forgiveness and salvation. Using those same criteria, I hope that this blog will convince at least one person to watch the attached You Tube Videos or maybe purchase The River CD. Either will fill your heart just a bit. Even better, maybe someone (hopefully a couple) will search out the next city where the E Street Band is performing and decide to “Drive All Night” to find out for themselves if what John Landau said in Newsweek in 1975 is really true.