I suppose like many people who grew up in the 80s and listening to music from that time, Born in the U.S.A. brought the Boss on my radar screen. When that album was released in 1984, I think the only other Bruce Springsteen song I knew at the time was The River, an instant favorite.
When Bruce came out with the Live/1975-1985 compilation and I noticed it included a significant amount of material from Born in the U.S.A. and the song The River, I decided to put it on my Christmas wish list for 1986. Santa was kind, and as I started listening to the 3-CD set, I quickly realized there was much more to Springsteen than Born in the U.S.A, Cover Me, I’m on Fire and Bobby Jean.
Among others, I discovered Hungry Heart, which I think is safe to assume is the best known song from the album, apart from the title track. Additionally, I started appreciating other Springsteen classics, such as Born to Run, Darkness on the Edge of Town and Thunder Road. I also had no idea that songs like Spirit in the Night, Because the Night and Fire – which I had known because of Manfred Mann’s Earth Band, Patti Smith and The Pointer Sisters, respectively – had all been written or co-written by the Boss!
So while Born in the U.S.A. and Live/1975-1985 introduced me to Bruce Springsteen, made me buy some of his other albums he released thereafter and see an unforgettable Springsteen show in Frankfurt, Germany in the late 1980s, it didn’t lead to more exploration of The River album. Given the upcoming concert, which is going to be my second Springsteen show, I wanted to change that – which finally brings me to the album.
The River is Springsteen’s fifth studio album. Initially, it was supposed to be a single album called The Ties That Bind. But Bruce had written more material than would fit on one record – at last at the time – so it ended up being two records called The River – his only double studio album to date.
According to Bruce’s official web site, The River is “split evenly between huge house-party numbers (and a wealth of live staples) and darker, real-word tales.” It was reflective of Bruce being “out to explore the emerging dualities of his music.” During an interview referenced in a 2004 Springsteen biography by Dave Marsh, Bruce explained, “Rock and roll has always been this joy, this certain happiness that is in its way the most beautiful thing in life. But rock is also about hardness and coldness and being alone … I finally got to the place where I realized life had paradoxes, a lot of them, and you’ve got to live with them.”
Two songs from The River illustrate the above: In Cadillac Ranch, Bruce sings,
Long and dark, shiny and black
Open up your engines let ‘em roar
Tearing up the highway like a big dinosaur
Contrast that with Point Blank:
You grew up where young girls they grow up fast
You took what you were handed and left behind what was asked
but what they asked baby wasn’t right
you didn’t have to live that life,
I was gonna be your Romeo you were gonna be my Juliet
These days you don’t wait on Romeo’s
you wait on that welfare check
and on all the pretty things you can’t ever have
and on all the promises
The album generated three U.S. singles – Hungry Heart, Fade Away and I Wanna Marry You – and four additional singles that were released in the UK only: Sherry Darling, The River/Independence Day, Cadillac Ranch and Point Blank. Hungry Heart became Bruce’s first top ten single on the U.S. pop singles chart, climbing up to number five.
The River has become one of Springsteen’s best-selling albums after Born in the U.S.A. and Born to Run. It has been certified quintuple platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America.
In addition to the title song and Hungry Heart, my favorite tunes from the album include The Ties That Bind, Independence Day, Out in the Street, Point Blank, Cadillac Ranch, Ramrod and The Price You Pay.
Four members of the current E Street Band were on the original recording of The River: Roy Bittan (piano, synthesizer, accordion), Garry Tallent (bass), Steven Van Zandt (rhythm guitar, lead guitar, background vocals) and Max Weinberg (drums). Perhaps the one missing member I’m going to miss the most is Clarence Clemmons, the band’s amazing saxophonist who passed away in 2011. Intriguingly, his nephew Jake Clemons took over “The Big Man’s” part in 2012 – big shoes to fill, literally!
I can’t wait to see these guys and Bruce bring The River to life and play many other great Springsteen songs next Tuesday at MetLife Stadium. Are the going to match the record four hours they rocked there Thursday night? Okay, I don’t want to get too greedy here – anything more than 2.5 hours is pretty remarkable these days, especially for an artist of Bruce’s caliber!