Words by: Sam Farringdon
To celebrate the release of Bruce Springsteen’s new box set “The Ties That Bind”, which highlights his 1980 double opus “The River”. Sam Farringdon reflects on the significant impact that particular album has had on his life.
If there were a movie made about my life, it would open in unison with the drum roll from ‘Hungry Heart’. In that half a bar, the snare tumbles almost self-consciously, like the nervous apprehension of opening the door to a swingin’ party you’re not quite sure you’re gonna be welcome at. You’re quickly put at ease though, by that rhythmic piano line that chimes with the warmth and candour of festive bells, while the honking pulse of the sax reassures you that you’re definitely gonna have a good time. I’ve always considered ‘Hungry Heart’ to be something of a musical allegory, setting the scene for the grand party of life.“Lay down your money and you play your part”, Bruce sings, like some kind of rock n’ roll Confucius. “Everybody’s got a hungry heart.”
My first musical memory is my first memory full stop. It’s Saturday morning, and my father, energised by the liberty and possibility of the weekend, pulls out his copy of The River, drops the needle on Side 2, and turns it up – LOUD. Suddenly the entire house is flooded with the joyous strains of ‘Hungry Heart’, and my Dad singing along at the top of his lungs, while engaging in some kind of awkward goose-stepping dance around the house. He’d sweep me up and whirl me‘round and put me down, and spin my Mum in the kitchen. “This is REAL music!” he’d exclaim to me, and I’d bellow something petulant back, probably about wanting to hear ‘Pressure Down’ by John Farnham or ‘We Didn’t Start The Fire’ by Billy Joel (the beginnings of a inane music snobbery that exists to this day). This became something of a ritual during my formative years, and I remember hating it – even if now I can’t recall why. Of course, years later I’d be pulling out my own copy of The River to dance around my own house to ‘Hungry Heart’, while my then long-suffering girlfriend watched on in bemusement.
While I might have professed public hatred for Springsteen as a toddler, in private I was deeply intrigued by this record that my father used to pull out every Saturday morning. At the age of 5, I remember flicking through my parents’ record collection with an almost religious fervour – I actually learnt to read from the track lists – and whenever I came across The River, I’d always pull it out and stare long and hard at it. The black and white cover photograph of Bruce, with his sad puppy dog eyes, seemed very mysterious and disconcerting to a 5 year old, while the ragged brush strokes of the aqua typography, all in capital letters, seemed evocative of an old gothic movie, or fairy tale. Even more confounding was the back cover, with its photograph of a paper wedding diorama. It felt as uneasy as the front cover; like some kind of relic preserved from a more innocent and idealistic time. The track list itself, down the right hand side of the back cover, read like a table of contents that wasn’t heading for a particularly happy ending. You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch), Point Blank, Stolen Car, and Wreck On The Highway sounded pretty ominous to me. Yet the inner sleeves housing the records seemed to present a bunch of pretty average looking guys having the time of their lives. I’d put the record back mystified by the riddle of contradictions it seemed to present, but steadfast in my stubborn refusal to accept it as anything other than a record my Dad really liked.
That slowly started to change a few years later, when I was old enough to comprehend the lyrics of The River itself. The song was on Bruce’s Greatest Hits, which was one of the first CDs our household owned, and I was fascinated by the story of two lovers whose lives and love seemed to be unravelling before them, but who pretend not to remember the youthful ideals that brought them together, and not to care that the dreams they held so dear didn’t even remotely look like coming true. It was a story told in such plain language that it seemed to me these people actually existed, and that I could’ve known them myself as friends of my parents… In a couple of more years, it would practically become my parents, as they watched helplessly as the family business collapsed. “Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true, or is it something worse?” To this day, that line cuts through me like a cold and bitter breeze, chilling me to the bone. I was learning that not everyone gets to live their dreams, and sometimes an innocent, or seemingly innocuous mistake can lay them to waste beyond your control. Suddenly the mystery and darkness of The River’s cover started to make sense…
But it was still a few years before I considered myself a casual Springsteen fan, and not until I was 18 that I bought a copy of The River for myself, on CD. I liked it, but listened to it infrequently – it didn’t seem quite conducive enough to my aggressive and broody state, nor to my chances of getting laid. However, I really connected with ‘Magic’ when it came out (there were roaring, aggressive guitars all over THAT record), and by 23 I’d completed the transformation to my father’s son and a fully-fledged fanatic. Around this time I’d met and fallen in love with a girl who was the love of my life, and we were busy setting up a future together. Trouble was, I was carrying a secret that weighed heavy on my heart and even heavier on my conscience – I had cheated on her, and I couldn’t tell her. It was during this time, that I fell deep into Bruce’s music and listened to it almost exclusively, particularly Darkness on the Edge of Town, which probably saved my life a few times. That record seemed to possess a rage and desperation that resonated pertinently with me at the time – these were songs about people swimming with demons forever trying to drag them down. However, the song that identified with the most, and subsequently scared the hell out of me as a result, wasn’t actually on Darkness, but was buried deep in the second half of The River.
I was driving home from work one night at the end of winter, taking the more scenic route along the mouth of the Swan River (appropriately), when the deathly quiet tones of ‘Stolen Car’ prompted me to turn my car radio up as loud as it would go without distorting (the speakers were cheap and shitty). As I listened to Bruce’s mournful vocal, I felt as if there was a lead weight pressing down on my chest and a lump the size of an apple in my throat. The lyrics came into quick, sharp focus:
I met a little girl and I settled down
In a little house out on the edge of town
We got married and swore we’d never part
And little by little we drifted from each other’s heart
At first I thought it was just restlessness
That would fade as time went by and our love grew deep
In the end it was something more I guess
That tore us apart and made us weep
And I’m driving a stolen car
Down on Elridge Avenue
Each night I wait to get caught
But I never do.
She asked me if I remembered the letters I wrote
When our love was young and bold
She said last night she read those letters
And they made her feel one hundred years old
And I’m driving a stolen car
On a pitch black night
And I’m telling myself
I’m gonna be alright
But I ride by night
And I travel in fear
That in the darkness
I will disappear.
Never before (or since) have I heard a song that so pointedly expressed my own experience that I felt like I was living inside of it. I had to pull over the car to the side of the road, where I sat, listening to the song on repeat, and cried. It was terrifying just how precisely I now identified with the protagonist in that song. I finally pulled myself together and drove home, and then later that night admitted my infidelity to my girlfriend. Of course, she was devastated; but she was also gracious enough to identify my regret and sorrow and forgive me. We were together for almost another 4 years. Later, when we eventually were breaking up, she said to me: “I read the letters we wrote to each other when we first got together last night… they made me feel one hundred years old.” The coincidence was eerie – she wasn’t remotely a Springsteen fan (as much as I had tried) and didn’t know the song. I wasn’t sure if my life had become the butt of some cosmic joke following a script, or simply if my keen identification with ‘Stolen Car’ had become some kind of self-fulfilling prophecy.
It’s kind of strange reflecting on anything that has been a significant part of your life for as long as you remember – especially when it’s something that existed both before you were born, and will more than likely outlive you. Throughout my life, particularly the last 10 years, The River has been THE album that had continually served to console and haunt me in about equal measure. These days when I consider it, it’s more than just a record I put on to get into a good mood; it’s become almost like a compass by which I navigate my life. By no means does it contain the answers to the mysteries of the universe, but it’s led me down paths and has given me an understanding and perspective on life I’m not quite sure I would’ve acquired in the same way anywhere else. Certainly, I’ve learnt more about the emotional complexities of my father by listening to The River than I ever have by speaking to him; in fact Bruce’s reflection on his complex relationship with his father in ‘Independence Day’ could be my own. Through that, I’ve been able to identify many of the same complexes, flaws and idiosyncrasies in myself. It’s no revelation that the power of Bruce’s music is in the stories he conveys. He is able to express the fear and the frustrations in the struggles of the choices we make and the paths we take – all with an eloquence and forthrightness that so many of us lack. He has an unrivalled capacity to communicate empathy to provide comfort; uniting the solitary souls out on that lost highway by speaking directly to (and for) them. But at the same time, he understands the desperate need for joy and celebration, and that this can be achieved through the redemptive power of rock n’ roll – which is wisely why he didn’t initially release The River as a single album: it didn’t celebrate enough. Life may be a cycle of struggles, but what is it worth without a little hope? And in that sense, The River may be the key Springsteen album in understanding both his intent and his appeal: it’s an epic sprawl that’s earnest, certainly, but it’s tempered by an honest and frank sadness and desperation that mixes with a goofiness and sense of fun: the overall result is nothing short of life-affirming. For proof, you only need to look as far as the final verse of the album’s opener ‘The Ties That Bind’, which in retrospect, effectively lays bare Bruce’s own mission statement, as much as the album’s itself:
You sit and wonder just who’s gonna stop the rain
Who’ll ease the sadness, who’s gonna quiet the pain
It’s a long dark highway and a thin white line
Connecting, baby, your heart to mine
We’re runnin’ now but darlin’ we will stand in time
To face the ties that bind.
For me, this is the essence of the album – a clarion call of salvation rising above the muck and the mire… Technicolor dreams bursting from the staid and haunted black and white badlands… regrets fading from view like wrecks on the highway on an all night drive… life going on…
As my life goes on. And I couldn’t imagine what it would be like without The River.