I bought my wife tickets to a Bruce Springsteen concert for Christmas. This may sound like the stereotypical man-gift—a present a husband bestows on his long-suffering spouse because he wants it for himself, like a riding lawn mower—but Amy really did want to see The Boss in concert again. Twenty-eight years ago, in our sophomore year at Michigan State, we and several friends sat—or rather, danced, since the crowd rarely left its feet at any point in the three-plus-hour concert—to the side and slightly back of the stage in the Joe Louis Arena on the Detroit stop of the Tunnel of Love tour. Springsteen has always performed for the entire audience, and seats behind the stage are often cheaper and closer (and the sound is less deafening). When I saw that we could get such seats in Milwaukee on the current tour celebrating the 35th anniversary of the release of The River, I bought the tickets on my iPhone, as we were waiting in Rockford’s Coronado Theater for Cheap Trick to take the stage.
This was Amy’s second Springsteen concert and my third; as we filed with thousands of other fans into the BMO Harris Bradley Center on that cold March night, I did not yet know that it would be my last—but probably not for the reason you are thinking.
Born in the U.S.A., with its iconic cover of a white T-shirted Springsteen, red baseball cap tucked into the rear pocket of his blue jeans, all silhouetted against a larger-than-life American flag, was the chief introduction to Bruce for my generation. Not for this country-music fan, however: That came several months later, in the spring of my junior year in high school, when my friend Andy Craig gave me five cassettes that he had copied off of vinyl (or as we called them back in those pre-hipster days, “records”)—Born to Run, Darkness on the Edge of Town, Nebraska, and (sprawling over two cassettes) The River. Even those who didn’t listen to rock couldn’t avoid Born in the U.S.A.—if only because of the controversy over the Reagan reelection campaign’s naively unironic use of the title song at campaign rallies in 1984, which evoked a sharp rebuke from The Boss—but Merle Haggard was more my style than the driving rock tempos and electronic keyboards that have made the album one of the highest-selling of all time.
But those cassettes—that was something different, and especially the 1978–80–82 trio of Darkness on the Edge of Town, The River, and Nebraska. To have released Darkness and Nebraska over the course of four years would have been impressive enough, but Bruce had thrown in the double album of The River for good measure. (And there were enough outtakes, bootlegged for years and finally released in 2015 as one disc of The Ties That Bind: The River Collection, for another double album.)
Back in the mid-80’s, after the rise of the bluegrass- and western-influenced “New Traditionalists” such as Ricky Skaggs, Keith Whitley, Randy Travis, and George Strait, country-music fans liked to say that the thing that most set country apart from the various forms of rock was that you could hear the lyrics, and those lyrics told a story. Not surprisingly, then, what initially drew me to Springsteen were his lyrics. The River, in particular, became something like a soundtrack to my life, and unlike a generation brought up on digital downloads, I never listened to just a single song, or to any of the songs out of order. Once I pressed Play on my knock-off Walkman and heard the opening drum shot of “The Ties That Bind,” the music never stopped until the haunting final chord of “Wreck on the Highway” faded away.
That was how Springsteen intended The River to be heard, as a single work of art, and on the current tour Bruce and the E Street Band have led off with “Meet Me in the City” (one of the outtakes from The River) before playing every song in the order in which they are found on the original double album, without taking a single break. By itself, that set list would challenge a much younger man and band, but as the applause is still rising at the end of “Wreck on the Highway,” the largely sexagenarian crew launches into the first of a dozen more songs from every era of The Boss’s career, for a solid three-and-a-half hours’ worth of music every night.
I have listened to The River countless times in the 30 years since I first heard it, but there in Milwaukee, I had the sense of hearing it again for the first time. At 17, my connection to the album was inchoate; even a bright teenager is a bundle of emotions who can’t begin to understand what his life means, which is one of the reasons why rock ’n’ roll appeals so strongly to the young. At 47, though, the words that Springsteen used that night to introduce “The Ties That Bind” ring true to experience:
The River was my coming of age record. It was the record where I was trying to figure out where I fit in. I’d taken notice of the things that bond people to their lives… the work, commitments, families. I wanted to imagine and I wanted to write about those things—figured if I could do that, I might get closer to having them in my own life…. I wanted to make a record… that felt like life…. I wanted the record to contain fun and dancing and laughter and jokes, good comradeship, love, sex, faith, lonely nights, and of course teardrops. And I figured if I could make a record big enough to contain all those things maybe I’d get a little closer to the answers and the home I was trying to find….
Springsteen had originally planned to name the album after that first track, and even now, it’s hard to say it wouldn’t be a better title. For all of the classic rock themes of rebellion, the deeper theme running through every song on The River is the web of connections to those closest to you, of the experiences and the places you share, that you cannot tear apart without doing damage to yourself.
Yet, when we’re young, we’re constantly finding the horizon of our little world to be insufferably close, and too often all we can think about is ripping that web apart, trying to go it alone. For a 17-year-old boy in a Midwestern village of 2,000 souls, Independence Day could not come soon enough, though the recognition of what he would lose when it did come would take much longer to arrive. Thirty years later, I was looking at life in the rear-view mirror as Bruce introduced the song in Milwaukee:
“Independence Day” was the first song I wrote about fathers and sons. It’s the kind of song you write when you’re young, and you’re first startled by your parents’ humanity, you’re shocked to find out that they have their own dreams and their own desires and their own hopes that maybe didn’t pan out exactly as they thought it might, and all you can see are the adult compromises that they had to make, and you’re still too young to see the blessings that come with those compromises, so all you can feel is the world closing in, closing in, closing in, and I know when I was young, all I could think about was getting out, getting out, getting out.
Among the things I can see in that rear-view mirror is how Andy’s gift of those tapes led to me and one of my many freshman roommates greeting the first balmy day of May 1987 by throwing open the windows of A206 Bryan Hall and blasting (from start to finish, of course) The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle. The girls in A106 were not fans, and they introduced themselves by banging on their ceiling with the handle of a broom—which, of course, only encouraged us to crank the music up. A conciliatory blender full of strawberry daiquiris and the better part of three decades and eight children later, Amy and I will celebrate our 24th anniversary this July.
My children, of course, have been listening to The Boss from birth, and I shared my second Springsteen concert, at Wrigley Field in September 2012, with my two oldest boys. My girls and my youngest son have been impatiently waiting their turn, which now, alas, will never come.
I could not care less about Bruce Springsteen’s politics; what drew me to his music is what it shares with all real art—the glimpse it gives us into the truth of human life. The National Review writer who damns the “cheap sentimentalism” of “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” “Youngstown,” “My Hometown,” and the title tracks of Born in the U.S.A. and The River misses the point as badly as the Trump supporter who wants to make Springsteen into the poster boy for economic nationalism. Those songs are so powerful because each captures something that we recognize as true to human life. To the extent that art becomes slave to ideology—any ideology—it is no longer art.
And yet, just a month after The Boss stood on that stage in Milwaukee and explained his entirely nonideological reasons for creating The River to an arena full of people who were there not in support of, or in spite of, his politics but because his music has meant something to them, he enslaved his own music to his political views. It makes no difference to me if Springsteen wishes to follow in the fake-farmwife footsteps of Sissy Spacek and volunteer to testify in the North Carolina statehouse against the injustice of preventing a self-proclaimed “woman” from using the same public restroom as a five-year-old girl. But in canceling his April 10 tour stop in Greensboro, North Carolina, he did not “show solidarity for those freedom fighters” who think that the best way to treat the mentally ill is to indulge their fantasies. What he did was to ruin the evening of the husband who gave his wife tickets to that concert because they share a story like Amy’s and mine; of the young man who was planning to use the event to propose to his girlfriend; of the son who is headed toward an Independence Day of his own, but whose memory of this night spent with his father might someday have helped to draw him back home again.
Everyone who had tickets to that concert in Greensboro has a story about why he was going. And if Bruce Springsteen hadn’t canceled the concert, each would have had a story about what that night meant to him. None of those stories may have been earth-shattering; they may all have been mundane; but in the hands of a true artist—say, the man who once wrote the lyrics to The River, before his imagination was clouded by ideology—they might have become a work of art.
Call it The Ties That Bind.
Republished with gracious permission from Chronicles Magazine (June 2016).
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Editor’s Note: The featured image of Bruce Springsteen is courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.