Bruce Springsteen, ‘The River’

Bruce Springsteen and the roadmap to adulthood

There was a lot of excitement on social media the day tickets went on sale for Bruce Springsteen’s February concert in Philly. As usual, he sold out in just a few minutes. Crazy fans. Still passionately devoted after all these years.

Four sides of life-transforming music. (Photo by the author)

What is it about Springsteen — or rather, the connection between Springsteen and his fans — that inspires such passion? Why are fans who have been to dozens (sometimes hundreds) of shows over the years scrambling so furiously to see him yet again?

I strongly recommend the documentary Springsteen & I for the full answer, but I think part of it is this: These shows (during which his album The River will be played in its entirety) speak powerfully and directly to a specific segment of Springsteen’s audience.

Becoming the people we would be

In 1980, if you were a guy (or maybe a girl) between the ages of, oh, let’s say 16 and 24 (I was 21) and you were paying attention to music generally and Springsteen specifically (as I’d been since 1978), then the October 17 release of The River probably affected who you are today as much as anything else in your upbringing.

The River is one of those rare albums that can profoundly influence how one sees the world, much like Highway 61 Revisited or Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band before it. “It was a record where I first started to tackle men and women and families and marriage,” Springsteen has said of the album. For many of us, The River served as a roadmap to adulthood and beyond, helping us become the people we would be for the rest of our lives.

Isn’t that the definition of great art?

The 20 tracks on all four sides of this sprawling double album (kids, ask your mom or dad what that means) grabbed the characters from Born to Run by the heart and soul and projected them several huge steps down life’s roads, beyond their experiences in Darkness on the Edge of Town. Along the way, Springsteen doubled down in a big way on what people knew already: This sumbitch can turn a hell of a phrase.

Hella phrases being turned

Consider the title track. On initial hearing, it’s a cautionary tale that boils down to “cover the gator, no regrets later.” But then there’s this: “Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true, or is it something worse?” As if that isn’t a question that’s been bandied about by philosophers for a dozen or more centuries. What an earworm to inject into the consciousness of a 21-year-old kid!

Or consider “Independence Day,” which famously illustrates the troubled relationship between the singer and his father. “Well say goodbye, it’s Independence Day, it’s Independence Day, all boys must run away. So say goodbye, it’s Independence Day, all men must make their way come Independence Day.” In the space of just a few seconds, the boy has become the man who must now face the world. Clarence Clemons’s fluid saxophone steps in reassuringly as if to say, “Yeah, this’ll be tough, but you got this, you’ll be okay.”

Or this: "Someday these childish dreams must end, to become a man and grow up to dream again." Is that dream a lie if it don’t come true? Boom! 1980 kid’s mind blown. That earworm just took on a whole new dimension. Let’s put that little nugget of life wisdom on that shelf over there so we can check back in on it from time to time.

Anticipation . . . and gratitude

So on Friday, February 12, we’ll go to the Wells Fargo Center and listen to The River. Carefully and deeply. We’ll sing. We’ll dance. We’ll think about how these songs have become part of our very being — and how remarkable it is that one man’s catalog of music can so frequently and effectively provide the maps and compasses needed to find our way through this ever-more-complex and difficult world.

And at some point in the show we’ll be asked by a man who is closer to 70 than he is to 60, “Is there anybody really alive out there?!” We will, of course, answer in a throat-searing howl of affirmation that will threaten to blow the roof off the dump.

Thanks, Bruce. We couldn’t have made it without your help.

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