It was a Friday night in 1981 and two roommates were working out their differences after a round of take-your-turn record spinning.
“The Clash are boring,” declared the first. “All they sing about are policemen and helmets.”
“No, Bruce Springsteen is boring,” replied roommate #2. “All he sings about is cars and darkness.”
Defending one’s own favorite musical artist by dissing the other’s idol may be reductive but it’s also instructive. If you don’t like a certain band, the easiest way to make your case is to over-emphasize the most emblematic thing about them. And there is added incentive to go this route when one is confronted with those traits at critical mass: the album sides on the turntable that long- ago night were from the Clash’s new 3-disc behemoth Sandinista! and Bruce’s double-bagger from the year before, The River.
Springsteen’s star had been steadily rising since his debut Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. some seven years previous. His reputation as an eloquent but unfancy voice of the regular guys and gals of middle America. The River was his break-out success, his first #1 album (beating the iconic Born to Run which hit #3) and it sported his first Top Ten single in the hook-heavy “Hungry Heart.” It also inspired a harsh critical reaction in some circles, which reminds me of my roommates’ exchange.
Let’s face it: “All he sings about is cars and darkness…” and throw in lonely highways and ex-lovers and hard-knock working class predicaments.
Now it was professional rock scribes throwing the brickbats. Over in the UK (where The River reached #2) Julie Burchill from New Musical Express sniffed “This is great music for people who’ve wasted their youth to sit around drinking beer and wasting the rest of their lives to.” Stateside, I never forgot the lead article in the Creem magazine review section (headline: “Born to Stall”) by the esteemed Billy Altman.
He wrote then that Springsteen “is still spinning his wheels in the same narrow-minded world view… unable or uninterested” to see beyond the “horrible quagmire” of his subjects’ lives. Faced with a 20-song double LP to contend with, Altman probably decided he didn’t like the record as soon as he looked at the cover and saw the somber expression of our flannel-shirted bard of the Jersey Shore.
But if one listens closely, a much more nuanced experience is unfolding. On the opening “The Ties That Bind,” backed by jangly guitars and the insistent rhythmic push of his trusty E Street Band, the Boss confronts the issue of dead-end lives as usual, but with a compassion that his legions of fans know on an instinctual level: “We’re running now, but we will stand in time/To face the ties that bind.”
And for nearly every gloom-and-doom song there is an upbeat one to match it, big-night-out anthems like “I’m a Rocker” and “Out in the Streets” or skirt-chasers like “Sherry Darling” and “Crush on You.”
At heart, Springsteen is an old soul. He was a tenacious and ambitious escapee from the small-town bondage he so often portrayed, reportedly never taking a proper job to incentivize making it as a musician. But he did not scorn what he got away from and remained a consistent empath, even in the face of exasperation or ridicule. A certain amount of that was directed at the melodramatic hardships depicted in The River’s title song. The hipster critics may have cringed at lines like “Lately there ain’t been much work/On account of the economy” without caring to understand that’s exactly how the song’s luckless narrator would say it.
For my money, the better ballad (and keynote to the entire album) is the heart-rending “Independence Day” which directly references the famously contentious relationship that Springsteen had with his father, who toiled for many years in his hometown Nescafe plant. In his recent memoir and one-man Broadway show, he said he understood early on that (as the song says) “all boys must run away.” Then he admits, “What I didn’t understand was his depression.” But Bruce (who has also struggled with the malady) would come to understand and remain that way. It is a bond he has forged with America’s heartland, a mythic place that is too often lightly considered. Long may he keep his engines running.