Ties That Bind: Bruce Springsteen and ‘The River’ live in Chicago
Are these my songs?
How could they be? Recorded 35 years earlier, the songs on The River, which Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band maniacally performed to a sold-out United Center last night, are bound to their place in time — on a recession record released as the country slipped from Nixonian cynicism into the flashier malevolence of the Reagan era, an album where Bruce continued to mature along with the college audience that devoured The River 30 years before I entered college myself.
But of course these are my songs. I’ve taken them, after all, and applied the ethos of so many of that album’s tracks to my own life experiences, like everybody else here has too. And how can you not? The River may have been created in a very particular era, but it also reflects what it’s like to live at a specific time of your life, when you emerge into adulthood and have to deal with its joys and hardness as things come at you.
Everybody’s lived through (or is living through) paradoxical bouts of raunchiness and loneliness, exuberance and fear, and as Springsteen figured out with The River, those didn’t just live in close proximity, but comprised a state that was worth exploring.
More than any other Springsteen album, The River captures the vitality of life, wrapping up the highs and lows of ecstatic jubilation and cold disappointment into one double album that flows from tender melancholy to raunchy determination (and back again) like any other kid trying to figure out how they should operate in the world, digging cars and women and stumbling to figure out what your dad’s all about.
There’s a reason, then, that it’s the sax-iest of Springsteen’s albums, Clarence Clemons’ horn expressing the complete range of human emotion from mournful sorrow to unstoppable glee, and occupying that perfect spot in the sonic range where his tenor grabs you by the balls and doesn’t let go until the chorus hits again. And that’s the simple fact that while driving fast and holding down a job is dope, and having sex is cool as hell, but the consequences of both come to a head eventually, and that’s difficult shit to sort through.
Besides the struggles of figuring out how to come of age, The River is also about connections, and Springsteen himself mused last night that “if you lose your connections, you lose yourself” before gearing into “Stolen Car.” The album chews on connections forming (“Crush On You”) and dissolving (“Point Blank”), and the ties that bind us for better or worse (“Independence Day”).
But seeing Springsteen and the E Street Band perform the album straight through live, it’s clear that the connections don’t end on the record. People come to see Bruce to be connected to one another, to Bruce, to the past. Connected to our former selves that fought with the same compromises laid bare in The River, or connected to fathers or sons, or to wives and husbands who have been with us listening to these songs since they were first released. Perhaps that’s what makes the band still stick together, if not somehow impossibly grow stronger — a mess of connections so deep they don’t require verbal communication any more, just a nod and then bam Nils Lofgren is playing the guitar with his teeth and you’re asking your wife for a little of her human touch in front of 25,000 screaming fans.
But how do you explain your connection to the album’s songs to somebody with their own, completely separate relationship to them? How do you explain the feeling that the album elicits — your first ever piece of music purchased with your own money — when you remember the jarring sensation as it woke you up every single morning for two straight years with the jangly guitars on “The Ties That Bind.” Or how many goddamn times you played “Fade Away” when you first thought you had your heartbroken? Do other people think that the first verses on “The River” perfectly evoke the sensation of tired, guarded, desperate sex, or is that just your imagination? Does anybody else find this video as haunting as the music itself, or start tearing up any time they accidentally start paying attention to its lyrics while at work?
Of course they do. Or, hopefully, people have even better relationships with the record. It’s an incredible record, and it’s amazing that in 2016 the band is able to play it live with all the energy and power they brought to the album in 1980.
Needless to say, there was not a whole lot of Snapchatting at the show, and the men’s bathroom during “I Wanna Marry You” might have been mistaken for a rush on a Viagara factory, but there’s something reassuring in the weight of age present in the United Center — no matter the years, these songs, this band, these fans, everybody still matters, the connections altered but still visibly present. It’s a band that’s indoctrinated millions about the healing powers of holding your hands up and screaming your head off, having a kickass time with the most earth-quaking band in the world.
How they still do it, and do it so well, and give their love and joy out so amply and happily is beyond me. The greatest gift Bruce and company have given us is their constant dedication to giving a return on our devotion. Everybody knows their part and crushes it with fervor, from Stevie right on down to Jake Clemons stepping in and building upon his uncle’s sizable shoes.
Later in the night, Bruce’s tribute to Glenn Frey with an acoustic cover of “Take It Easy” served as a reminder of how lucky we are to have a national treasure who, somehow, has refused to stagnate over almost 50 performing years, but rather continuously takes fresh forays into the past and future.
That was evident as the band rocked well past the three-hour mark, blasting through hit after hit as if to punish anybody who left for the parking lot early. Bruce crowd-surfed, danced his “Dancing In The Dark” dance, and refused to leave until every last soul remaining had their cup filled with the testament of the E Street Band. It’s a gospel as impressive for its musical achievement as its longevity, and we’re blessed to behold it.