Thirty years ago this week Bruce Springsteen released The River. It’s the album most representative of his live shows in showing the breadth of styles mastered by Bruce and the E Street Band and that by virtue of the number of songs makes it an automatic contender for a Bruce desert island album. A couple of things making the album special to me personally is that it was the first new release by Springsteen after I had been converted to devoted fandom, and it was the first Bruce release after I had begun working for The Record Bar.
In 1980 it had been two years since a new Springsteen album, a pretty long time between releases then, if not as long as the three year wait between Born to Run and Darkness on the Edge of Town. Anticipation had built for the next album with Bruce’s already legendary 1978 Darkness tour, and by his participation at the No Nukes concert the following year. The concert had produced a movie of the same name, containing the first official live releases on film and album of Springsteen and the E Street Ban with the band represented on the LP in a collaboration with Jackson Browne and by their show closing Detroit Medley. On film the songs represented were Thunder Road, Quarter to Three, and a melancholy new song that would become the title track of the next album, The River.
Springsteen has rearranged the title song of The River several times since that Madison Square Garden performance. Some of the re-imaginings work better than others. But none of the subsequent performances has provided the chill factor for me that hearing the opening, mournful harmonica strains and “I come from down in the valley/Where mister, when you’re young/They train you up to do/Like your daddy done’ in the theater at Carolina Circle Mall in Greensboro did. I returned to see the film, I believe, twice more to see the excitement of the live ‘Thunder Road’ and “Quarter to Three’ as well. But I would have gladly done the same if ‘The River’ had been Bruce’s only song in the film.
So it was with the knowledge of that one song, a fandom fed by bootlegs and Dave Marsh’s biography, and anticipation for what might be next that accompanied the unpacking of The River on that new release day at Four Seasons Record Bar. And from the chiming guitar chords and Max Weinberg’s crack drum shot at the beginning of tha album’s opener, ‘The Ties That Bind,’ I don’t think any album by anyone over the last 30 years has fulfilled the hopes and lived up to the promise that The River had for me in 1980.