My dad said: “Where you been?”
I said: “I went to take my physical.”
He says: “What happened?”
I said: “They didn’t take me.”
And he said: “That’s good.”
Now, before I even start to talk to you about this song, you need to hear a specific intro. I’ll wait. Ok? Good. Now, for years I’ve had to defend the notion that you can enjoy being sad. Long before my father passed away, I used to try and explain to people that there was a beauty in sadness, and that it was worth considering. “Happiness cannot be happiness without contrast,” I would explain. Part of this logic is evident to most people who’ve ever met Irish people who like music. The rest should be evident to anyone who has ever seen “Romeo and Juliet,” or something similar. I suppose I’ve been challenged a bit on this point since that fateful November afternoon, but, ultimately, I stand by it. The most profound sadness can show you things of beauty if you know how to look. And there’s no question that this is an ability that my father gave me.
If I had to pick an album that defined my childhood (let’s say ages 6-10), then it’s Springsteen’s three LP “Live 1975-1985.” I must have heard it thousands of times. Some nights, I’d sit on the couch and look at all of the lyrics. Other nights, I’d sit right in front of the speakers and let the warm hiss of well-loved vinyl creep into my heart. But most nights, I’d sit opposite my father and listen, intently, to the stories that we both knew by heart. My father would occasionally tell me about these stories, and their meanings, and through this I began to understand him as a man. How his compassion and frustration would fight endlessly within him, and how he sometimes couldn’t bear the weight of the stories without lying still on the couch – letting them fall about him like a blanket. Honestly, I have few memories of my childhood, but – thinking about it even now – I can’t help but feel like this is how I spent every night. (It’s not. I seldom saw my father during these years of divorce.) In my heart, it’s how I spent every night – whether in person, or in my mind, the power of this rapport held me fast.
Of all the songs that my father played – over and over – “The River” was by far and away the most oft-repeated. (Most often, he would get up and put “Independence Day” on next. This was, quite clearly, Dad’s way of talking about his own father.) And I know that, like me, he loved it for the intro. How can you not? What an amazing thing for an artist to do: holding that crowd spellbound with his own biography. Bruce’s frankness, and fearlessness, is positively gripping. (Certainly not the stuff of contemporaries like “Bon Jovi” and “Def Leppard,” eh?) The way the audience pours out its affection when he says that he failed his draft test. The way they cheer for his father’s final kindness. It’s perfect. It really is. And I think that a lot of the power comes from what Bruce does best – he universalizes. And, more particularly, he’s plain-spoken and genuine when he does so. Bruce has this intense ability to speak to the human experience, and I can’t help but imagine that most people gravitate towards this track when they play the album.
My father had a tough time with his own father. My grandpa was an alcoholic, as was my grandma, and it was difficult place to grow up poor with five brothers and sisters. (1) I think my Dad always felt guilty for wanting to leave, but he really couldn’t help but face that he didn’t want to be part of that world. In truth, he wanted to be part of my mother’s world, which, while poor, was relatively free of these sorts of abuses. Sadly, he would eventually have a problem with drinking, but he was so much more than his family had been. In spirit, my father was far from his upbringing for the rest of his life. I think there are two reasons that “The River” really stuck with him. The first of these is that he really wanted his own father to come around like the father in this song (he did, just before he died). The second is that my father had ambitions about his life that he wasn’t sure how to realize – he felt weighted down with the past, and it delayed him. Like Hamlet, I guess.
For my own part, “The River” has gone through some phases. Like “Brothers in Arms,” I used to be drawn to the way I could close my eyes while it played and feel that my father was there. (I almost never want to open my eyes when it ends, these days.) When I got a bit older, I used to really think about the story of the song. Now, it’s based on something Springsteen’s brother-in-law, as he has said. But more than that, it’s about the Depression of the 80s and the stranglehold that many young couples find themselves in as bills and rent and children compete for meager resources. So many young dreams end before they even really began (these days, this is my biggest fear about dreaming). And for Bruce, and I think anyone who really listens to this song, it just kills you: “Now those memories come back to haunt me/They haunt me like a curse/Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true/Or is it something worse…” It’s the moment in the song which, above all others, really grabs my heart – twisting and challenging, it gives me a real reason to reflect. What’s the value of a dream if you might never realize it? What drives you on in the face of hopelessness and lost ambition? This song, despite its straightforward narrative about “me and Mary,” is a challenge to its audience. And for most, it’s a sad one: how many of us really get to have all of our dreams? Or, more to the point, how many of us have lives that leave us alone to dream?
But when you look at it, it’s a beautiful story about perseverance, too. Despite the horrible factory work, and the lost chances, these two still ride to the river. They go back to the places of their youth, and though he might be reflecting on what might have been, they are still together. Trapped in their lives, but not in each other.
Bruce said it took him years to be able to write about real people who were “just trying to find some comfort in one another.” And that really is beautiful, when you think about it. Honestly, that’s probably why I’m here – listening to this song, trying to forget it’s Father’s Day (“If they can land a man on the moon…”), and hoping that writing will stave off the loneliness. (David Gilmour has just sung: “How I wish… How I wish you were here” as I was typing that. Sigh.) My father had a lot of ways of comforting me, but they almost all involved music. When my first girlfriend broke up with me, and I was sad and dejected, my father put on Peter Gabriel’s “Don’t Give Up.” And one time, after our worst argument, he apologized, in his own way, by playing Lennon’s “Beautiful Boy” as I lay falling asleep in the next room. My father understood comfort as a function of music. Sad or happy, music was something you could feel. It was tactile and emotional, and it understood your pains and joys. Which is why there’s beauty in sadness, when you care to look for it – it’s there, I think, because parts of your soul are in it. And the souls of those who gave it to you, and loved it.
People like to think about music – especially popular music – as lacking heart and tradition. Snobs will tell you: “Beethoven, Mozart, Dvorak – that’s where beauty lies.” And it does. The works of these composers are wondrous. (2) But the works of modern poets like Springsteen, Dylan, Stipe, and so on are just as wondrous. And what’s more, they were probably given to you by people who grew up with them. Grew up as these songs were growing up. It’s a living, oral (and aural) tradition. The notion of direct descent is usually reserved for genealogists, but it’s there for popular musicologists, too. And what’s more, it’s a history that you can pass on intact. I can tell you a million more things about specific moments of listening to these songs – the way the light fell, the feel of the percussion, and the reactions of people who were engaged in a one-sided dialog with someone who clearly moved them. And in so doing, I can show you my life and my soul with accuracy and faithful recreation. Can’t say the same for Beethoven or Mozart, sadly. For me, these recordings aren’t just powerful narratives. No, they carry back to me the souls of those who gave them to me – my father is with me whenever I listen to “The River.” I don’t question it for a moment.
There are, of course, little differences. In one of the last letters I received from Dad, he wrote: “I also wanted to let you know that I miss you very much. i can’t wait till you get home so I can hear your voice again.” I think about that a lot when I listen to these songs. Lord knows I’ve never missed anything so much in my life. A daily, subtle longing – homesickness, in a fashion. But it’s that second part that really gets me. I miss the moments when my father would sing…when he’d forget himself and give over to the music. Because I’d sing, too. Quietly, usually, and to myself – but in those moments, there was no space left between Dad and me – we were completely knit in the space of these songs. Listening to them now does make me a “bit” homesick, but it also reminds me of the power, and magic, of music. Music that my father taught me to love, and that taught me to love him.
And there we are. The longest Father’s Day card ever written, I think. I leave you, naturally, with this: (3)
And if you want to see it when it was a baby, skip ahead a minute in this clip:
- My grandfather’s favorite song, which I’ll note for the sake of thoroughness, was Tom T. Hall’s “Old Dogs, Children, and Watermelon Wine.” Lyrics here. [Back]
- Dvorak’s Romance in F-minor for piano and violin is one of my very favorite songs, in fact. [Back]
- And because I’m feeling particularly magnanimous, I’ll say that the power of the song more than makes up for Bruce’s decision to go with that bandanna. [Back]