Welcome to Track Life, a daily column in which Jacob Knight shares what he thinks to be the best in music, both new and old.
You probably don’t need me to tell you this, but Bruce Springsteen may be the greatest American songwriter of his generation.
While Dylan re-emerged from his experimentation with folk music during the ’60s and began to tour with his newfound love of “Christian Music” (this, of course, after co-writing songs with George Harrison for All Things Must Pass and co-starring in/composing for Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kidd) The Boss broke out with Born to Run in 1975 and then Darkness on the Edge of Town in 1978. What separated Springsteen from Dylan was his focus on telling working class tales inspired by his father and mother (a bus driver and secretary, respectively) and a youth spent in the small town of Freehold Borough, New Jersey. It was a ditching of the “free love” period that came before him, and his songs connected with the general populous because they detailed struggles that seemed universal to all who listened to them. He was the Everyman from Asbury Park; a towering figure that somehow felt accessible despite his larger than life stage presence.
1980’s The River is arguably Springsteen’s crowning acheivement. A 20-song double record that alternated between party rock anthems and somber, sobering tales of dead end kids, the album yielded his first hit Top Ten single in the form of “Hungry Heart“. But where that track was punctuated by syrupy organ and the massive sax of big man Clarence Clemons, the intellectual core of the double LP came at the end of its Side B, when the title track brings a damper on everybody’s celebrations.
I come from down in the valley
Where mister when you’re young
They bring you up to do like your daddy done
Me and Mary we met in high school
When she was just seventeen
We’d ride out of that valley
Down to where the fields were green
What reads on paper like the escapist lovelorn ballad of a factory worker’s kin is really only the opening lines of a life that will never truly be lived, because “the river” where our protagonist takes his fine young Mary comes with its own set of consequences. Stuck with a kid that neither of them wanted, our man does the right thing, opting to take a Union Card on his nineteenth birthday in an attempt to support his newly minted familial unit. Their wedding is nothing memorable, just two kids in a courthouse, and then “the river” becomes a distant memory as the economy fails and the struggle to survive ensues. It’s stark, bleak and laid out with an almost unrelenting sense of Catholic guilt as Springsteen rasps on, backed by a harmonica and an ominous guitar line. And just when the track takes off, the narrator lost in his memories of the good times that got him in the shit-kicker predicament he currently finds himself, it all comes crashing down, the memories no longer golden, but haunting the young man “like a curse”.
I chose the song today because I can’t stop listening to it after seeing Derek Cianfrance’s The Place Beyond the Pines. The film (at least a good third of it, that is) feels like a modern adaptation of the song that reaches for Shakespearian heights. It’s characters are caught in similar dead-end situations and try to make the best of it, but their decisions haunt them at every turn, threatening to (in some cases, literally) tear the life they know to pieces. Cianfrance’s third film is an unrelenting masterpiece of small-town noir, and I can’t help but feel that The Boss would look at it the same way. Because instead of humming one of Mike Patton’s haunting piano suites as I exited the theater, I found myself playing “The River” over and over again, marveling at the thematic similarities the movie shared with a song that is now nearly thirty-five years old.