The Boss on tour: revisiting ‘The River’

As the US prepares to elect a president, the race is once again being played out to a soundtrack of Bruce Springsteen
Bruce Springsteen on stage in New York last month © Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images

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Two things are certain in a US presidential election year. One is an increase in references to the “American dream”. The other is a Bruce Springsteen tour. The two phenomena are not unrelated.

Springsteen, 66, has been on the road during every presidential election year since 1972. Back then he was an up-and-coming folk-rocker from New Jersey hyped as the “new Dylan”. His only contribution to the campaigning was a benefit gig for George McGovern, the Democratic candidate. According to Peter Ames Carlin’s biography Bruce, the singer had little interest in politics at the time and “grew visibly impatient during the political speechifying” at the benefit. That year’s election, won by McGovern’s opponent Richard Nixon, marked the first time that Springsteen voted.

As the current primaries approach their finale, he is in mid-tour. While Trump, Cruz, Clinton and Sanders tear lumps out of each other, Springsteen is taking a trip back in time. He and his veteran comrades in arms, the E Street Band, are devoting their current shows to revisiting the 1980 double album The River. It is, Springsteen has been telling audiences, his “coming-of-age record”.

“It was the breakthrough album,” says Carlin. “It was the first one to really make a huge impact on the charts, providing him with his first hit single, ‘Hungry Heart’. [It was] also a turning point for him in terms of his own growing up. It was less wrapped up in his childhood and personal history. Even though, at first listen, a lot of the songs seem kind of silly and light-hearted, there is more complicated and psychologically involved stuff, too.”

The River was Springsteen’s fifth album. The first two, both produced in 1973 — Greetings from Asbury Park, NJ and The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle — had failed to sell. Born to Run (1975) was a commercial success, while 1978’s Darkness on the Edge of Town cemented his critical reputation as a guitar-toting laureate of the street. The River synthesised the different strands of his work, its mix of populism and artistry, into a 20-track epic.

Swollen by his perfectionism, recording took 18 months, and the studio costs broke $1m. Songs took the youthful working-class characters of his earlier work and placed them in adult scenarios, struggling with jobs and family. Yet the album revived the roaring bar-room rock and roll that had been absent from Darkness on the Edge of Town.

The contrast between momentum and dead end is summed up by “Cadillac Ranch”, in which Springsteen and the E Street Band tell the tale of “a working man” escaping drudgery by “tearing up the highway like a big old dinosaur” in his Cadillac Eldorado. Reflecting a time when the once-mighty US automotive industry had begun downsizing, the Eldorado doubles as a funeral casket. “Well buddy,” Springsteen hollers, “when I die, throw my body in the back.”

The River was released in October 1980, two weeks before Ronald Reagan won his first presidential election. It was Springsteen’s first US number one album, transforming his profile from regional hero to national star.

“He was huge on the east coast,” Carlin says. “But when he came out west, there were a lot of places where he would play 3,000-seat theatres that weren’t full. The significance of the The River was that it made him a star all round the country.”

Springsteen and the E Street Band at the Power Station studios in New York, 1980, to record ‘The River’ © David Gahr/Getty Images

His new status prompted a tentative engagement with national politics. Springsteen was touring The River when Reagan’s victory was announced. “I don’t know what you thought about what happened last night,” he told his Arizona audience. “But I thought it was pretty frightening.” There were faint cheers, which grew louder when he and the band struck up the next song.

Four years later Springsteen released Born in the USA, a 30m-seller that took his fame to stratospheric levels. To Springsteen’s bemusement, Reagan adopted its title track as his re-election campaign anthem. The president’s Democrat opponent, Walter Mondale, countered by falsely claiming to have received Springsteen’s endorsement. An official retraction followed after the singer issued a denial.

Even though his sales figures have declined, the tussle over Springsteen and the values he represents continues. Donald Trump plays “Born in the USA.” at rallies, while his supporter, New Jersey governor Chris Christie idolises the singer. Bernie Sanders tweets Springsteen’s comments on the importance of unions.

Having long held Washington politics at arm’s length, Springsteen was drawn into it following his high-profile endorsements of John Kerry and then Barack Obama in the last three elections. For now, however, he is standing outside the fray. As he told New Yorker editor David Remnick in a 2012 profile, endorsing candidates is “something I didn’t do for a long time, and I don’t have plans to be out there every time”.

Bruce-bashers deride the idea that anyone should care about the political concerns of a wealthy sexagenarian rock star. “Who the hell is Bruce Springsteen to tell anybody how to vote?” ABC News anchor Ted Koppel asked him bluntly in 2004 when Springsteen was on the “Vote for Change” tour in support of Kerry. “This is my favourite question,” Springsteen replied.

The answer lies in the well-worn notion of the American dream. Springsteen is one of its great custodians: the blue-collar dreamers and toilers who people his songs never abandon faith in the patriotic promise of salvation, even as they watch it recede from them. “I have spent my life judging the distance between American reality and the American dream,” he said in 2012.

Dream imagery recurs in The River. “Someday these childish dreams must end/To become a man and grow up to dream again” is the message of “Two Hearts”. The romantic strivers of “The Price You Pay” are “caught in a dream where everything goes wrong”. The title track recounts a tale of youth stolen by a teenage pregnancy and marriage, based on Springsteen’s younger sister Virginia (who was shocked to hear the song for the first time at a concert). It ends with a question that echoes across Springsteen’s work: “Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true/Or is it something worse . . .”

It resonates in the 2016 race for the presidency, too. Clinton speaks of “renewing” the American dream, while Cruz fears it is “slipping away”. Trump claims it is “dead” and that he will bring it back “bigger and stronger and better than ever”. Sanders says it has become a “nightmare” for many. Each is dancing to The River’s soundtrack.

Tour dates at brucespringsteen.net

Photographs: Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images; David Gahr/Getty Images

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