Sunday, 17 January 2016

The Ties That Bind: Revisiting The River

I've shared my enormous admiration and devotion to Bruce Springsteen on many occasions. Having seen him in Manchester and Australia(!) I know what a phenomenal performer he is and I'm insanely jealous of everyone who'll see him tonight in Pittsburgh or elsewhere in the U.S from now until March on The River Tour 2016, which will see The River played in its entirety on each night.

Last December saw the release of The Ties That Bind: The River Collection. This super duper boxed set reissue was ostensibly for the record's 35th anniversary, although the fact the reissue campaign was initially to commemorate the 30th anniversary of Bruce's albums should indicate how long these releases have been in gestation (the Darkness On The Edge Of Town set was just two years late beforehand). I haven't bought a copy, but over Christmas I did get to enjoy the documentary and concert footage part of the set thanks to BBC Four, so this combined with Bruce starting his tour made it feel like a good time to discuss the record.

The River was clearly important for Bruce. "Hungry Heart", so brilliant in its simplicity that "you write it in the time it took to sing it, practically" in Bruce's words, provided him with his biggest hit single to date. In addition, you could start to hear a "take me out to the ball game" swing to Roy Bittan's keys that would later inform colossal hit Born In The U.S.A. As would the extensive European tour the band took promoting the album, which opened Bruce's eyes more to people's perception of America.

Despite this, I initially felt a bit disappointed by The River. For me it didn't live up to predecessor Darkness, which I still consider the definitive Springsteen record. It seemed like there were too many similar sounding songs that all served a similar purpose. The production sounded a bit tinny. "Stolen Car" sounded like a shadow of the version from rarities compilation Tracks. "Drive All Night" should have stayed as mid-"Backstreets" improv.

Of course as time went by ("and out love grew deep") my opinion of the record became much fonder. The dizzying high points became more and more prominent, to the point where I now consider them some of my favourite Springsteen songs. "Out In The Street" was always my jam, but "Sherry Darling" is an equally joyous singalong and "Two Hearts" is a delight (Bruce did a solo version of the latter on The Ties That Bind documentary that was just phenomenal).

"The Price You Pay"s closing cry of "I'm gonna tear it down and throw it away" has been proving to be a magnetic moment for me, while the beautifully restrained "Fade Away"is now one of my favourite Springsteen ballads. By paring the lyrics down to the bare essentials of the story the power of the feelings behind it comes through massively.

As with Darkness, Bruce wrote tonnes of songs for the record that wouldn't figure in the end result. Talking to Dave Di Martino in October 1980, Bruce remarked "We wrote about 48 songs [for The River] and at one time I thought they were all gonna be on [laughs]." Unbelievable he may have been a bit modest there. According to the documentary, Bruce made a staggering 95 demos for songs by himself and 104 with the band in the studio over the course of the sessions!

It's easy to wonder what would have been if song X replaced song Y and so on. Indeed there are many songs from the outtakes I prefer to certain songs on the final record, especially "Be True", "Loose End" and "Take 'Em As They Come". Bruce himself mentions "Roulette" in particular as the big oversight and kind of shat on "Crush On You" on the doc. He liked a lot of the outtakes but just felt they sounded like they belonged on a different record.

Oh, while on the subject of the doc, there's some decent insight but it does seem to lose steam after about 40 minutes. This is probably because Bruce is the sole "talking head" in the film, so hilariously an anecdote from Bruce outside his garage will wind down, then for some fresh insight it'll cut to... Bruce in his writing room. Seriously, it's just two interviews with Bruce that form the basis of the doc. Where's Little Steven? Where's Max? Where's Jon Landau?

"I come from down the valley... you're taking possession of that character" 

"The stakes of the record are... all the mundane things that turn life into life"
Anyway, Bruce made the point that, at the time, most of his audience only knew him for Born To Run  and Darkness, so he sought to make a record with a strong sense of identity. A lot of the artists he was listening to back then - Johnny Cash, George Jones, Tammy Wynett - made small town music with "adult concerns", and this, coupled with a sense that the band felt like "The Lost Boys" at that point, informed his approach. As he told Mark Hagen in the January 1999 edition of Mojo, "adulthood was imminent, if it hadn't arrived already, so I knew I was gonna be following my characters over a long period of time. I thought it would be interesting and fun for my audience to have a certain... loose continuity from record to record."

In late 1979 the band handed in a single album to the record company from their sessions, The Ties That Bind (hence the title of the set). However, Bruce took the album back and returned to the well to add more material. He felt he needed more time to let the "colours" in and felt it lacked the looseness and noise of the band's live show ("these records should sound like a house party"). Talking to Patrick Humphries of Record Collector in February 1999, Bruce notes "the first thing I said was, I want to include... things that happen spontaneously, things that we use to fuel the show."

Naturally this single album version is included in the boxed set, having previously been one of the most in demand bootlegs around and commonly cited in lists of "Greatest unreleased albums". It's slightly strange to hear, a bit more lethargic than the final product in places. Often the instrumentation comes across clearer than what was released and it contains the superior version of "Stolen Car", so it's still an intriguing listen. "Cindy" is the only song that didn't get released elsewhere, and the only song which sounded markedly different from its eventual release was "You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch)". It seemed like the right call to release The River instead.

As a result, with Bruce struggling to contain both the "house party" atmosphere of the joyful material and the high stakes of the more grounded material, the project swelled to the double album we all know today. Bruce would recount in subsequent interviews about how he sought "relief" from the "rigidity" of songs being a certain way. 
"I'd have a song like this and a song like that because I didn't know how to combine it... I knew it was all part of the same picture, which is why The River was a double album." (Roger Scott, Patrick Humphries, Hot Press, November 2nd 1984) 
"When I did this album I tried to accept the fact that, you know, the world is a paradox, and that's the way it is... I wanted to live with particularly conflicting emotions" (Dave Di Martino, October 1980)
With the cheerier songs in particular, Bruce would note how many of the characters featured were in essence anachronisms. In an excellent interview with Dave Marsh from Musician in February 1981, he mentions how the protagonist of "Out In The Street" is firmly rooted in the past, while with "Ramrod", "it's impossible, what he wants to do... this guy, he's there, but he's really not there no more." Again expressing relief at The River's structure, he noted  "I gained a certain freedom, in making that two record set, because I could let all those people out, that usually I'd put away." It is his conversation with Di Martino, though, that draws my favourite quote of Bruce's on this record...
"There's a lot of idealistic stuff on there... a lot of the songs we do now, they're just dreams, but they're based on an emotion that's very real... It's a romantic record and to me, romantic is when you see realities and when you understand the realities, but you also see the possibilities. And sometimes you write about things as they are, and sometimes you write about them as they should be, as they could be, maybe, you know?"
That last quote for me pretty much sums up the spirit of The River. I supremely envy everyone across the Atlantic who'll get to relive that spirit live and in person with the band.

Before I close I must heartily recommend the book Talk About A Dream: The Essential Interviews of Bruce Springsteen, edited by Christopher Phillips and Louis P. Masur, which has been the source of the quotes I've used in this post. It is a tremendous collection that sheds some light on the way Bruce thinks and helps chart his evolution as an artist. Go check it out, and hopefully see you really soon.