Bruce Springsteen decided to do a strange thing last year. He'd go out on his first tour in three years, he announced, and instead of a setlist culled from a huge back catalog, he'd play in its entirety The River, an album that maybe 10 percent of his fan base would pick as the one to hear live, beginning to end. (Only two songs from The River cracked the top 35 Springsteen songs in a recent fan poll.)
At the time, Springsteen explained this decision by saying, essentially, that he wanted to get the band on the road before a planned solo tour, and since he had a new box set of The River just out -- and since he'd always imagined The River as a rollicking party reflecting the pacing of the band's live show -- well, why not?
But by the time The Boss got to Oakland last night, two months into 'The River' tour, his reasons had grown more serious-minded. I went to the show eager to see if I'd have a different reaction to the album live, if I'd see a different version of myself reflected in its songs or if I could appreciate the album as a whole in a new light. But from the onset, Springsteen himself was all too eager to provide us with a new framework.
"The early records were kind of outsider records. We were all part of a marginal community on the streets of Asbury Park," he said, before the album's first song. "But by the time I got to The River I was trying to find my way inside. I'd taken notice of the things that bound people to their lives -- the work they choose, their partners, their families, their commitments. I wanted to imagine and I wanted to write about those things, and I figured if I could write about 'em I'd get a little closer to havin' 'em in my own life. I wanted to make a big record. A record that felt like life."
This meaningful intro speech of Springsteen's -- about making the album to "get a little closer to the answers" -- felt like awkward revisionism. The River is basically a big, commercial-sounding double album with a lot of filler, containing exactly three types of songs: catchy 1-4-5 rockers, dripping ballads, and a few roadhouse ramblers. Why paint it as an important universal-theme album? Why try to make The River step in line with its weighty predecessors, Born to Run and Darkness on the Edge of Town?
I tried to roll with it. For the album's first seven songs, all of them great, it wasn't hard. Springsteen is a force of nature, and to see the guy at age 66 crowdsurfing across a crowd singing along loudly to "Hungry Heart" is to see the triumph of the human spirit. I've seen Springsteen five times in the last 17 years, and he hasn't lost one drop of energy or enthusiasm for what he does, night after night, for three or four hours at a time.
But during "Crush On You," a light pop tune if ever there was one, I started to realize we were in for 75 more minutes of songs that weren't "Jungleland," "Lost in the Flood," "Wrecking Ball" or "Incident on 57th Street."
Springsteen might have known it too. He very nearly apologized for "I Wanna Marry You," one of the dippiest songs in his catalog, explaining that when he wrote it he should have known better than to expect that love has no consequences or pain. He sang a dramatic, gothic rendering of "Point Blank" in an attempt to keep people's attention, and "I'm a Rocker" got the full 3am Stone Pony treatment it deserves, with Springsteen running through the crowd and whipping the band into a frenzy.
But introducing "Stolen Car," Springsteen claimed it was one of the first songs he wrote about men and women, that asked "if you lose your love, do you lose yourself?" Am I crazy, or is there that same desperate pathos in "Backstreets"? In "Something in the Night"?
Which brings me back to his intro speech. Springsteen can say that The River was his first stab at writing about big universal themes in an attempt to discover his place in the world, but whether he knows it or not, he'd already done that several times over by 1980, and in much more interesting and detailed ways. Those songs about his marginal life in Asbury Park were songs about big universal themes. There's something about writing "big," about writing for "everybody," that dilutes its impact. Ask yourself, which line do you remember more: "You sit and wonder just who's gonna stop the rain / who'll ease the sadness, who's gonna quiet the pain," or "Did you hear the cops finally busted Madame Marie for tellin' fortunes better than they do"?
By the time the album ended with its three back-to-back-to-back slow, sleepy ballads, Springsteen chimed in with another speech about how "The River was about time... time slipping away, and when you enter the adult life, you realize the clock starts ticking," yadda yadda yadda. A noticeable stir came over the people around me as the arena all seemed to realize the same thing: The River was over, and the real stuff could begin.
And for the next hour and 15 minutes, Springsteen crammed in 14 more songs -- mostly dependable ones he's accustomed to playing, but the unpredictability felt refreshing. He took a sign request for "Growin' Up" and called the kid on stage to sing with him. He got schooled by a teenage girl on how to dab for "Dancing in the Dark." He had even the Oracle ushers, old-timers who looked like they've worked there since 1988, dancing in the aisles to "Shout." You never knew what he was going to do next, and he proved, yet again, why people like me will pay $150 plus taxes and fees even when he's playing a lesser-liked album in its entirety.
Let's just hope next time around, it's The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle.