Life’s Soundtrack: Bruce Springsteen, “The River”

10 Dec

I don’t remember how old I was when I first heard “The River.” But I sure remember everything else. It was cold that night. Winter, I think, the sky a clear, cool black. My dad and I were alone, driving back from Lebanon on what were picturesque backroads by day. The sound of heat passing through the S-10‘s vents swallowed me like an ocean. Outside the headlights announced ditches and curves, and a scarred blacktop that led us home. We were silent. The radio was not.

I come from down in the valley
Where, mister, when you’re young
They bring you up to do
Like your daddy done

My dad was a truck driver by trade. In-state. As a family we’d moved from Southern California to Oregon back in the late ’70s. I was old enough to remember it, young enough to paint it in childhood idyll. I’d always ask him, “Why’d we leave?” “Change,” he’d always say. We got a lot more change than we’d bargained for up north. Betrayal. Separation. Divorce. All the usual ’80s sports.

But every weeknight still ended the same. Dad would stumble through the back door, exhausted and grumbling. “Whatever you do,” he’d sigh, “don’t end up like me.” By my senior year of high school, even that tradition ended. He rarely came home from work anymore. Sometimes the only evidence I’d have of his continued existence was his unmade bed, a note on the table, or a few dollars missing from my wallet. Sometimes I’d wonder if this damn town had cursed us all, and fantasize about a parallel universe in California that was the complete opposite of dull, grey defeat. “Whatever you do, don’t end up like me.” I’ll try, but, in the end, do I have a choice?

Me and Mary, we met in high school
When she was just 17
We’d drive out of this valley
Down to where the fields were green

I was always falling in love, probably six times a day. Maybe more. And let me tell you, friend, each one ached with urgency. I still know their names and the precise moment my heart soared highest for them.  But I had no Mary. I couldn’t have spoken to her, anyway, much less summoned the courage to suggest leaving town just to be somewhere else for a while with each other, or, more specifically, me. Besides, I was a town kid, rooted to the sidewalks and mini-malls I called home. As much as I love “The River,” it couldn’t best express my restless need to be in love. That would be “Candy’s Room.” Escape to the source, I always say. The countryside is nice, but there’s nothing like the intimacy of the dark familiar, posters taped to walls, secrets passed in whispers and pauses.

Then I got Mary pregnant
And, man, that was all she wrote
And for my 19th birthday
I got a union card and a wedding coat
We went down to the courthouse
And the judge put it all to rest
No wedding day smiles
No walk down the aisles
No flowers, no wedding dress…

I got a job working construction
For the Johnstown Company
But lately there ain’t been much work
On account of the economy
Now all them things that seemed so important
Well, mister, they vanished right into the air
Now I just act like I don’t remember
And Mary acts like she don’t care

Even now these stanzas are hard to hear. They’ve always chilled me, from that first listen to just moments ago, when, trembling, I set my earbuds down.

I was so afraid that was going to be my life. Actually, I still am. Not the specific details, of course, but the underpinning fear that I stepped wrong somewhere and now I can’t call it back. Sometimes I’d even stop the song before it reached this melancholy point, as if the woebegone harmonica and browbeaten acoustic foundation weren’t headed that way from the beginning. I wanted to keep the poor dude young and in love, forever off to the river where the dismal future was a distant cry unanswered. Why taint it with the bittersweet of grim reality? Why should I at 16, 22, or even 36 fret about what’s to come and how it could possibly render this moment yesterday’s cruel joke?

What follows is perhaps my favorite verse in all of rock. Coming home that long-ago night, it crept up my arms and spilled goosebumps across my body no factory heat could smooth. To this day I can recite it at will, in part because I wish to Christ I’d written it.

But I remember us ridin’ in my brother’s car
Her body tan and wet down at the reservoir
At night on them banks I’d lie awake
And pull her close just to feel each breath she’d take
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 somethin’ worse?

I’m a lucky guy in that I regret little of what I’ve done. Maybe I didn’t quite become a Saturday Night Live writer, or a famous stand-up, or a bestselling author. Perhaps I didn’t achieve what I have in a timeframe I found more agreeable. But I haven’t done so bad. And as far as I know, unlike the song’s ill-fated tributary, my river continues to roll, a vibrant, chortling blue.

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