ALBUM (1980)

Bruce Springsteen's The River, from which so much inspiration flowed

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 07 February, 2015, 10:49pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 07 February, 2015, 10:49pm

The River
Bruce Springsteen
Columbia

When Bruce Springsteen penned The River, the title song of his fifth album, in the late 1970s, many in the US were struggling with recession. The Boss has always been a master of tapping into the zeitgeist of the common people, the working class, and he succeeded with this slow ballad about the trials and tribulations of trying to achieve the American dream.

It is a song about the loss of innocence and false hope, and is accompanied by a mournful harmonica. For years it was the centrepiece of his show, usually preceded by an intense, personal story - sometimes about the fights he had with his father growing up, sometimes touching on the Vietnam war and sometimes about the young couple in the song. While most people in his songs are fictional, for this he drew on the story of a couple close to home: his sister, Ginny, and her boyfriend, Mickey Shave.

The River debuted at the No Nukes concert in late 1979, soon after he'd recorded it. Sister Ginny was in the crowd, but she didn't know her brother had written about her relationship until that evening. She told Springsteen biographer Peter Ames Carlin that hearing him sing about her shotgun marriage left her feeling "completely exposed"; later it became her favourite song.

The River tells the story of a young man and his girlfriend, Mary, who he meets at high school when she is 17. Before long he's in trouble: Mary is pregnant and he has no job or education. For his 19th birthday he "gets a union card and a wedding coat". His only escape is to think about the river where he and Mary used to swim and hang out.

At a 2009 concert, in one of his typical preambles to this song, Springsteen described it as a gateway to much of his future writing and explained it was written during a recession. "My brother-in-law was in the construction industry, lost his job and had to struggle very hard back in the late 1970s, like so many people are doing today. It was a record where I started to tackle men and women and families and marriage," he told the crowd at Madison Square Garden.

The River he said led to his next album, Nebraska (1982), and Stolen Car helped inspire the 1987 album Tunnel of Love. And this album also garnered his first top 10 hit with Hungry Heart, a sound quite different from The River. Here the sober lyrical theme is laid over a rollicking musical background. In fact, the whole album is a mix of styles, with sombre tracks alongside the more frivolous, a mix of the sweet and the sour.

Now 65, Springsteen is still touring and singing The River - trying to keep the American dream alive at a time when Americans need it as much as ever. And Ginny is still married to her childhood sweetheart - they have three children and several grandchildren.