You can find my more formal review/recap of the show over at Blogness on the Edge of Town. But while it’s fresh in my mind, I wanted to jot down a few more personal notes about my experience of Bruce Springsteen’s Jan. 19 show at the United Center in Chicago, featuring a beginning-to-end performance of “The River” album.
Full album shows fascinate me. On the one hand, I miss the insights I sometimes get from the mixture of old and new material – how newer material can reach back to converse with the old, shedding new light on both. And it’s a different experience knowing, for at least a good part of the show, what song is going to come next. On the other hand, if an album is carefully constructed, it tells a story that is more than the sum of its parts (songs). There’s a cohesiveness to the performance that can be revealing and informative. And, well, even I don’t spend as much time as I once did just putting on an album and listening carefully to it from beginning to end. I listen to playlists, I put stuff on shuffle… it’s different.
And “The River” is for sure an album I’ve spent a lot of time with as an album. When it came out, I was in college, living in the dorm, prone to a bit of drama (as most 19-year-olds can be). When I had a solitary evening, I’d often dim the lights in my dorm room, maybe light a candle or some incense (both, as I recall, forbidden in the dorm… such a little baby rebel I was), put on an album I loved, and just immerse myself in it. Oftentimes, “The River” was that album. I was especially obsessed with the song “Point Blank,” lifting the needle at the end of the song and moving the arm back to listen again. (Which was so much more deliberate an act than clicking a “repeat” button.)
My least favorite song on the album was “Wreck on the Highway.” Just morbid and depressing, I thought, set to an inexplicable tune – not exactly bouncy, but melodic and pretty, and a little singsongy. Certainly not as mournful as lines like
There was blood and glass all over / And there was nobody there but me / As the rain tumbled down hard and cold / I seen a young man lying by the side of the road / He cried “Mister, won’t you help me please”
oughta be. I mean, singing merrily away about “blood and glass all over”? Shouldn’t the music be darker, gloomier? Maybe some good angry punk stuff? And why end the album on something so damn gloomy anyway? And then the narrator just goes home and looks at his girlfriend and thinks about this stupid wreck that he’s obsessed with for some reason. What the hell, Bruce.
Well. I was nineteen. And I thought I knew a lot, but as anyone who’s been nineteen and gotten over it knows, I didn’t know much.
The concert was on January 19th, 2016. The 20th was the 22nd anniversary of my father’s death – some 14 years after “The River” came out. I remember watching my mother that week, realizing for the first time that signing up for a lifetime commitment with another human being meant committing to seeing them through the whole dying business too, if they got around to dying before you did. And realizing what that meant – the pain and difficulty of it, yes, but also the pure privilege and honor of bearing the weight of that journey. So this was on my mind a bit at the concert. Yeah, time tends to fold in on itself a bit when you get to be middle-aged. I’m learning that.
“Wreck on the Highway” comes right after “Drive All Night” on the River album. A lot of people love “Drive” as a hopelessly-romantic love song. “I swear I’d drive all night again, just to buy you some shoes.” But the song opens:
When I lost you, honey, sometimes I think I lost my guts too. / And I wish God would send me a word / Send me something I’m afraid to lose.
One, he’s not just singing to a woman; he’s singing to someone he has ALREADY LOST. Maybe he lost her and got her back again, but maybe not. “I swear I’d drive all night again… I just wanna sleep tonight again in your arms.” Is he singing to someone he’s lost to something more than infidelity? Is this a grief song?
In Chicago Tuesday night, Springsteen introduced “I Wanna Marry You” as being a song about the fantasy of what marriage might be like, not the real thing. (It was never one of my favorites on the album, either. Funny that.) But wishing for “something I’m afraid to lose” comes, I think, much closer to a real understanding of commitment. Who knows whether Bruce understood that when he wrote the song – he’s certainly said in many interviews that he didn’t understand love and commitment until some years later. When you commit to someone for life (whether that’s marriage, or any other form of deep lifelong emotional commitment with a peer [as opposed to, say, your children – who you expect will outlive you anyway]), you’re saying: Losing this person is my deepest fear. And I’m committing to staying with them until that fear becomes reality. I’m willingly accepting the near-certainty of my greatest fear coming true.
That’s pretty weighty. And that’s the understanding of marriage that Springsteen arrives at in “Wreck.” It’s not the fun-and-games part of love, it’s not the unrealistic interpretation of marriage we see in “Marry You,” it’s not even latching on to someone just because, well, two hearts are better than one. It’s something a whole lot scarier and harder and truer than that. It’s something that acknowledges mortality as fully part of the deal – and mortality, man, that’s hard to take.
Springsteen closed out the River album portion of the show, as the last notes of “Wreck on the Highway” played, he talked about how he’d realized the album was also about time:
“One of the things I was writing about on The River was time,” he said. “A friend of mine [who] was around last night said that time catches up to us all. You’ve got a limited amount of time to do your work, to take care of your family, try and do something good.” (from Rolling Stone’s review of Pittsburgh show)
For sure, talking about time and mortality is not new for Springsteen – that’s what the “Wrecking Ball” album is all about, after all, and plenty of his other songs from the past couple decades. And anyone in the demographic he and I share (roughly 50-70) has seen some of their heroes and some of their loved ones die, knows that there’s more of that inevitably coming, and is probably grappling with how best to deal with that part of life. It’s sadly fitting that the first two shows of this tour included songs played in tribute to fellow musicians who’d recently died (David Bowie and Glenn Frey).
Mortality, man. We don’t sign up for that willingly. But when we love someone, the kind of love that means we plan to stick together, we are willingly taking on not only our own mortality but theirs. That’s crazy (says the longtime spinster who’s perfectly happy about that situation). But it’s also pretty damned profound.
And that’s the long story of why the song I least liked on “The River” when I was nineteen or twenty is probably the most important song on the album, and why the damned thing ends with such a melodic bit of gloom. Because that’s life, you know? Life.
Which is what rock & roll is all about.
A couple of other takeaways from Tuesday night’s show:
- Whether I’m elbows on the stage or battling altitude sickness up in the rafters, an E Street Band show gives me something no other concert does. It feels like home. Sometimes the furniture gets rearranged while I’m away, but it feels like a place where I just belong. I sink into the show, settle into it, like the most comfortable pair of shoes that make my feet happy. Which is not to say that I just sit there. They’re dancing shoes. They’re rock & roll shoes!
- As for the people NOT on stage: Hanging out with the friends I’ve met through Springsteen’s music is maybe the best part of these shows. I knew this already, of course, but it’s good to be reminded. I don’t think I would have met any of these people without this connection, although we have so much more in common than just the music and the concert experience. They are creative, compassionate, interesting people and they make me laugh like nobody’s business. Love y’all – you know who you are!
Here’s “Wreck on the Highway” from Pittsburgh. Yes, the people chattering should be smacked upside the head immediately.