One of the topics Matt Springer and I discussed when we began this project was the question of what to do with Bruce Springsteen’s existing released output. Do we keep it as is and work exclusively with outtakes on off-years, or can we pull his albums apart and, dare we say, try to make them better?
I was in favor of the former, but Matt was adamant about the latter, mainly because of The River, Bruce Springsteen’s monolithic 1980 double album. To Matt, songs like “I’m A Rocker” are filler that could have been replaced by better songs. The 1998 release of Tracks, which contained 13 outtakes from sessions from The River, only compounded his frustration at having to skip through “Ramrod” to get to “Drive All Night.” But I, who cites getting the first live performance of “Crush On You” in 27 years as one of my favorite-ever moments at a Bruce concert, disagreed. Yes, those songs are weak, but intentionally so. They’re an essential look into Bruce’s musical worldview, one in which “Wild Thing” is every bit as significant as “Like A Rolling Stone.” a respite from the gloom. Life can be brutal and it can wear you down, but you can still go out Saturday night and blow it all out of your head. After all, it ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive.[Hi, Matt here. It’s not so much that I don’t understand the roles that both “Wild Thing” and “Like A Rolling Stone” play in the spectrum of Springsteen’s music, or in all of rock music for that matter. It’s more that there are a handful of songs on The River that could be replaced by better songs that still kick ass. “Ramrod” is a song I like because it is dumb but clever enough not to be stupid. Same for “Cadillac Ranch.” “I’m a Rocker” and “Crush On You,” however, are just flat-out stupid. Fun songs, but what’s the point? I know, I know, rock doesn’t always need a point, and that’s the point, but still, why not rock AND have a point, even if the point is barely there? Auto racing as metaphor for fucking is just enough for me.]
Still, the idea of breaking up The River’s sprawl and handcrafting a few records with the sharp focus of, say, Darkness On The Edge Of Town was not only a tantalizing prospect, but it proved feasible in our alternate universe. It helped that various patterns emerged as we looked at the history of The River sessions.
The epic Darkness tour concluded in the wee hours of January 1, 1979. The tour saw Springsteen make the jump in some markets from clubs and theaters to arenas. Considering the lack of a hit single on Darkness, this spoke to how word of the power of the Springsteen Live Experience was spreading.
It made sense, then, that the tunes Springsteen brought in to record for his next album in March 1979 would spotlight the muscle and tone of the E Street Band. Packed with killer riffs for guitar, organ, piano, glock, and of course frequent spots for the Big Man’s sax solos, they were the music of a man who knew he was backed by one of the best combos in the world, built on the foundation of a killer rhythm section in Max Weinberg and Garry Tallent.
For whatever reason–perhaps his dating travails at the time, perhaps his approaching 30th birthday–the songs also coalesced around new themes for Springsteen, specifically romantic love and relationships. There had always been women in Springsteen’s world, but expressions of love had mostly appeared when paired with the idea of escapism, most notably on “Rosalita,” “Sandy” and “Born To Run.” Now he was writing more traditional songs of love sought, love found, and love lost, all filtered through Springsteen’s unique lyrical gifts.
There were other songs, too, that seemed to follow more organically from the themes of Darkness–”Wreck on the Highway,” “The Price You Pay,” “The River,” even the brutal storytelling on “Roulette.” But as the Springsteen braintrust finalized a track list and prepared masters in August 1979, the relationship songs won out, partly because there were so many, and partly because they kicked righteous ass–full of emotional truths, but also high-powered rock that begged to be torn into on a concert stage.
Within a few months, Springsteen’s participation in the Musicians United for Safe Energy concerts at Madison Square Garden would turn his thoughts back to the overlap of the personal and political that would come to dominate much of his career. By then, it was too late–Be True was on record store shelves, “Hungry Heart” was a top forty hit, and CBS was clamoring for another big tour. Instead, Springsteen returned to the studio, his mind far from the romantic landscape he’d chronicled on his most recent album.
Released September 25, 1979
(we hope this provides a respite from the horrors of Mellowmas)
The Ties That Bind
If you knew how much time we spend debating the track lists on these entirely fictional albums, you would either be amazed, or saddened at the sorry state of our lives. A key debate this time around focused on how to open the record. Ultimately, it became impossible to deny that there may be no greater album opening in the Springsteen canon than the shotgun-snap of Max Weinberg’s drums accompanied by that rhythmic, ringing guitar chord.
Springsteen’s first Top Ten hit, complete with background vocals by Flo & Eddie and a killer organ solo by Phantom Dan Federici. A perfect pop gem that belied the fact that the narrator picked up and abandoned his family. We all know it. We all love it. Now let’s all sing the first verse and chorus together.
Clever, slight pop that does exactly what it must–paints a picture, cuts a few choice guitar riffs, and then vanishes into the ether. A candidate for release on The Ties That Bind, the single-disc version of The River that Springsteen contemplated releasing in 1979 before scrapping the idea and returning to the studio.
Bring on the Night
Is it too outlandish to suggest that this is about as New Wave as the E Street Band ever got? Between the jagged guitar opening and the organ parts that float above the action, it has a late-seventies New York feeling that doesn’t pop up anywhere else on Springsteen’s tunes. Almost a response of sorts to the Stones’ Some Girls. Almost, but probably not.
Emerging from the legendary vaults for release on Tracks, this brittle rocker uses the titular toy residence as metaphor for a controlling relationship. It’s easy to imagine this as a highlight of 1980/81 tour shows in our alternate Springsteen-verse.
Was it left of The River because it was too close sonically to “Hungry Heart,” or because, like “The Promise,” it was too personal for him to release? Given what happened at the No Nukes concert when his most recent ex-girlfriend, photographer Lynn Goldsmith, tried to take a picture of him from the audience, the latter is a distinct possibility. Either way, this kick-in-the-gut tale of a relationship struggling to survive, which finally saw the light of day on Tracks, contains one of Springsteen’s most powerful vocal performances ever.
The emotional centerpiece of the album, “Be True” holds a unique place in Springsteen’s catalog. As much as movies have influenced his writing, they have rarely played as big a role in his characters’ lives as here. Although it didn’t make the final cut of The River, it eventually found a home in 1981 as the B-side of “Fade Away.” It was also regularly played on the Tunnel Of Love Express Tour, with a live version released on the Chimes Of Freedom EP.
In the City Tonight
In March 1979, Bruce and the E Street Band convened for rehearsals, as they did for Darkness, at Telegraph Hill, his barn in Holmdel, NJ. Unfortunately, the tapes from those dates are crude, presumably the result of recording with just a single microphone. As a result, we have no idea what most of these lyrics are, so we’ll evoke Rule #2 and assume that this searing rocker that concludes its verses with Bruce shouting “Meet me in the city tonight” is about a guy who works really hard at his dead-end job and wants to take his girl out on the town on Saturday night.
Again: Auto racing as metaphor for fucking. Hat tip to Chuck Berry.
Looking for Love
With the release of Tracks and The Promise, Springsteen fans don’t have many “holy grail” vault releases left to lust after, save the mythical electric Nebraska sessions. Now that “The Fever,” “The Promise,” “Frankie” and many others have seen official release, “Looking For Love” has shot to the top of Matt’s list of Springsteen bootleg tracks that he absolutely must hear in pristine official quality. Good lord, that opening guitar riff is undeniable. This cut is another from the Telegraph Hill rehearsal sessions of ‘79; these songs all sound pretty well arranged on these tapes, so here’s hoping there are studio versions lurking in the shadows of the past.
I Wanna Marry You
This is probably why, in his youth, Springsteen had trouble with love songs. Even with a title as unambiguously romantic as “I Wanna Marry You,” he still can’t resist a touch of fatalism in the bridge. Despite – or maybe because of – that, this beauty from The River is one of his most beloved songs. It almost feels like classic soul, possibly because the background vocals echo The Drifters and Tallent’s bass line is ripped straight from the Lieber-Stoller songbook. He performed this with just a ukulele towards the end of the solo Devils And Dust Tour in 2005.
Ricky Wants A Man of Her Own
Not so much a song about relationships as one about a boy watching his kid sister grow up too fast to their parents’ consternation. But it works off one of the album’s main themes of people searching for someone to fill the voids in their lives, so it warrants inclusion. It brings the record full circle–once you’ve convinced the girl to marry you, it’s just a matter of time before your kids want their own ties that bind. As a bonus, this cut from Tracks packs enough detail and sly wit into the lyrics to make Chuck Berry probably consider litigation.
Almost Made the Cut:
“Stolen Car” (Tracks version): Matt rooted for the Tracks version as a melodic tale of love gone wrong; Dave suggested that without the later River recording, Springsteen might never have moved into his dark Nebraska songwriting phase. In other words, “Stolen Car” shall rise again.
“Find It Where You Can”: A mid-tempo Telegraph Hill track (can you tell these sessions had some amazing tunes?!) anchored by a piano/organ hook that didn’t quite fit into the flow as the track listing grew close to completion.
“Break My Heart (Tonight)”: Another song from the Telegraph Hill dates with a killer riff, but we decided that it’s too similar to “Dollhouse.”