According to Rolling Stone, Bruce Springsteen’s Wrecking Ball is the best album released this year. Why? Because of lyrics like:
Gambling man rolls the dice, working man pays the bill.
It’s still fat and easy up on banker’s hill.
They “rage at corporate oligarchy and economic injustice,” things at which I’m raging too, so I completely understand why Rolling Stone would think they’re good: it agrees with them. There’s only one problem: they’re not. The state of political rhetoric is such that feeble statements of solidarity pass for insight. We’ve traded genius for blandished agreement, resulting in a situation in which we praise people for writing:
There ain’t no help.
The cavalry stayed home.
I wouldn’t be complaining were it not for the fact that, of all people, it’s Springsteen they’re praising for rehashing tired polemic. Because part of the reason I’m lefter than I’ve any right to be is that this same Springsteen fellow once made me feel the anger and hopelessness to which he only here alludes. If you’ve never seen the debut performance of “The River,” do yourself a favor and do so right now. I can wait.
Granted, “The River” isn’t an explicitly political song–it’s decidedly lacking in policy statements–but it’s a far more compelling vision of what lives are like “on account of the economy” than the broadsides found on Wrecking Ball. Let’s start with the titular and abiding image: a river. What are rivers like? To trade one bard for another, here’s John McPhee on the Mississippi in his “Atchafalaya“:
Southern Louisiana exists in its present form because the Mississippi River has jumped here and there within an arc about two hundred miles wide, like a pianist playing with one hand—frequently and radically changing course, surging over the left or the right bank to go off in utterly new directions. Always it is the river’s purpose to get to the Gulf by the shortest and steepest gradient. As the mouth advances southward and the river lengthens, the gradient declines, the current slows, and sediment builds up the bed. Eventually, it builds up so much that the river spills to one side. Major shifts of that nature have tended to occur roughly once a millennium. The Mississippi’s main channel of three thousand years ago is now the quiet water of Bayou Teche, which mimics the shape of the Mississippi. Along Bayou Teche, on the high ground of ancient natural levees, are Jeanerette, Breaux Bridge, Broussard, Olivier—arcuate strings of Cajun towns. Eight hundred years before the birth of Christ, the channel was captured from the east. It shifted abruptly and flowed in that direction for about a thousand years. In the second century a.d., it was captured again, and taken south, by the now unprepossessing Bayou Lafourche, which, by the year 1000, was losing its hegemony to the river’s present course, through the region that would be known as Plaquemines. By the nineteen-fifties, the Mississippi River had advanced so far past New Orleans and out into the Gulf that it was about to shift again, and its offspring Atchafalaya was ready to receive it.
The point being that rivers are forces of nature that even the Army Corps of Engineers can only control until the occasional Katrina. Going “down to the river,” as Springsteen’s narrator and compatriots do, is the contemporary equivalent of worshiping a mountain on account of its orogeny. It’s there and demands homage and besides where else are you going to go when that thing is there? The song begins with an idyllic, if limited, vision of life in America:
I come from down in the valley
where, Mister, when you’re young.
They bring you up to do, like your daddy done.
Me and Mary we met in high school,
When she was just seventeen.
We’d ride out of that valley, down to where the fields were green
That valley could be any valley, and the adjacent fields could be that green almost anywhere. There’s a little disillusioned defiance with the interjected “Mister,” letting you know that the tone of what follows is going to be a little belligerent. (You don’t “Mister” someone unless dudgeon’s on the rise.) Meaning that we have an annoyed narrator from a pastoral place, but at this point we have no idea why he’s annoyed. What did they do “[w]hen she was just seventeen”?
We’d go down to the river
And into the river we’d dive.
Oh, down to the river we’d ride
That’s the stuff of memories: he has his “Mary,” his “valley,” his “fields,” and he spent his time going “down to the river” and “div[ing]” in. Are we sure Mary’s name isn’t actually “Huck”?
Then I got Mary pregnant
We’re sure. But what happens to this little slice of an ideologically appealing America when Mary gets pregnant? I bet her nuclear family swarmed her with loving support and arranged a dream wedding and
Man, that was all she wrote.
And for my nineteenth 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 aisle,
No flowers, no wedding dress.
What happened to America, Man? Who exactly are you, Mister? In the space of two verses, Springsteen transformed America from an advertisement for the Shenandoah Valley into the urban pit in which affect scuttles to die. This verse begins with angry conjunctions: birthdays, which are supposed to be happy occasions, are conjoined by comma to a conjunctive clause whose necessity seems as unnecessary as the alliteration in this sentence, “a union card and a wedding coat.” That “and” there is deceptively correlative, as Springsteen’s delivery of the lyric hammers home: the narrator “got a union card and a wedding coat.” The vehemence that begins with the “and” encompasses the “wedding coat” in a way that makes it clear that the narrator resents the enforced necessity of this particular conjunction. Not that anything can be done about it. The flat affect Springsteen brings to the rest of the verse communicates that clearly: from “wedding coat” on his delivery is as listless as a trial transcript, and rightly so, since the narrator and Mary went “down to the courthouse,” where a “judge put it all to rest.” But what does that even mean?
The OED informs me that, by “put[ting] it all to rest,” the judge either “dispelled [their] fears” or “settled something (so as to be free of it).” Only he didn’t do either. The “something” that’s been “settled” here is amorphous mess of adolescent emotion that settles about as well as a biscuit cut from wet batter. It keeps its shape so long as it’s in the mold, but place it on a sheet and its edges bleed until its original form can’t be fathomed from the slop. That’s what marriage as a social convention is for: preventing the slop. But the narrator and Mary don’t experience marriage as a social convention so much as a bureaucratic one. Moreover, their ceremony is literally defined by the attributes it lacked: the “wedding day smiles,” “walk[s] down the aisle,” “flowers,” and “wedding dress[es]” to which the cruel world has said “No,” “no,” “No” and “no.” How does the couple celebrate this sterile occasion?
That night we went down to the river,
And into the river we dived.
Oh, down to the river, we did ride.
Of course they did. Except notice the difference between the first iteration of the chorus and this one. In the first, they “[would] go down to the river,” and “into the river [they would] dive,” and even though the contracted “would” marks the past tense, it’s expansive, in that it refers to multiple occasions in which they rode down and dove into the river. The openness of the phrasing is nostalgic. But the second time it comes around, the chorus refers to a specific time and ride and dive: their wedding night, which they marked by doing what they’d always done, only differently, deliberately. That night they “did ride.” Who “[does] ride” somewhere? People with a purpose “[do] ride” somewhere. Except the narrator and Mary “did ride” to a place that isn’t a place. (Don’t make me quote Heraclitus.) On the night in which they bound themselves together, permanently, they ventured out to the very image of impermanence itself: a flowing river in whose bed nothing settles, no matter what a judge says. I’m sure this’ll be a happy union.
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,
Mary acts like she don’t care.
But at least they have their memories, right? The narrator only “act[s] like [he] don’t remember,” and Mary only “acts like she don’t care,” which suggests that they both actually do, which makes everything more horrible. At least it can’t get any worse.
But I remember us riding 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.
So he remembers, but the slight uptick in the tempo suggests a kind of resurgence, as if this memory is something he draws strength from despite the fact that “pull[ing] her close” is how his troubles started in the first place. The tense has expanded again: the contracted “would” no longer refers to a particular moment, but to composite memory of a life’s worth of them. This is good, right?
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 something worse?
There is no good here. He’s not haunted by a single memory, but by a monstrous agglomeration of them. And it’s cursed. It’s not enough to double-down on the verb “haunt” in a repetitious construction that’s structured like a confession, these memories must “haunt [him] like a curse.” Which makes no sense, because curses don’t “haunt” people, they “follow” them. Unless, of course, these memories are just a dream, and that dream is just a lie that didn’t come true, in which case the curse is something worse. Therein lies the power of this lyric. It begins understandably enough, with memories haunting the narrator, but then the memories turn into a curse; then the narrator asks someone, presumably the “Mister” to whom the song’s addressed, a simple-sounding question that leads into a conceptual quagmire of horribleness. I could diagram that question for you, but it wouldn’t help because, fundamentally, it doesn’t make any sense. It evokes a state of confused desperation instead of detailing the circumstances of it, much like the monster in a horror film that’s far scarier when its figure is implied than when it appears on screen.
And as for that beacon of hope, the river? The narrator still goes down to it, “though [he] know[s] the river is dry.” His life has become an empty gesture of defiance. Why? On account of the economy. It’s a single phrase in a song whose power emanates from elsewhere, and yet it resonates far more soundly than “[i]t’s still fat and easy up on banker’s hill.” Those who already agree with Springsteen will applaud him for that line. But people—ideology be damned—who listen to “The River”?
They might could be converted.