THE ALBUM -- Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, "The River" (Columbia PC2 36854).
Rock music doesn't really aspire to art. In the hands of various performers it may educate, prophesy, politicize or memorialize; but in its pure form it seeks to exalt, like some pentecostal religion: to transport its followers out of a world of labor and frayed expectations through physical arousal.
Rock'n'roll, rockabilly, black blues, etc. grew out of the lower and lower-middle class. In the United States, rock was primarily a child of the South, rooted to the economics, the thriving country and bluegrass and gospel idioms and, to some extent, the religion.
Out in California, the Beach Boys were perfecting a new pop wave. In Detroit, where the auto factories dominated the city spirtually as well as economically, Motown developed a musical assembly line of girl and boy groups. eBut these were smoother idioms, more socially acceptable. For the Beach Boys, money was no object; they wrote love songs accessorized with beaches and cars. At Motown, money was a problem, all right, but it was a given problem. cLove was still the theme, but it rode public transportation.
But in the South, rock'n'roll was pushy. Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis -- they were dealing in "race music," walkin' and talkin' sex and rebellion. And when rock caught fire in England, it was sparked by blue-collar restlessness on the tinder of B.B. King.
Rock'n'roll wasn't art, it was more like war, and attempts to marry it with art were most often pretentious and unsatisfying.And it wasn't a necessary evil: The Rolling Stones, the "world's greatest rock'n'roll band," may have dabbled in the concept album, but they have not looked to create great art.
Well, rock is big business now, and there are enough sensitive souls in the industry to allow for some spiritual expansion. At least there is a kind of poetry in the works of some rockers, and that is a high achievement for a commercial venture.
But poetry requires a persona , and that presents two successive problems: finding a voice that solders the writer's personal desires to his audience's; and then escaping it. Few enough rockers have found the perfect alter ego, and even fewer have been able to transform it. Among the lucky ones are the Eagles, whose tombstone-and tequila outlaws became the reluctant rhinestone cowboys; Jackson Browne, who still plays the sensitive songwriter but pokes just enough fun at himself to scrape by; and Bruce Springsteen.
Springsteen is a touchstone for a lot of critics, and it's not surprising. At once a singularly gifted lyricist and a rabble-rousing performer, he looked straight back to rock'n'roll at a time when the music business had developed a bad case of commercialism. Andy Warhol's prediction about 15-minute fame may not yet be true for John Q., but it came true for a lot of bands. Rock criticism began to seem like a contradiction in terms. Springsteen rose like Gabriel at the second coming, heralding a rock'n'roll revival that would have'em speaking in tongues. It was pure rock, but he raised it to an art through the clarity of his images and the emotional weight of his lyrics.
By "Born to Run," Springsteen had developed not only a persuasive persona, but a geography and a supporting cast. His protagonist lived in a small blue-collar town tantalizingly close to the big city. He had girlfriends, the daughters and sisters of other blue-collar workers; buddies who worked all day and drove all night; and an enemy -- his father, or rather the resignation his father represents.
The town was an enemy, too, because it sought to break him in his father's image. "Baby, this town rip the bones from your back / It's a death trap, it's a suicide rap / We got to get out while we're young." And escape was easy -- all it took was the car, the open highway, and faith.
Song after song he praised the night as a magic carpet, and rode through love like another highway. But with the next album, "Darkness on the Edge of Town," the character began to mature. He was still driving, still racing, but the endless anticipation began to take its toll. The rhythm slowed, the tone dropped, and it took a constant effort of will just to keep from slipping into the trap. Keep pushin' till it's understood and these badlands start treating us good.
Now comes "The River," originally conceived of as the final part of a trilogy and although the demand for a live-ish, double Springsteen album has obscured that intent, "The River" clearly remains the closing chapter of the "Born to Run" saga. And what Springsteen's restless driver discovers is that the highway leads nowhere; that a dream deferred grows dim; and that the time passed planning to escape is itself a prison.
Springsteen cleaves to the same totems in "The River," but to completely different effect. Of the 20 songs, all but one mention the highway or the street, but there is no promised land at the end of this strip. There is still room to run -- I got some beer and the highway's free / And I got you and baby you got me -- but the road is infinite, unchanging, not even Hell but only a kind of working-class Limbo. And I'm driving a stolen car Down on Eldridge Avenue Each night I wait to get caught But I never do
The night, which formerly promised escape, now only separates one day from another. And once or twice, in a complete reversal, the darkness is even more deadening than the day. Lying in the heat of the night like prisoners all our lives.
Even the river, which appears as an image in two different songs, represents a kind of futility. First, in "Hungry Heart," one of the most powerful tracks, the protagonist lets his disappointment and aimless desire lure him onto the road: Got a wife and kids in Baltimore Jack I went out for a ride and I never went back Like a river that don't know where it's flowing I took a wrong turn and I just kept going
The title track itself operates as a sequel, or at least a mirror image, of "Thunder Road" from "Born to Run." In the earlier number, Springsteen's alter ego and "Mary" were going to drive away from the town that held their families in check. Ridin' out tonight to case the promised land . . . Riding out of here to win . It is one of his strongest, most energetic creations -- and yet, in "The River," Springsteen implies that even that promise was never fulfilled. 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 . . . 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 I remember . . .
And in a last bitter moment, he askes, "Is a dream a lie if it don't come true / Or is it something worse?"
As the creator of a character, Springsteen has chosen the more interesting solution. A rebel without cause is no better than his creed. And yet one clings to optimism; "Two Hearts Are Better Than One" and "Independence Day" and "I'm a Rocker." And it's hard not to regret the absence of the kind of poetry that Springsteen once spent so profligately. This is very stark writing for the most part, intentionally repetitive, almost ritual.
Like "Darkness," "The River" wants more than one playing. It's a somber album, and a little hard to follow because the upbeat, for-fun songs seem to have been dropped haphazardly into the main body of the album. "The River" should have remained a single album, probably, with the rocker material separated out, but even the lesser numbers have a charm.
And as always, Springsteen's album is rife with musical references: the Roger McGuinn 12-string resonance of "The Ties That Bind," mixed-rhythm lines and delayed phrasing a la Elvis Costello, and the reverse spin on Buddy Holly's confident "Not Fade Away" called "Fade Away."
"The River" may puzzle a lot of fans who know Springsteen as a puncher; he's pulled most of them here. But it's complete now, and rounded, and no one can doubt the reality of Springsteen's urban doughboy.