I bought Bruce Springsteen’s “The River” when I was 17, and I played it until I had memorized every song. Mr. Jones, my English teacher, had turned me on to The Boss sensing perhaps that the lyrics – the poetry – would appeal to my blue-collar sensibilities. I had never seen a Cadillac or a State Trooper, and I didn’t know the difference between a highway and the motorway, but I knew drizzling rain and disappointment. I knew the dole, and I knew diminished opportunity. I knew pregnant girls whose boyfriends married them. I knew men who worked at the factory, and then the factory stopped working. I knew life in a small town in a small country on the other side of the Atlantic, and I knew people were leaving that life and that I would too. Looking back thirty-five years, I don’t know if all this occurred to me much at the time – I was 17, and mostly, I had Friday on my mind – Out in the Street.
As Bruce Springsteen revisited “The River” last Thursday night in Phoenix, Arizona, I rewound the tapes. Flashes of my 17 year old self surfaced, a little tougher, and wiser maybe, thanks to all the beginnings and endings, the marriage, the mortgage, the raising of a good person, the career, the cancer, the death of the man who had for many years quickened my heart, the worry about what might come next and the waiting – always the waiting – for the other shoe to drop. In the middle of my life, I am realizing my parents – the people I fought so hard at 17 – were once in the middle of theirs with beautiful dreams that were dashed like some of mine. I know now the darkness that got the best of us . . .
Papa now I know the things you wanted that you could not say . . . I swear I never meant to take those things away
Unloading every song, I wonder did Bruce Springsteen know how well he was telling the stories that made up Ken’s life? There was the one about not being drafted to Vietnam because he was the only surviving son of a man who died in military service, and then the one about how he cut his hair when all his buddies didn’t come back. There was the one about trading in his beloved motorcycle and the muscle car and settling down when he and his girl were just too young. Settling. On they went, for 27 odd years, each of them making compromises and taking care of what became obligations.
Then the flash of courage one Saturday afternoon as he stood with me in a parking lot outside a place that I imagine is a bit like Frankie’s Joint. He showed his cards. All of them. And, in the space of a heartbeat, he turned from that life because the alternative was like “dying by inches,” and he followed instead a heart beating wildly.
Cause point blank, bang bang baby you’re dead.
Oh, the price you pay – a young man’s song.
That man of mine brought with him only the shirt on his back and a Ford Thunderbird. Young then, he had the heart – and he had the stomach – for all of it. All of it. All in, he would drive all night just to buy me some shoes.
For as long as we could be young, we had a great run. We raised the kind of hell that belongs in a rollicking Springsteen song, but the truth is that it lost much of the shine before he died and we may not have made it, because the “in sickness” part of the deal sucked.
We were married for one day shy of 22 years, and together we did something good – really good. He was in my corner – always – and any regrets are so tiny now that they just don’t matter. The lesson? Well, it’s about time. It is always about time. We have only so much – not enough to waste – to learn how to live and to live well with another person, a partner.
Going back to The River with Springsteen after 35 years, I found myself believing that another opportunity to live and love better – to do something good – is just up the road. We’ll see . . .
The River is how you learn the adult life and you choose your partner and you choose your work and that clock starts ticking and you walk alongside not only the people you’ve chosen to live your life with but you walk alongside of your own mortality and you realize you have a limited amount of time to raise your family, to do your job, to try and do something good. That’s ‘The River.’
Yes, Bruce, yes it is.
Meet Me in the City
The Ties That Bind
Out in the Street
Crush on You
You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch)
I Wanna Marry You
I’m a Rocker
The Price You Pay
Drive All Night
Wreck on the Highway
Because the Night
She’s the One
Born to Run
Dancing in the Dark
Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)
Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out
Shout (The Isley Brothers cover)