Bruce Springsteen’s 40 greatest songs

An all-star cast pick The Boss' best moments…

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3 The River
Title track of 1980 album

GEORGE P PELECANOS: When I was in high school my friends and I used to cut class and go out to a swimming hole up on the Potomac River, where we’d spend sunny days drinking beer and smoking weed. Academia held little value for us, or so we thought. School was for squares, and college, on anything above the state level, was for ‘other’ kids; the future was something we didn’t much think about. On one of those days, after a swim, I was driving my ’70 Camaro with my girlfriend by my side. I looked over at her and took her in. She was still wet from our swim, wearing only a bikini top and jeans, shivering, smoking a Marlboro, mouthing the words to “Rocket Man” as it came from the radio. That picture of her is still in my head. It was one of those moments, seemingly uneventful and without consequence, which you never forget. The truth is, I felt fortunate that day, despite the fact that, on the surface, I was a kid with nothing much in front of me. To break it down to the bottom, I was perfectly content in the simplicity of my life. The title tune off The River takes place five years after that afternoon, when a working-class kid becomes a working man and reflects on his mistakes, lost opportunities, and everything else that is out of reach. By the time of the song’s release, I was in a bullshit, dead-end job and could see no way out. Everything came back to me the first time I heard that verse in the middle of the song: “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/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?” Springsteen’s genius was that he always made his listeners feel as if he was singing about their lives.
JACKIE LEVEN: I’m allergic to river songs. Mostly, you simply never believe there is a fucking river, it’s just a stupid metaphor for something else. What pisses me off is you can never actually picture it. It’s like “flying high like a bird in the sky” in that it’s usually just there to get you through a portal. But here, I can really picture this river. It’s got a kind of Neil Young greatness about it.
BRETT SPARKS: The first time I heard this song (in Farmington, New Mexico), I didn’t even realise it was country. This was the predecessor to Nebraska – one of the 10 most important records of my life. These songs taught me that simple, elegant narrative ballads were to me the most powerful art objects I’d ever encountered.
RENNIE SPARKS: Living in New York, this song was ever-present. I remember sitting in a tent behind a friend’s house. We were all 15-year-old girls smoking pot and feeling lonely and hungry for a big, dark love of any kind. One girl had the lyrics to this song written down in her wallet, and she read them out to us, then we walked down to the 7-11 and got sticks of beef jerky.
JOHN CONVERTINO: I had just graduated high school when The River came out and I was immediately hooked by the music and the lyrics. The story was really strong and the melody was so catchy it got stuck in my head immediately. When an Elton John song does that it drives you crazy, but when a Springsteen song gets stuck in your head it makes you feel good.
TOM BRIDGEWATER: This song didn’t need a video. In fact a video would have spoilt it. A beautiful song of lost youth beneath Kodachrome skies.
HEATHER NOVA: With that song you could listen to it as a story about a couple who ran into hard times, but it’s really all about our dreams and our disillusions and how we deal with that and that intense longing that all we human beings have for something, and how you get to that point in life when you realise that you have not achieved that. The disappointment is there, but you still go back to the river and hang on to something.
ADAM SWEETING: Bruce sang this at the MUSE benefit shows in New York in 1979 just as he turned 30, and footage of his performance in the subsequent No Nukes movie showed him to be in an intensely emotional state. It’s another of his signature compositions, drawing heavily from the experiences of family and friends, notably his sister and brother-in-law. It was, he explained, “based on the crash of the construction industry in late-’70s New Jersey”, but he managed to broaden the canvas to encompass a sombre saga of the imprisoning rituals of an entire social stratum. Summing up a marriage ceremony as “the judge put it all to rest” sounds more like death by lethal injection than the beginning of a great adventure in personal relationships. Bruce reckoned the song was partly inspired by Hank Williams, evidence that the stark earthiness of old-time country music was becoming a significant ingredient in his songwriting.
KRISTIN HERSH: This song actually made me cry on the way to the grocery store once. I’m not proud of this fact, but there you go. An honest man singing an honest song is hard to come by, I guess.
JOHN BRAMWELL: I remember watching a live Springsteen concert on TV and being blown away by “The River”. It was such a great song and it made me realise why so many American critics over the years have compared him to Dylan. Besides the fact he’s a brilliant songwriter, he takes lots of different musical traditions from rock’n’roll to folk and sculpts them into something whole and universal. I was also quite touched by the fact he introduced it as a story about his sister and her failed wedding. Maybe I misunderstood, but that’s what I thought it was about.
DAN BERN: “Then I got Mary pregnant/And man that was all she wrote.” The sad passage of youth into adulthood in one line.
LYNDON MORGANS: Springsteen must be the most cinematic lyricist there’s ever been. It’s like you could film every song – in fact, you’re dreaming up your cast as the tracks slip by, and they’d all be films as great as Lonely Are The Brave, The Border or The Last Picture Show, you just know they would. In his ‘story songs’ he elevates these American Everymen to the level and dignity of myth.

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