FM Radio was reaching peak popularity in the early ‘80s just as I was entering into my teen years. As such, it had me and my friends captivated. We loved the Sunday night full-album specials, the superior sound quality over mono AM, and of course the knowledgeable DJs whose stoned musings contained interesting tidbits of info on the songs they spun on turntables with their own hands – and often from their own collections. As a kid some songs would actually scare me. I remember the creepy tones of Tom Petty’s “Refugee” and the sexually-infused lyrics of Meat Loaf that I didn’t quite understand but knew were subversive in some way.
One song in particular that stood out from the rest in this regard was Bruce Springsteen’s “The River.” It remains the only radio song I’ve ever heard with the word “pregnant” in it, and when you’re 14 or 15 years old that stuff freaks you out to no end. The plaintive wail of the harmonica, as well as the strong, studied picking of the 12-string acoustic guitar, was all business. There was no fluff in this tune. It was a song about failed promise and dashed hopes. It was in essence the opposite of how rock music was supposed to make us feel. And this is where this song’s power lay for me the first time I heard it.
Listening to it as a kid, this song’s sadness was conveyed in its sorrowful drum beat, vocal inflections of desperation, and incessant minor chord structure that obscured light at every turn. You just knew when it came on the radio that you were going to be arrested in the moment, your mood altered to a darker state. In the ensuing decades that have brought us to this moment, I’ve become a singer/songwriter myself and I also teach English literature. So musically and lyrically my impressions of a song such as “The River” have evolved considerably. My inspiration to write about this song stems from local classic rock station K-Rock recently adding it in fairly heavy rotation; I’ve heard it numerous times in the past two weeks or so, and every time it comes on I feel like pulling over and giving it all the attention it so rightfully deserves as a piece of classic poetry emitting from my car stereo. I’ve got all my friends driven crazy talking about it. It’s incredible, really, that such a powerful song so full of higher meaning can be jammed right in between Trooper’s “Here for a Good Time” and Foreigner’s “Hot-Blooded.”
The first line follows the harmonica intro: “I come from down in the valley.” Right away, the words are infused; “Valley,” like the valley of death (or failed dreams) and, in contrast, valley of life and fertility. The second line follows: “They bring you up to do, like your daddy done.” This line also has a double meaning, addressing occupations but also teenage pregnancy and the shotgun wedding. Your dad got your mom pregnant when they were teenagers, and you will do the same thing. Until the ’70s when birth control became widely accepted, this was pretty much the way people lived. No one got to fulfill selfish dreams or travel the world trying to “find themselves;” they were too busy trying to pay the rent and keep the kids fed. The middle class was built on such a dynamic. You didn’t get to sit around thinking about life. You were pressed into manual labour and made feel less of a man if you weren’t sweating your ass off all day for your family. Of course all this often culminates in a dark existence, as it is played out in the song.
In the second verse we get the big line: “Then I got Mary pregnant, and man that was all she wrote.” The use of the name “Mary” in the context of pregnancy has biblical undertones, and the catch phrase “all she wrote” also has a broader meaning of Mary’s opportunities being essentially wiped away after getting the news that she’s expecting a baby. For his 19th birthday, the narrator gets “a union card and a wedding coat.” Neither of these things is by choice. He’s given them by society. It’s his duty now. It’s not about him anymore. Mary’s sacrifice is under her sweater in plain view of the town; the narrator’s is in his forced new way of life. They go to the courthouse and the “judge put it all to rest.” The judge is not creating a union between two people here; he is signing the death certificates of their freedom and life dreams.
In the midst of this we have a chorus that changes slightly as it moves through the song. The river: an age-old primordial symbol that we intrinsically know as representing time, movement, fertility, fluidity, change, cleansing. In the first chorus they go down the river and dive in, reveling in the freedom of being able to do that on a whim as lovers. But this attraction and connection leads to the pregnancy, which is cruelly ironic in its outcome. Yet, the second chorus has them going to the river again after the wedding and diving in. The river is still flowing. They may be trapped in their new existence, but they’re still young. And this is where the faintest bit of hope creeps into the lyric. Just because they are forced into a marital union so early doesn’t necessarily mean that it won’t work out. Springsteen wrote this song about his sister and brother-in-law, who are still happily married – like millions of other couples from that generation who lived this exact story. The narrator is his brother-in-law, so when Bruce sings “I remember riding in her brother’s car…,” the brother is Bruce himself.
So the narrator gets a job in construction but finds it hard retaining steady work. This is a recurring theme in Springsteen’s Reagan-era songs where the initial decline of a labour-based economy starts to show itself in America. Apathy also creeps in here when the narrator acts like he doesn’t remember, and “Mary acts like she don’t care.” This is an act of compassion on her part, so as to not address the reality of their abbreviated lives and thereby shed too tragic a light on that reality. The narrator then gives a sensual image of Mary’s body “tanned and wet down at the reservoir” and holding her close “just to feel each breath she’d take.” Those memories “come back to haunt” him, mostly because the relationship will never have that innocent intimacy and raw fire it once had before the baby came along. These lines are followed by perhaps the most haunting of all the lines in the song: “Is a dream a lie that won’t come true, or is it something worse?” That line is the one that crawls up the back of my spine as I sit there in rush hour traffic with the world going on around me. “Something worse?” What is he talking about? It doesn’t matter. The mere open-endedness of that line alone is horrific in its ambiguity.
In the last chorus they go back to the river, but it’s dry. The symbolism is thinly veiled here. We know what the cracked, dry riverbed represents. The past is gone. You can never get it back. However, as I mentioned before, there is light here – as weak and diffused as it may be. Springsteen sings, “Down to the river, my baby and I.” They’re still together. They made it to the other side. They are still traveling on the same road. They no longer need the river. It brought them together and is now flowing inside them in a singular path. Therefore, in the darkness of “The River” we actually see some light; we see some hope. It’s hidden in the little words, the passing lines, the details of the lyric. Just like life itself. This song, in all its apparent sense of hopelessness, is actually a plea to accept life with all its ups and downs and to take solace in the obscure, sometimes hard-to-detect beams of light that exist to guide our way through the darkness as we inevitably come upon it throughout our lives.