By the late 70s Bruce Springsteen was working with a full cast of iconic characters as he led them through their coming of age, loss of innocence, and quests for love and redemption.
And in 1980 he put them through the wringer.
As the previous decade ground to a halt, cracks were showing up in the working-class foundation of Springsteen s ongoing story line. Ronald Reagan ushered in an era in which unions were considered the enemy of economic growth and anyone with a factory job had to feel uneasy with the kind of change that was happening all around them.
The River was freighted with a desperation that often belied the garage band rock that infused many of the songs. You didn t have to scratch the surface very deep to find characters and ideas that were a depressing reflection of bad times.
The most obvious example is the title cut, the story of a pair of Springsteen s stock characters a young man and his girlfriend, Mary who find themselves forced to get married after she gets pregnant. Their story is as bleak as these lines:
I got a job working construction for the Johnstown Company/But lately there ain t been much work on account of the economy/Now all them things that seemed so important/Well mister they vanished right into the air.
Those images of despair and a sense that forces outside your control will conspire to leave you broken are pervasive throughout the double album. In Springsteen s world the small towns are emptying out, like in this scene from Independence Day.
Now the rooms are all empty down at Frankie s joint/And the highway she s deserted down to Breaker s Point/There s a lot of people leaving town now/Leaving their friends their homes.
And it s not like these folks are finding anything better. Jackson Cage is a chilling description of what happens to people cut off from their communities. Even the guy in the good-natured Sherry Darling is fed up with his mother-in-law because every Monday morning he s got to drive her down to the unemployment agency and he s sick of her.
Springsteen has long worked out of the tradition of Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, and other artists who set their stories to songs. And his music like it or not has served as a pretty accurate reflection of the times in which he s lived. The music is steeped in a blue-collar ethos, and while his later albums, Nebraska and The Ghost of Tom Joad may be more obvious examples of a musician tapping into the economic underbelly of bad times, The River just feels more real.
Perhaps that s because the music was being drawn from a deep personal vein, as Springsteen later wrote of the title track.
I based the song on the crash of the construction industry in late 70s New Jersey and the hard times that fell on my sister and her family. I watched my brother-in-law lose his good-paying job and work hard to survive without complaint.
That unflinching sense of reality gives The River it s urgency and the musical backbone that makes it still feel fresh nearly 30 years later.