I wish I could recite the details of the first time I heard the thunderous snare crack of “The Ties That Bind”, the song that introduces Springsteen’s 1980 album, “The River”. I wish I could still recall my primal reaction to the joyful crowd noise that enticed me into the car with “Sherry Darling”. I know them now like I know everything and nothing else. I know the anguished sighs of “Drive All Night” and the undaunted pursuit of “Two Hearts”, but that first River experience is a blur of cellophane, black vinyl and the spinning red label of Columbia Records.
By 1979, I was 16, I hated my Dad, I was struggling to be a mediocre student and I was two years into my fascination with Jersey’s Boss. I had raised my fist in defiance with Born to Run. I had listened in a dimly lit bedroom as Darkness on the Edge of Town blasted out a black and white movie full of vengeance, passion and misdirected rage. Those records were new and challenging and otherworldly, but they belonged to friends – they weren’t really mine. I was still reaching, searching for something of my own.
I finally found it in the fall of 1980, on the pages of the Rolling Stone magazine. The article about Springsteen and his new double-album spoke to the person I was and the man I wanted to be. I vividly remember finishing the story and running to my mom with some weak excuse about going to the mall. I drove that ‘75 Plymouth Fury like a Stolen Car to the local record store. Half an hour later, I was sitting on the floor of my bedroom with the album on my lap like some ancient, holy tome. The excitement of ownership and discovery attached to that day and to “The River” remains unsurpassed.
The songs reached into the best and worst parts of me. They ripped out my story in pieces; the ponderous love of “Point Blank”, the fractious father-son struggle of “Independence Day”, the raucous beer-fuelled parties of “Ramrod”. It was a time-capsuled, fortune-teller’s crib sheet of my life.
Like many friends from those days, The River faded into the misty world of epic teenage adventures and youthful crushes. Once in a while characters like Dirty Annie would wave to me from the Jackson Cage in a scratchy home-movie flicker but my return was fleeting and lonely. The River, the album that spoke to me when I was surrounded by a crowded future, was mine and mine alone.
In August of 1999 I was reunited with this album by my nine-year-old son. He travelled with me to the Continental Airlines Arena. We camped at Cheesequake State park. We tailgated with the rest of New Jersey in the Meadowlands parking lot and we saw something that changed us both.
“Play Cadillac Ranch Bruce! Play Cadillac Ranch!”
His voice was strong and passionate and belied his age. I fully expected him to crash halfway through the three-hour performance. Instead, he was on his feet or on my shoulders for the entire show; pointing at Little Steven, waving to Clarence and singing along with Two Hearts. Daniel Hunter - whose birth date of April 9, 1990 came 17 years after the release of Greetings from Asbury Park and one year after the break-up of the E Street Band - had given me back the River. Sadly, like the album itself, this story ends on a somber note.
Boys become teens and they grapple with fathers and rules and just plain growin’ up. Fathers used to be teens and they struggle to find the balance between friendship and guidance; support and sympathy. Through all the arguments, the rules, the pain and the tears, we both owned the River.
It was the slim thread that tied and bound us together. It connected me to him when nothing else would. I'm sure the songs spoke to Daniel like an older brother; without the weight and substance of a father’s words. I smiled when I would hear him listening to “The Price You Pay” or “Wreck on the Highway” but when I tried to talk to him about it, the words came back to me in grunts and syllables. One night when the stars were aligned and the winter moon broke down the barriers, he let me into his River.
“You used to love Cadillac Ranch,” I said in passing.
“Yeah….still do. But there’s something about those quiet songs.”
“Something sad,” I asked?
I nodded. I had worn those 17 year-old shoes. I had strained to find the person I was beneath my insecurity and monumental teenage anxiety and I recognized that struggle in my son. I understood at that precise moment, how a great record can be truly timeless.
A year after that conversation, I split up with his mom. It hadn’t worked for a long time and we both needed to find our paths. Dan blamed me. Still does. I write to him almost every day but I haven’t seen him in a year and half. When we spoke it was awkward and stilted.
I miss him every day.
I maintain a kind of minimal ownership in the River but I’ve given most of my share to Daniel. It’s his now but I cling to it sometimes. Not the sad songs – they carry too much of him and too many of my failures. But when Two Hearts rolls around on my iPOD, I sing along with him; belting out the words and drowning out the pain of his absence.
Today as tickets for the 35th anniversary tour of The River go on sale, this song is on an endless loop in my head.
“You sit and wonder just who's gonna stop the rain
Who'll ease the sadness, who's gonna quiet the pain
It's a long dark highway and a thin white line
Connecting baby, your heart to mine
We're runnin' now but darlin' we will stand in time
To face the ties that bind
The ties that bind
Now you can't break the ties that bind
You can't forsake the ties that bind”
- Bruce Springsteen, “The Ties That Bind” from The River