I wanna go to the riverside tonight … I wanna go to that river of faith … I wanna go to that river of life … I wanna go to that river of hope … I wanna find that river of love … that love that washes away the hate and misunderstanding … I wanna find that river of sanctification … I wanna find my place at that river of transformation where you can go and you can change yourself … and I wanna find my place at that river of resurrection where everybody gets a second chance … I wanna find that river of sexual healing … tonight, I wanna throw a rock ‘n’ roll baptism … I wanna be washed in those waters and set free again. — Bruce Springsteen, spoken word segment during “Tenth Avenue Freeze-out” at Madison Square Garden, June 15, 2000
The news that Bruce Springsteen has titled his upcoming (June 17) SiriusXM satellite radio DJ show “Down to the River to Pray” got me thinking about how frequently rivers appear in his lyrics. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say it’s one of his favorite symbols.
But what exactly do rivers mean to him?
Let’s start with the speech above, which he made 20 years ago today (he made similar speeches on other nights of that tour, as well). There’s a lot going on there: He speaks of a “river of faith,” a “river of life,” a “river of hope,” a “river of love,” a “river of sanctification,” a “river of transformation,” a “river of resurrection” and a “river of sexual healing.”
I think “river of life” is the key phrase: A river represents all that life has to offer. All those other things are parts of it: things that can be part of your life if you have the courage to jump in. (Springsteen also performed, as an interlude during “Tenth Avenue Freeze-out” at that June 15 show and at other shows on the tour, a cover of Al Green’s “Take Me to the River,” a song that depicts falling in love as a kind of soul-cleansing baptism. You can hear Springsteen sing “Take Me to the River” and give a speech similar to the one above, in the video below.)
The river in one of Springsteen’s signature songs, “The River,” is also a kind of river of life. The narrator remembers idyllic trips to the river with his high school girlfriend (now his wife), but the river has dried up — a metaphor for the grim life of adult responsibilities and unemployment he now lives. Yet he keeps going back to stare at that dry river.
Is there any more heartbreaking passage in a Springsteen song than this one?
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 that sends me
Down to the river though I know the river is dry?
In another essential Springsteen river song, “Matamoros Banks,” the Rio Grande represents, to a Mexican immigrant, his hopes for a better life for himself and his beloved in America. He dives in, despite the danger: “The lights of Brownsville, across the river shine/A shout rings out and into the silty red river I dive.”
Crossing the river to get to the other side is a favorite theme of Springsteen’s. The protagonist in “Meeting Across the River” is a New Jerseyan hoping that a trip into New York, where he is going to be involved in something shady, is going to turn his life around. (Conversely, the guy in “Jersey Girl,” written by Tom Waits but frequently sung by Springsteen, is “gonna take that ride across the river to the Jersey side,” where a glorious time, in the form of romance and a joyful night at a carnival, awaits.)
“Blood Brothers” is generally assumed to be about Springsteen’s relationship with the E Street Band. In a version that he sang at the end of the 2000 Madison Square Garden stand, their journey together is described as a series of rivers crossed, and the show itself is an opportunity to “cross this river to the other side” one more time.
In “American Skin (41 Shots),” the idea of crossing a river — “we’ll take that ride, ‘cross the bloody river to the other side” — seems purely metaphorical. In other words, the cops aren’t crossing an actual river, or traveling in any way. But by the act of shooting, they’re entering a different, more dire level of existence. But it is, again, a kind of transformation. “We’re baptized in these waters and in each other’s blood,” Springsteen sings.
Other Springsteen “River” references:
• Billy Horton, in “Cautious Man,” builds his wife “a great house down by the riverside.” That’s a symbol of his hopes and dreams: He’s hoping that the marriage will flourish in proximity to the nurturing river.
• From “Hungry Heart”: “Like a river that don’t know where it’s flowing/I took a wrong turn and I just kept going.” In other words, he has really lost his way.
• From “If I Should Fall Behind”: “Now there’s a beautiful river in the valley ahead/There ‘neath the oak’s bough, soon we will be wed.” Once again, a river symbolizes love, renewal and making progress in life.
• In “Paradise,” someone who comes close to death is said to have experienced “the other side/Where the river runs clean and wide.”
• There’s a baptism scene in “Reason to Believe” and also, when the groom is abandoned by his bride-to-be, he “stands alone and watches the river rush on so effortlessly.” It’s almost as if the river, again a symbol of life’s potential, is abandoning him, too.
• From “Tomorrow Never Knows”: “He who waits for the day’s riches will be lost/In the whispering tide/Where the river flows.”
• Maybe this is reading too much into it, but I think it’s significant that the hospital in “Wreck on the Highway” to which the accident victim is being taken — and where he may die, or manage to live — is named Riverside.
I’ll stop there, but there are other river references in Springsteen’s songs, too, usually evoking something primal and mysterious and, if things go right, sublime.
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