“What if what you do to survive kills the things you love?” Bruce Springsteen asked on “Devils & Dust,” the opening track of the album of that name. And on the album’s closing number, “Matamoros Banks,” he returns to that theme, with the tale of a Mexican who drowns in the Rio Grande River during his failed attempt to get into the United States.
On the Devils & Dust Tour, “Matamoros Banks” was usually performed as the last song before the encores, and I thought it worked well there — a warm, compassionate ballad that has an element of tragedy but lingers on hope, with the repetition of the line, “Meet me on the Matamoros banks.”
The song starts with a gruesome depiction of the man’s body in the river, after he has died. Springsteen uses the second person singular pronoun (“you”) to invite listeners to imagine it happening to themselves. “You rise to the light without a sound … The turtles eat the skin from your eyes.”
Then comes a description of the man’s arduous journey to the river, his longing for his wife’s “sweet love,” and a glimpse of the lights of Brownsville, Texas, shining across the river from Matamoros, in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas.
“Into the silty red river I dive,” the man sings, and of course we know how it turns out.
Performing the song for the first time — at a Devils & Dust Tour rehearsal show at the Paramount Theatre in Asbury Park on April 21, 2005 – Springsteen said he regarded the song as a sequel to “Across the Border” (which he used to end sets with on the Ghost of Tom Joad Tour) and added that in the song, “a man makes the same journey and is fuelled by the same hopes and love for his partner, his family and his children. He’s in search of something a little better.”
He also said in that introduction, 14 years ago, “we are in dire need of a humane immigration policy.” In other words, “Matamoros Banks” was a topical song then, and it still is now.
Background facts: Springsteen released “Matamoros Banks” on his 2005 album, Devils & Dust. Springsteen plays all the music except for the strings.
According to Brucebase, Springsteen performed it 73 times in 2005 and never again (in other words, exclusively on the Devils & Dust Tour).
On each of the 70 days leading up to Bruce Springsteen’s 70th birthday (on Sept. 23, 2019), NJArts.net will do a post on one of The Boss’ best songs of the last 30 years. We’re starting with No. 70 and working our way up. For more on the project, click here.
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