The Ties That Bind: The River Collection, Bruce Springsteen (4-CD/3-DVD boxed set, Columbia, $129.98)
Do you remember your first date with Bruce Springsteen? My initial live taste of the E Street Band came at the State Theatre in New Brunswick in December 1974. I was already a fan of sorts, having earlier reviewed Springsteen’s second album, The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle, for the Rutgers Daily Targum favorably (with the slightly less-than-prescient comment that as entertaining as he could be, the guy clearly had no commercial potential.) My buddy Larry Sutton and I left impressed, but all I really remember about that show is that it seemed much too loud.
It wasn’t until July 1981 — when I witnessed Springsteen and the E Streeters inaugurate the Brendan Byrne Arena in the Meadowlands – that I become a true believer. That was The River Tour, with a set list largely culled from The River and Darkness on the Edge of Town, and it was quite possibly the best concert I have ever seen. From the moment the E Street Band came out and opened with “Born to Run” to the set-closing “Rosalita” and the frantic Detroit Medley that fueled the seemingly endless encores, I was on my feet, enthralled, screaming along with very lyric I knew.
I mention all this because I had always assumed that night would remain a memory, fading and growing fuzzier year by year until now it’s only a montage of half-remembered vignettes; like the moment when Bruce came to the part in “Badlands” where he sings “I believe in the love that you gave me, I believe in the faith that can save me,” and pointed out into the crowd. And as I live and breathe, every person in that arena believed that Bruce Springsteen was pointing right at them.
Odds are you didn’t see that show, but thanks to The Ties That Bind: The River Collection, the expansive box set celebrating The River’s 35th anniversary (due in stores Dec. 4), you can watch a show very much like it, recorded at Arizona State’s University Activity Center on Nov. 5, 1980. Shot with a professional multi-camera set up, the video brings you face to face with the young Bruce Springsteen — every grimace and gesticulation, every set piece that today seems too hammy but then was nothing but endearing. Bruce dancing with Clarence Clemons, mugging with “Miami” Steve, running back and forth across the stage like a cross between a revivalist preacher, a rabid Jerry Lewis and a feverish James Brown. (There’s an additional 20 minutes of rehearsal footage that completists will doubtlessly enjoy but really isn’t necessary.)
The story that The Ties That Bind tells comes from a documentary film much like those that accompanied Springsteen’s anniversary box sets for Born to Run and Darkness, as well as a copiously illustrated 148-page booklet. But the making of The River proves to be quite unlike the typical tale of a tortured artist laboriously building a masterpiece track by track.
It turns out that Springsteen originally delivered The River to his label as a 10-track single LP, then had second thoughts and reworked the material, deleting a few songs and adding enough new tracks to create the double-album actually released. The original version of The River is presented here for the first time, and it reveals a few surprising twists. Three tracks (“Cindy,” a delightful pop song, and the less impressive “Be True” and “Loose End”) didn’t make the double LP, and several of the songs we do know appear here in different versions. “You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch)” sounds like Springsteen might have been influenced by the Clash’s rockabilly jones on his first try at this track, before reworking it into the frantic garage-rock version we know. “Stolen Car,” a deep cut by any Springsteen standard, originally had a much faster tempo, different lyrics and a less gloomy vibe.
A final CD includes The River’s outtakes and leftovers, some of which have already appeared on compilations like Tracks and The Essential Bruce Springsteen. Not surprisingly, quite a few of these tracks seem unfocused or derivative; there’s usually good reasons that outtakes get left off albums. But a few stand out, like “Meet Me in the City,” which would have fit on Born to Run and features a lively Clarence Clemons sax solo. “Where the Bands Are” offers a sentimental ode to Asbury Park with a summery vibe, “Ricky Wants a Man of Her Own” borrows the Detroit Rock City vibe of the band’s early encores, and “The Time That Never Was” underscores Bruce’s debt to Phil Spector. And I’d include “From Small Things (Big Things One Day Come)” on any essential Springsteen mixtape. But if you want proof that even a genius can have off an off day, just listen to “Mr. Outside.” Ouch.
If the box set seems pricey at $129.98, the tracks and videos alone will be available on iTunes for $89.99; still a hefty price tag, but well worth it for the chance to travel back to 1980 and revisit the Boss and his band in their prime, as well as enjoying several albums’ worth of Springsteen gems that have resided in a vault for far too long.