“Did you ever see Springsteen live?”
“I did – in Dublin; last year and the year before. He’s some performer”.
Two moments came to mind.
In 2008, he spoke of the loss of habeas corpus under the Bush government in the United States. How many of the 35,000 people packed into the small sports ground understood what he was saying was unclear, but he was obviously passionate about the issues of people being arrested and detained indefinitely without charge or trial. Even at an occasion when there was a great celebratory atmosphere, there was an engagement with serious questions.
The second was the singing of the ballad, “The River”. People sang along as though it were a party song; had they read the words? Had they thought about what was being said? “The River” is a piece of social realism, not a love song. It is a song about getting a girlfriend pregnant and having to get married, and becoming unemployed and the relationship deteriorating to the point where she no longer cares, and about going down to the river where they had swum together in the search of something indefinable.
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?
That sends me down to the river tonight.
Memories for him are not nostalgia, they are a curse; something that impels him to drive off in a futile search for something he knows he will not find. Perhaps the popularity of the song lies in its articulation of feelings widely shared; the sense that something has been lost, the sense that its recovery is not possible but that searching vainly is better than doing nothing. Springsteen’s lyric maybe taps into some universal emotion.
Driving through Co Laois on Sunday, playing Springsteen tracks, “The River” seemed sadder each time it played; there is no cause for optimism, no possibility of the redemption of time. He is trapped in a loop of memory and regret, constantly reciting lines from old scripts without someone taking the other parts. The question of being a product or a prisoner of one’s past would be simply answered.
Going down to the river is a compulsive reaction to the sadness he faces; worse than a lie, through his recognition of its futility, and his persistence, regardless. “The River” describes something deep in human nature.