Will they do it again this evening? Bruce Springsteen is playing in Croke Park, the concert is part of The River Tour, taking its name from the 1980 album of the same name. Will 80,000 people sing along with the title track? Will they continue to ignore the essence of the song?
Bruce Springsteen is a lyricist of extraordinary talent; there are songs that, even without music, would stand as poetry in their own right. The staying power of the East Street Band over forty years probably owes much to its ability to identify with the human condition, to sing lyrics that articulate the feelings of ordinary people living ordinary lives; to put to music the frustration and angst of life, as well as its joys and sorrows.
Few concerts pass without the singing of The River. The song tells of a working class teenager who gets his girlfriend pregnant and finds himself in a married life without work and without love; a man whose dreams crumble into nothingness. Lines from the song express a mood of hopelessness:
. . . Then I got Mary pregnant,
and, man, that was all she wrote.
And for my nineteenth birthday,
I got a union card and a wedding coat.
We went down to the courthouse
and the judge put it all to rest:
no wedding day smiles, no walk down the aisle,
no flowers, no wedding dress . . .
. . . I got a job working in construction
for the Johnstown Company,
but lately there ain’t been much work,
on account of the economy.
Now, all them things that seemed so important,
well, mister, they vanished right into the air.
Now, I just act like I don’t remember.
Mary acts like she don’t care . . .
. . . 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?
The song would seem to demand a quiet thoughtfulness on the part of listeners. Springsteen’s rhetorical question about the failure of human dreams, and the sense of alienation brought by the realisation that one’s aspirations mean nothing, is a question that might be asked by many, even most, people. Yet renditions of the song seem to have become a massive singalong. Perhaps it is the crowd expressing their own feelings of identification with the young man; it seems more like a massive karaoke performance.
The singalong crowds are a reflection of a culture where sadness and pain are as much the stuff of entertainment as laughter and joy, but in filling the air with noise, the poignancy and power of the song are lost. For 80,000 people to be silent is not a problem (anyone who has been to a Dublin rugby match with 80,000 people will know how intense is the silence when kicks are taken), but it needs people who are prepared just to shut up and listen.