I Come From Down in the Valley

To be Springsteenesque about it, are two records, like hearts, really better than one? It’s the question that’s hovered over The River since its release in 1980 and is at least part of the motivation behind, The Ties That Bind, the latest extras-loaded boxed set to focus on Springsteen’s glorious back catalog. To focus the question even more, was the single record, the first version of the The River which was also called The Ties That Bind, that Springsteen turned into his label in 1979, a more coherent record, than the 20 track, double LP, The River that it had morphed into by October 1980?

After several weeks of listening to the four CDs and watching the pair of Blu-ray discs that come with the set, the answer is probably yes. In fact, given the 22 extra outtakes that are included here, a case could actually be made for a three LP set! Those extra tracks, many of which have appeared on the Tracks boxed set (1990), are convincing evidence that the man had a mass of quality songwriting material from which to carve his cinematic two LP sprawl. According to The Ties That Bind the documentary film that comes with this set, the then 30-year-old Boss had 95 solo demos and 104 full band demos (not all completely assembled takes obviously) from which to choose from! The River is also important for a lot of reasons. Recorded at the Power Station in NYC, the sessions from which The Ties That Bind and The River were drawn from all continue the trend that began with the Darkness record of much improved sound quality on Springsteen’s studio albums.

It’s also valuable as being sort of the end of Springsteen’s beginning; one last look and listen to the E Street Band before the tides of superstardom exploded around their leader and carried him away—after the satisfying pause of Nebraska—with the release of Born In The USA, a record that’s surely the subject of a Springsteen expanded boxed set to come.

As one among the legions who know the original record, The River, not to mention the entire Springsteen recorded legacy, I came to this set looking for what was new, something I didn’t have, or hadn’t heard. Rather than add to all the earlier reviews of this set, which mainly gush about the music and how it portrayed Springsteen’s struggle with human relationships (it’s always about the struggle) and his uncertain future, I noticed that the two Blu-ray discs in this set almost always get short shrift, a brief mention at best. And yet they’re actually a fascinating study in contrasts and perhaps the set’s most compelling elements. To be fair, there is also a fairly lavish book that comes with this set. For those enamored of coffee table books trapped inside music boxed sets, this 148 work of art has over 200 rarely seen photos and is beautifully done.

Directed by Thom Zimny, who did a very credible job on the excellent if overlong The Promise: The Making of Darkness On The Edge of Town, the documentary here, The Ties That Bind, clearly had a much smaller budget. Springsteen is allowed to muse on and on about the songs and what he was thinking while writing them, in the process covering the same ground several times. Unfortunately, no one else is interviewed so the perspective is limited. Even for an artist as connected to his older material as Springsteen clearly is, recalling emotions felt 35 years ago seems like a shaky proposition. Saying he wanted to write about the “imperfect ideas” the hold society together, how he wanted his characters to have, “impact and presence,” Bruce does however prove insightful in spots. There was the momentous decision to retrieve the single album from Columbia, record a lot more material and make the record a double album because it was the larger canvas he needed. Also, and even more cogent is his statement that what you hear on the The River was conceived as trying to address the energy gap between the studio records which sounded sleepy when compared to the legendarily frenzied live shows. As is always the case with Springsteen, making the album was a struggle to say the least. This time, as he mentions in the film, he found The River’s sonic footing by listening to the creative differences between Steve Van Zandt who liked things “raw” and trashy” and Jon Landau who preferred records that were “clean” and “focused.” Too bad we never hear from Landau, Van Zandt or anyone else just to give this obvious quickie production some breadth and depth. I’d love to hear what Gary Tallent thinks. Bass players never get to speak their piece.

But while the documentary is all telling, the live concert is all about showing and that makes it this set’s most worthy element. The Blu-ray of the concert from November 1980 in Tempe, AZ, pro shot and with multi-track audio, which has been an audio bootleg for many years, is now a visual bootleg. One that shows the E Street Band at the very dizzying heights of its powers as a rock/R&B band that could turn on a dime and whose rhythms and musicality really define what a great band really is and what it sounds like. This film is the visual answer to the question, `What made everybody so crazy about Springsteen in the 70s?’ Anyone who saw him back then will find it hard not to rock out and smile while this plays. Just like that absolutely AMAZING film Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band Hammersmith Odeon, London, `75 that was the best part of the Born To Run 30th Anniversary Edition boxed set, this film is the treat for the Springsteen fan, everyone who already knows the original album.

The other really wonderful bit here, of course, is the disc of 22 outtakes. Once you hear them all, the debate about should it have been single or double album gets even more confused. While much of this will be familiar to dedicated collectors— and make no mistake at one time this stuff was the object of much feverish digging, not the grail but close to it—it’s still a revelation to hear tunes like the “Born To Run”-like big single, “Meet Me In The City Tonight,” “The Time That Never Was,” which has distinct echoes of “Jungleland,” the delicate “White Town” with its 60s girl group vibe and finally the wonderfully menacing “Chain Lightning” with its oddly mixed Clarence Clemons solo and Springsteen’s delightful whoop of joy at the end. After several listens it easy to see why this material ended up marooned in limbo for all these years because it was too electric for Nebraska and by the time Born In The USA came around, his worldview had changed so much that it wouldn't have fit.

Worth the 95 bucks? Depends on how much of this you already have. As someone who remembers fervently ferreting out these outtakes from Italian and Spanish CD bootlegs during the era when the record business was engaged in an active legal battle with bootleggers, I have to say it’s nice to have all this in one place, in first class sound, without the possibility that the revenuers are gonna bust in and drag me off to the audience taper lockup. Next up for Bruce boxes, Nebraska???

audiocaptain's picture

My first Springsteen show was 1973. Bruce jumped right into Carmen's lap as we were on the 3rd row with only about another 350 people in the entire crowd. We haven't missed a tour since and The River was unique in that the last of three shows I attended ended with Bruce in a state of complete exhaustion. He never put more into his art than during this amazing tour. Can't wait until week after next!

Allen Fant's picture

Nice! over-view RB.