Photo by Joel Bernstein

Bruce Springsteen: The Ties That Bind: The River Collection

The Ties That Bind: The River Collection shows Springsteen and the band writing their second act, the one where they figured out how to grow up without losing touch with the energy and freedom of rock 'n' roll.
Bruce Springsteen
The Ties That Bind: The River Collection

It’s November 5, 1980, the day after Ronald Reagan is elected president. “I don’t know what you guys think about what happened last night,” Springsteen says onstage in Tempe, Arizona, “but I think it’s pretty frightening.” He dedicates the next song to his young audience, then launches the E Street Band into a passionate “Badlands”—and even if that song is from 1978, and even if the new songs from The River were released a month prior, it still seems like Springsteen has written and performed these songs in order to prepare his characters, and his audience, for the mean nation waiting in the future. They would need each other, and he would need them.

But once you get them, what you desire and what you need—a lover, a spouse, a wild Saturday night, a friend, a sleek ride, a home—can just as easily turn on you. To love and be loved by someone is to risk losing her, to already feel her absence.

These are the warnings running through even the most joyous music on The River, Springsteen’s powerful 1980 double-album, and throughout the newly released box set, The Ties That Bind: The River Collection. In an essay about the original album written for Songs (reprinted and briefly expanded on here) Springsteen describes The River as his “first attempt to write about the commitments of home and marriage,” but it’s also about crushes, sex, partying and all the fun stuff before marriage even becomes a question, before need reveals vulnerability, before desire requires promises that might not be kept.

What makes The River so good is this spectrum of emotions, the sunny side and dark side of the street combined in one work of art, and the box set only expands that palette. Consisting of the original, 1979 single-album version (titled The Ties That Bind), outtakes from the 1979-1980 sessions, the remastered double-album, the almost mythical show in Arizona, a 148-page booklet, and a candid one-hour documentary, The Ties That Bind: The River Collection is a lot to absorb. Any review that says otherwise is either lying to you or fooling itself, an effect of the common notion that we’ve figured out the story of Springsteen’s career by now: New Jersey’s favorite son graduates from party tunes and rock operas to blue-collar heartland rock — whatever that means — develops a social and political consciousness, continues playing transformative marathon shows, and ages gracefully into a symbol of authenticity and integrity. But what’s here, just on this box set alone, is far more complicated.

For starters, the outtakes from The River unveil Springsteen the pop songwriter. Pop not in the sense of the 1980s megastars he shared the spotlight with once Born in the U.S.A. was released, and not in any recognizable sense of the word today. I’m talking about the pop music of Motown, Phil Spector, the Dave Clark Five, the Raspberries, music that was beautiful and melodic, smarter than it often seemed, and communicated a spirit of utter freedom no matter what the lyrics said. The best of these pop songs were kept from The River except for “Out on the Street” and “Hungry Heart”, but both pale in comparison to “Be True”, “Where the Bands Are”, “Restless Nights”, and “The Time That Never Was”. I’m convinced “Take ‘Em As They Come” would have been a Top 40 hit. And then there’s “Loose End” (or “Loose Ends”), a song so immensely gorgeous and ominous, so melodically perfect, I nearly had a heart attack when I heard it on the 1998 box set Tracks. No other Springsteen performance marries beauty and terror the way “Loose Ends” does, filled as it is with nooses and suicide pacts and a lyric, “How could something bad, darlin’, come from something that was so good?” that punches a hole in the middle of the song.

As Springsteen explored pop songwriting, he had the perfect band to do it with. His relationship with the E Street Band is considered foundational, but somehow the band jokingly and lovingly referred to as a “glorified bar band” is still overlooked in terms of its musical intricacy, the give and take of each personality, and the stylistic range it afforded Springsteen. He could leap from the bratty “Sherry Darling” to a song as sparse and lonely as “Stolen Car” and the band wouldn’t miss a beat. The E Street Band never again sounded as good in the studio as it did on The River: immense, volatile and alive. Partly, as Springsteen explains in the documentary, this was a result of recording methods that favored live sound, but it was also thanks to each musician finding his place in the service of the song and Springsteen’s skill as an arranger.

Having said that, The Ties That Bind: The River Collection in many ways belongs to Clarence Clemons, Roy Bittan and Danny Federici. Clemons’s saxophone no longer takes extended solos like the magisterial one on “Jungleland”, but his blasts of soul on “Sherry Darling”, “Out on the Street”, “Cadillac Ranch” and “Ties That Bind”, sometimes no more than twenty seconds long, still provide the moral core and emotional resonance at the center of the band. Bittan and Federici’s keyboard work is what made E Street a glorified bar band, what created the range of sounds—Bittan’s piano fills on the high end, Federici’s Hammond B-3 usually in the middle but sometimes sweeping to the foreground—and what allowed Springsteen to travel into more traditional rock ‘n’ roll territory without losing the immense sound of Born to Run. Check “I’m a Rocker” to see how the three worked. The song opens with Bittan pounding out the riff, the piano utilized for what it is: melodic percussion. Then Federici’s organ sweeps in from above and Clemons’ tenor takes up the low end, playing the same note every two bars, quiet enough you hardly notice the heft it adds.

The other common story about Springsteen is his meticulous construction of albums. That’s just confirmed here, really. Like Bob Dylan, Neil Young and Prince, Springsteen’s known as much for the music he’s left off albums as he is for what songs made the cut, but the ten-track single-album version of The River is compelling proof that Springsteen’s high standards usually pay off. After sessions from April through September 1979, he handed in an album to CBS that began with “The Ties That Bind” and included six other songs that would end up on The River. The problem, as he explained in Songs, was that this first draft “lacked the kind of unity and conceptual intensity I liked my music to have.”

And now we know: he was right. The Ties That Bind sounds like a musical resume or portfolio. Whiplash is too strong a word, but not by much. After the title track is “Cindy”, harmless and too cute by a mile, and then “Hungry Heart” downshifts into an early, lovely version of “Stolen Car”. Fans have rightly fawned over this version, but compared to the version on The River, it’s wordy and cumbersome, its musicality and tempo covering up the abject solitude at the center of the song. That version is followed by the sterling “Be True”, “The River”, and a rockabilly version of “You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch)”. As strong as nearly every performance is, the sequencing feels frantic. Reordering the songs wouldn’t have fixed the problem. The original album, Springsteen says in the enclosed documentary, “didn’t have the room to let in all those different colors. It wasn’t quite funky enough, didn’t have the looseness.” As much as it needed unity, the new album would also need to be bigger, longer, and that’s the decision Springsteen made sometime between the late fall of 1979 and the beginning of 1980.

Taken as a whole, The Ties That Bind: The River Collection allows you to hear Springsteen searching for a novelistic, thematic richness and variety. He used to pour that into single songs on Born to Run, but here he seems to be looking for it in a collection of harder songs, each focused by the R&B, country and early rock ‘n’ roll styles and tense words he used on Darkness on the Edge of Town. You could read that album like a novel; what he was looking for on The River was a novel-in-stories, a collection where each part stood on its own but added up to something more diverse, something harder to pin down but just as emotionally meaningful.

The challenge was a good one to have: too many good songs, too many directions the story could go. The single album and the outtakes give us a chance to ask “What If?”, as in, “What if I’d been around in 1980 to scream until my throat closed that the furious and terrified song inspired by the Three Mile Island meltdown, ‘Roulette’, should be on The River, or another album, any album, please?” (As it was, “Roulette” finally showed up on the B-side of “One Step Up” from Tunnel of Love.) Then there’s “Stray Bullet”: a meditative Roy Bittan piano figure, Clemons on a soprano sax, and Springsteen opens with lines that could be from an old folk song. “In the tall grass we held hands/Down by the river we made plans,” he sings, but then a cold modernity seeps in, “Of what would and would not be / It was impossible to see.” That dread comes true as the singer sees his lover’s final moments. “Their black boots shown in the sun,” he sings with his knack for finding the perfect, unnerving detail. “They were waiting on the Annandale train for my baby to come.” Three minutes and many years later, the piano finds itself alone with nowhere to go, like the man in the song, until a distorted guitar knifes in and the memories resurface all over again.

You can play “What If?” all day long, and the new revelations here only make it clearer that Springsteen had tough decisions to make. Half of the included outtakes, arguably the best, were already released on Tracks, but the other half are almost all winners, like the “The Time That Never Was”, “Little White Lies” or “The Man Who Got Away”, which begins a lot like “Roulette”. (Purists might be disappointed that or that Springsteen has overdubbed contemporary vocals onto a few songs—”Meet Me in the City”, “Night Fire” and “Whitetown”—I’m guessing because of the quality of the originals, and that there are no demos here except for the slight “Mr. Outside”.) “Stray Bullet” could have taken the place of “Point Blank”, its musical brethren. Springsteen might have cut “Crush on You”, bumped up “You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch)” and “I Wanna Marry You”, and let the latter’s dreamy boardwalk swaying fade into the drum kick opening of “Restless Nights”, which would have been followed by “The River” to close out the first act. The bottom line is that there was an extra album, a great album, waiting in these songs.

But The Ties That Bind: The River Collection is ostensibly the story of Springsteen’s journey to the finished double-album he released in October 1980. That’s what box sets are supposed to do—put you in the mind of the artist, immerse you in the time and place, and unveil the paths not taken—and this one does it admirably.

What truly makes the set potent, though, and what distinguishes it from the recent Born to Run and Darkness on the Edge of Town box sets, is how thoroughly it enriches the meaning of Springsteen’s entire career: what had been and what was to come. As Mikal Gilmore writes in the liner notes, The River is the “hinge between the ambitious commotions that had preceded it and the more succinct musical riots, and sometimes terrifying storytelling, that followed.” The box set gives you access to Springsteen’s process of crafting that hinge. “Mary Lou” becomes “Be True”, the music from “Held Up Without a Gun” becomes “You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch)” as the rockabilly version of the latter is abandoned, and unused songs forecast what we’d later hear on Nebraska (lyrics from “Living on the Edge of the World” show up in “State Trooper” and “Open All Night”) and beyond. “Whitetown” even sounds like a cousin to “Girls in Their Summer Clothes” on the underrated 2007 album Magic.

The final but flawed gem of this set is the live concert from Arizona State University a month into the tour for The River. It’s flawed only because the original filming didn’t capture ten crucial songs that night, like “Independence Day”, “The Ties That Bind”, “Stolen Car” and “Wreck on the Highway”. Their absence makes a tremendous difference, especially in the second half of the concert which, without their interjections, seems like a non-stop party. Not that there’s anything wrong with a good party, and the footage looks and sounds spectacular. What comes across so vividly in the concert is Springsteen’s onstage energy, his playful and genuine connection to the band, Clemons and Steve Van Zandt most of all, and how the music was beginning to take that vitality and friendship into wider territory with even higher stakes.

During one of the more touching and frank moments in the Ties That Bind documentary, Springsteen describes how making The River mirrored his own personal situation in 1979 and 1980. “I was thinking about how to make these things more than aesthetic ideas in my own life, you know?” he says near the end:

How do I practically live a life like this, where I make the kind of connections that I’m very frightened of, but I feel that if I don’t make, I’m going to disappear or get lost? A creative life, an imagined life, is not a life. It’s merely something you’ve created, it’s merely a story. A story is not a life. A story is just a story. So I was trying to link this stuff up in a way where I thought I could save myself from my darker inclinations by moving into an imagined community where people were struggling with all those things in a very real way. And that was the community I created on The River.

He brought that imagined community back to the real community he created onstage, with his band and with his audience, more powerfully than perhaps any other contemporary performer. In many ways, in contrast with the intensely personal Darkness on the Edge of Town, The River was an affirmation of his commitment to those relationships and to that community: the E Street Band and its dynamic live show, the audience he spoke to through the songs, and the characters in those songs, who in turn spoke for and to the singer, his band, and the audience. They were the young kids to whom he dedicated “Badlands”, but they were getting older, too. They’d made serious mistakes, watched dreams fizzle, and wondered what came next.

In his review of The River in 1980, the critic Paul Nelson, alluding to F. Scott Fitzgerald, called the album “Springsteen’s epic exploration of the second acts of American lives.” The Ties That Bind: The River Collection shows Springsteen and the band writing their own second act, the one where they figured out how to keep going, and how to grow up, without losing touch with the energy and freedom of rock ‘n’ roll and without losing one another along the way. Ultimately it’s a reaffirmation of that original gambit and breakthrough, a renewal of vows between artist and audience, and a reminder that second acts are possible.

RATING 9 / 10