Telling Bruce Springsteen how to improve one of his songs may well be akin to advising Fitzgerald to go back and have another stab at the closing line of The Great Gatsby, but here goes anyway.
The River is a meditation on the aspirational suffocation of the American working class.
It's sad and beautiful.
The titular ballad from Springsteen's 1980 record opens the folky, thematic portal through which he needed to travel in order to create his follow-up, Nebraska, an austere masterpiece released two years later and sent, rather courageously, emissions-free across Route 66, that gloriously pollutant engine, The E Street Band, kept back in the Jersey garage.
Inspired by Springsteen's brother-in-law, The River (the song, not the discursive album) is a story about a shotgun wedding but also serves as gut-punch adumbration of a nation in decline. It warns the tone-deaf political classes that vast swathes of a restive population are losing their supposed birthright to a share of the American dream, a metastasis still creeping across a map of the country like so many red and blue jigsaw pieces on election (fort)night.
In a single verse, Springsteen takes us from a young man's visceral excitement when exposed to the female form ...
But I remember us riding in my brother's car. Her body tan and wet down at the reservoir.
... to an older man's sinister existentialism ...
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 ...
For many devotees of The River (and there are many) it's this line which resonates, as we ponder, yet again, how completely this genius chronicler of the human condition captures the ephemeral joys and melancholy and despair of ordinary life.
It's also the line I reckon could use a tweak.
I wonder if it wouldn't be a cleaner lyric had it not been "Is it still a dream if it don't come true, or is it something worse?"
I think a question mark also confirms the something worse is indeed the "nightmare" our narrator doesn't want to own.
Lies are pretty bad but maybe not as bad as nightmares (although, some in Bruce's homeland may say recent history proves they come in the same shouty package).
Considering Springsteen's sublime catalogue of work, his Presidential Medal of Freedom and his Nobel Prize in Literature (still to be awarded, of course, but if it's good enough for that other bloke ...) I'm prepared to let this aberration slide and I'm sure more devout aficionados than I out there would be only too happy to debate late into the night (that's what they do) how I've missed the point and educate me as to their adored troubadour's infallibility.
And they'd probably be right, but, if it's okay with them, I think I'll keep on singing my version of The River when it winds its way into the home those couple of times a year because it reminds me of, if nothing else, how the toil of fitting words together is very much its own curse.
I suppose, I'll even spare Bruce an email detailing my munificent fan fiction upgrade because it'd only spark the homicidal panic a creative feels when an inferior improves their work, a little like how Billy Crystal's writer in Throw Momma from the Train decides to kill Anne Ramsey's magnificently intractable matriarch after she effortlessly comes up with a superior opening line to his unrealised novel.
"The night was sultry," she blurts, (eclipsing his own laboured "humid" or "moist").
I'm musing over Springsteen's so-nearly flawless song in the first place because I'm sitting next to our own river.
Friends are visiting and we've taken them to our go-to destination, snatching a bracing swim on a rare sunny day in between all the rain.
The same year as the august Throw Momma from the Train came out, so did an unassuming little Australian film destined to become a classic. Some of its scenes were shot at the very spot where I now sit.
We still watch that bildungsroman at home on DVD, pointing out landmarks from around town and it's weirdly comforting to absorb, from this surreal, epicormic-addled vantage point, how so much has changed this side of the ranges, not just compared with the cinematography of 30-odd years ago which bestowed true beauty on a region in drought, but from just 12 months ago, when these hills were on fire.
Today, cleaving those same hills - now stubbled by irradiated trees, as if the liver-spotted scalp of a chemo patient - our river is evolving.
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It churns with unfamiliar rapids and has attracted a sea eagle. The lumbering bird (harangued by magpies) has probably followed the newly productive corridor up from the coast in the hope of poaching flying foxes from its crowded airspace. The only previous encounter I've had with a sea eagle in our neighbourhood was during the big La Nina event of 2010-11, when so much rain engorged the very cells of our continent, it reportedly became one giant, wide-brown sponge and sea levels actually dropped because our greedy, turgid dirt refused to give up its waterfall windfall to the oceans.
Below, my wife and a friend from a time when we were all so young, chat in the cold current. Two smart girls who used to skive off from work together to get hamburgers and hot chips, now two wonderful women, two incredible mothers, each with three kids and bewildered husbands (still wondering how they won the cosmic lottery).
The kids - dark on their side, fair on ours - dry off on the sand under the mild sun. They skim stones out towards an inviting granite platform, dangerous eddies and whirlpools dancing around its neck. Normally, they'd be launching themselves from the craggy pad into the untrustworthy depths but, confined to the shallows, turn their attention to overturning rocks to reveal freak show skating rinks of slimy nymphs and larvae. They recoil and seek more all at the same time.
So much of our national identity is alleged to have been baked on our beaches, pickled by the salt, but it's been to this fresh water sanctuary our family has always fled, returning to the house with the umami of mud and tea tree tannin in our hair; the calm of cool flesh devolving into nourishing sleep.
As with Springsteen's river, this one has become a place of memory and identity; constantly changing, moving, shifting.
Our river is the consummate storyteller.
Not unlike The Boss himself.
- B. R. Doherty is a regular columnist.