Some time ago on Facebook, Simon asked, “What’s the saddest song ever?” or something to that effect. I had the same answer as ever – and this is a variation on something I’d previously written on it. It’s also the first time I’m going to talk about Springsteen on here. As you might be able to guess from the blog title, it probably won’t be the last…
It’s funny how a song will finally get you. The River was a fairly high rotation classic rock track back when the radio still played a significant part in my musical education, so of course I’d heard it before, but I’d never really listened to it. At least not until one morning when it came on the radio as I was drifting awake. At 11 it wouldn’t have meant much to me, and if I heard it for the first time today it might not either, but I was 14 years old – just old enough to have a burgeoning sense that, despite my own good fortune up to that point, life was not necessarily guaranteed to be a bundle of laughs. For five minutes I was transfixed – completely drawn into the world of some poor sod that knocked up his girlfriend and witnessed both their dreams collapse under the weight of responsibilities and expectations neither were ready for. The music sets the scene, but it was the lyrics that grabbed me, and still grab me now.
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 guess at that age you’re starting to gain an understanding of the pitfalls that await you in your teenage years, but it was more than that. Springsteen’s depiction seemed so complete. His life, her life, everything shot to hell. The idea that their wedding was not a happy moment, but a laying to rest of all they might have hoped for perfectly captures, in typical Springsteen fashion, the upending of two lives. Indeed, the song is pure Springsteen lyrically. There’s a brother, a father, a car, a construction job, a union, and, naturally, a girl called Mary.
I got a job working 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
Like most Springsteen, there’s also a powerful element of nostalgia and hopelessness that transcends the specifics of the story he’s telling. Our protagonist doesn’t just look back on a mistake, he articulates a seemingly endless regret. I guess as a carefree 14 year old, getting even the most vicarious taste of that is quite a thing.
But I remember us riding in my brother’s car
Her body tan and wet down at the reservoir
At night on them banks I’d lie awake
And pull her close just to feel each breath she’d take
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 saddest song ever though? Surely not?!”
Well, true, my record collection is full of bleaker tales – was full of them even at 14 years old. Child abuse, addiction, depression, suicide, you name it. Certainly, there are a lot of sadder stories than that told by our protagonist in The River, and there’s a tune for each of them. Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah, to pick the obvious example, suggests a far more shattered individual, but Cohen’s words are poetic, romantic, almost epic. There’s a degree of beauty in the suffering. Springsteen’s words, by comparison, are simple and matter of fact, but it is the sheer ‘everydayness’ of the tale that adds weight to it. The song may not capture the worst of human suffering, but it captures a greater portion of it than many more crushingly dark stories ever could.
And then the song was over. I was back in my life a long way from a reservoir, a union card or, at 14 at least, a girl. A long way away from anything difficult in my life in other words, but perhaps a little more aware that what came next wasn’t necessarily going to be all sunshine and roses. Or, at the very least, perhaps just a little bit more aware of the case for contraception.
Radio Nowhere is a new initiative here at Off The Tracks – a fortnightly guest column by Michael Ross. Record-collection reflection and other stray thoughts associated with music purchasing, collecting and listening.