One of my favourite pieces of all Bruce’s discography is the live version of The river, the one recorded at the Los Angeles Coliseum on the final shows of the Born in the USA Tour. The studio version of course is a masterpiece, but I always felt that the live one was an outclass, for intensity and emotions. First there’s the melancholic synth intro tuned with the guitar, and then that wonderful speech of his, starting with How’re you doing out there tonight?
and then he talks, his voice calm but at times moved in the memory, remembering all the fights he had with his father. His guitar, his long hair, the days and nights spent outside just to be far from his house; the winter nights crouched up in a phone boot to keep the cold out, speaking all night long to his girlfriend on the phone, then mustering up the courage to go home, to remain in the driveway knowing that his father was inside, waiting for him in the kitchen. And the “talk” his father always wanted to have, “what do you think you’re doing with your life?”, the “man I can’t wait till when the Army gets you, ’cause when the Army gets you they’ll make a man out of you”.
Then he turns firm, serious, speaking of the Vietnam and of those who went and didn’t come back, and those others who came back and weren’t the same. I had shivers while listening to him remembering the medical examination for the military draft “and I went…and I failed!”, his voice cracking in a half laugh, as if unburdening all the fear of that moment. Then the last words, telling his return home: My parents waiting for me in the kitchen, my father getting up to ask “Where have you been?” and I said “Uh… I went to take my physical”, and he said “What happened?” and I said “They didn’t take me”.
And he said “That’s good”.
I have listened to this intro hundreds, maybe thousands of times, and every single time I hear it, that phrase absolutely breaks my heart, it’s like I’m there in that kitchen, and I’m broken inside. A few moments and the harmonica breaks in, releasing pieces of soul, starting the most powerful, incredible version of The river ever listened on earth. In the Live 75/85 version there’s the end section with a solo piano by Bittan, fantastic. Matchless. Then the amazing harmonica reprise, that brings us peacefully to the end.
For me, this version, these notes and words were, and in a way still are, the quintessence of Bruce’s music, because live he brings out the raw emotions, and he’s the absolute master of doing it.