by Zosia Holden
As a songwriter, I like to go back and study the songs that have left the biggest mark on me. When I was finishing my recent album Bad Poems For Good People, no song was stronger in my mind than The River by Bruce Springsteen.
Listen to the album while reading the text.
I think Springsteen is one of those artists who’s easy to take for granted at first because his music is so unpretentious. He and the E-Street Band try to do little other than tell stories and play good rock ‘n roll. Yet I think there’s a real brilliance in that. Their music impresses you with not being crafted on an ego trip or on the hunt for some otherwordly power: the artists are human, and their music reaches out to our general humanity in all its power.
The River is horrifically relatable. It tells the story of a young couple whose love is cheapened and eventually soured by social expectations and bleak financial realities. The pain that resonates throughout the narrative is real to anyone who has ever lost a dream, who has seen the hopes of their youth mature into backbreaking labor, who has seen love used to hurt.
And the deepest tragedy is that it doesn’t seem to have an end; unlike a love song tied to the beginning or the end of a romance, The River tells a story that eventually becomes a way of life, so ubiquitous that we forget how sad it is. This is the song that has motivated me because I want to tell stories like that.
Don’t come gently to Shore
Enough attention is given to easily-digestible stories: songs about a romantic evening, a lover who did you wrong or your ambitions to be the coolest isn’t likely to ruffle any feathers. It’s well-worn territory, and unless you have a fresh take to bring to it, it won’t really stick with anyone.
I always wanted to write songs that, to paraphrase Bob Dylan, “don’t come gently to shore.” Songs that were uncomfortable in how real they were because they made you feel things. Everyone has their own stories; we relate through them because of the realizations we have while living them.
So from songs like The River, I learned that if I sang my stories, I could reach people, maybe people who needed reaching. That’s always been my dream, and while I don’t know if these songs can do that, I know that they’re 100% mine. And that’s the best I have to give.