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'The River' flowed through it: Recalling Bruce Springsteen circa 1980

The arrival of The River in October 1980 came at a momentous time in Bruce Springsteen's career. It was his fifth album and first double LP, and also the first music he released after turning 30 the previous year.

Bruce Springsteen, in a promotional photograph for "The River."
Bruce Springsteen, in a promotional photograph for "The River."Read moreDAVID GAHR

The arrival of The River in October 1980 came at a momentous time in Bruce Springsteen's career. It was his fifth album and first double LP, and also the first music he released after turning 30 the previous year.

With Born to Run in 1975, he had built a Wall of Sound monument to rock-and-roll escape - and survived the hype of being on the cover of Time and Newsweek.

The world closed in on 1978's brooding Darkness on the Edge of Town, which fought back with a raised-fist declaration on "Badlands": "It ain't no sin to be glad you're alive!"

But The River, which Springsteen and the E Street Band will perform in its entirety in a sold-out show at the Wells Fargo Center in South Philadelphia on Friday, wasn't about doing battle with the world. It was about finding a place in it.

"You've been hurt and you're all cried out you say / You walk down the street pushin' people out of your way," Springsteen sang in the first words of the opening "The Ties That Bind," which is also the name of the boxed set released in December that spurred the River redux tour.

The album is about getting past that oppositional attitude and connecting to a larger community. That could mean "Having a home and a family, facing up to their responsibilities" in "I Wanna Marry You," or being at home in the crowd in "Out in the Street." Or even pondering the meaning of it all in the solemn country-western closer, "Wreck on the Highway." The River is about staring adulthood in the mirror.

Springsteen had originally conceived of The River as a single album - a 10-song version is included in the boxed set. But to get the full range of music the band played on stage, it had to be twice that long, taking in the frat-rock silliness of "Sherry Darling," bracing claustrophobia of "Jackson Cage," and heartbreak noir of "Point Blank." And also "Hungry Heart," the radio hit written for the Ramones that transformed Springsteen into a pop artist.

The idea, as Springsteen recently told David Fricke of Rolling Stone, was "to make a record that felt like a show. . . . It went from being ridiculous and joyous to heart-numbing." And with so many new songs, the show grew. The River introduced the marathon, three-hour-plus Springsteen experience that - remarkably, 35 years later - is still with us.

When The River hit the road in 1980, Springsteen confronted reality on a number of levels. The period also marks his emergence as a politically engaged artist.

Previously, the closest he had come to making political statements was when he played the No Nukes benefit shows at Madison Square Garden in 1979. But in November 1980, Ronald Reagan was elected president. The Gipper rode in on a conservative tide in stark contrast to the left-leaning Woody Guthrie populism that would become more pronounced in Springsteen's work, eventually leading to overt acts like the get-out-the-vote gig he played for candidate Barack Obama on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in 2008.

The Ties That Bind box includes a concert from the day after Reagan's election. Before "Badlands," the mutton-chopped singer tells the Arizona State University crowd: "I don't know what you guys think about what happened last night, but I think it's pretty frightening."

The Tempe show is electrifying, and it'll serve as a handy model to compare what Springsteen and the band - now with the late Clarence Clemons' nephew Jake on saxophone - look and sound like on stage Friday.

What I really wish, however, is that there were River tour video from a month later in Philadelphia. That was when I first saw Springsteen live, on the second and third nights of a three-show stand at the Spectrum in December 1980.

Speaking with Rolling Stone's Fricke, Springsteen joked about the expectations the band has to live up to in 2016. "You not only have to be better than you were," he said. "You have to be better than what people remember you did, which is tough. Somebody will be like, 'I saw you back in '76 at Blah-Blah-Blah college. That was the greatest show I ever saw.' Maybe it was, maybe it wasn't. But it's remembered that way."

To me, those blah-blah-blah nights are The River Spectrum shows. Not only for what took place on stage, but because of what transpired in between.

After sleeping out for tickets, I went to the first show with a group of friends, new ones from freshman year at college, and old ones from my hometown at the Jersey Shore. Plus, my brother Nick and his pals who drove down from Rutgers on the Jersey Turnpike.

The Dec. 8 show, in my recollection, was everything we hoped it would be, a three-hour-plus blowout with "Rosalita" and the Detroit Medley, and the unreleased songs "Fire" and "Because the Night."

It got even better afterward, when the gang went to Pat's Steaks and realized that the E Street Band - sans Bruce and Clarence - had also shown up hungry at Ninth and Passyunk. Hey, Roy Bittan, how you doing?

But something was amiss. My brother's girlfriend looked in the window of the band's van and thought she saw guitarist Steve Van Zandt in tears. Word quickly spread: John Lennon had been killed outside his Manhattan apartment. Our life-affirming high had been shot to hell.

The next night's Spectrum show is legendary in Springsteen lore. Instead of a party crowd, just my brother and I went, in a shared somber mood.

We wondered why the show was even going on. That question was also debated backstage by Springsteen and Van Zandt, with the former winning the argument. Before the band opened with "Born to Run," Springsteen stated his case, as though trying to convince himself: "It's a hard world that asks you to live with things that are unlivable, and it's hard to come out and play tonight. But there's nothing else to do."

So much seemed to be at stake that night. In what kind of world could a Beatle - the one who sang, "Love is the answer, and you know that for sure" - get assassinated in the street? What could rock-and-roll possibly provide as a response to such senselessness?

The intensity with which Springsteen performed as he struggled to find "the faith that can save me" and bring renewed conviction to the communal enterprise we were all playing a part in - well, it felt nothing less than heroic.

By the time the night ended with "Twist and Shout," the first song Springsteen learned on guitar, all questions about the sustaining power of music had been answered. We could go on, and we could do it together.

That was the greatest show I ever saw. At least, that's the way I remember it. And I've only been waiting 35 years for a new River tour to recapture that transcendent feeling. No pressure, Bruce.