The Ties that Bind – The River Collection is the third anniversary box set celebrating a classic Bruce Springsteen album. And once again, the template that was laid out and expanded on with the Born to Run and Darkness box sets respectively, is followed and perfected with this ambitious release: the album itself in a remastered version; a documentary casting light on how the album came to be; a grab bag of outtakes and alternate versions; a photo and notebook; and last but not least, a live DVD of a show from the tour supporting the album.
The River was the second Springsteen album I owned. The title track was the song that made me a fan. It was the most beautiful piece of music I had ever heard. At first, the album didn’t quite live up to the song it was named after. As a novice fan I was underwhelmed by the chaotic mix of fast rockers and long, droning songs about Moses and buying shoes. But as time went by, life experience set in, and Bruce became part of my constitution; the rockers and drones morphed into a cyclorama of life, death, fun, tragedy, love, lust, deprivation, regret, and just about any other human emotion and condition you can name. It’s still like that today, and it’s still the album you should lend to your non-fan social circle who claim Bruce is one-dimensional.
Regrettably The Ties that Bind only contains about half a disc worth of previously unreleased outtakes. However, those songs, for the most part, constitute a strong addition to the Bruce canon. Some of them, such as “Stray Bullet”, “The Man Who Got Away”, and “Night Fire”, can, to these ears, easily be described as masterpieces that other artists would have based whole albums around. But these were Bruce’s leftovers that didn’t quite fit, or didn’t keep his attention long enough to be included on The River. To be fair, the inclusion of “Mr. Outside” and “Paradise by the C” on this disc does indicate that the surplus stock from that era is on its last breath, although songs like “Chevrolet Deluxe”, “Under the Gun”, the alternate version of “Point Blank”, and a few other items known from the Lost Masters bootleg series would have been worthwhile inclusions on this collection.
In return, we get several alternate versions on the other outtakes disc, which is not really an outtakes disc, but a complete album that was almost released a year prior to The River. The album that has given name to the whole box set, The Ties that Bind, is indeed an early incarnation of the 1980-album, with cornerstones like “The River”, “The Ties that Bind” and “The Price You Pay” already in place, albeit in slightly different versions. The only completely unreleased song included here is “Cindy”, which, for all its charm, just seems weird taking up space on a single-disc album where, with so little real estate to get the message across, every revolution of the needle would have counted. It would, however, have been the perfect b-side for a single.
A lot can be said – and has been said – about the decision to not include the band, in a documentary about perhaps the most band-influenced album in Bruce’s discography. It’s one thing that you can’t magically create footage from the studio when none exists, but why no interviews with the band members? And, in particular, with Steve Van Zandt, who never had so much influence on a Springsteen album before or since?
That complaining aside, the documentary included in this box set, which is basically just an interview with Bruce Springsteen interspersed with him performing impromptu acoustic versions of a few River songs, live clips from the period, and assorted off-stage footage, is actually quite fascinating. I for one can never get tired of listening to Bruce Springsteen talk about Bruce Springsteen. I can’t help it, but the man captivates me when he speaks, and I hang on his every word. Still, there is something self-contradictory about a documentary focusing so much on Bruce himself when it covers an album – and much of the time is spent emphasizing this – that was all about breaking the isolation and seeking out relationships with other people rather than indulging in yourself and your inner demons.
All in all, compared with the sensational The Promise documentary from the Darkness box, this River doc does fall a little short – mostly due to the lack of relevant film from the era – but it’s still an interesting revealing glimpse into the mind of Bruce told in his usual fascinating style of juuuust enough self-irony and humor to make up for what could otherwise be seen as a bit self-important.
On the Darkness box Bruce set a new standard for “booklets”. The booklet in that case was a great attempt at recreating one of the notebooks that Bruce is famous for carrying around at all times for scribbling down lyric ideas. The booklet included in The Ties that Bind box to a large degree lives up to its predecessor. This is an awesome hardcover book containing tons of River era photos, scanned newspaper articles, Bruce’s handwritten lyrics, a nice foreword by music journalist Mikal Gilmore, and other assorted elements that we Bruce aficionados love to painstakingly study to an unhealthy degree.
The book may not be the part of this box set that you will spend the most time drooling over. But at a time when everybody brings their own camera to a concert, taking horrible, shaky pictures, and when even professional photographers seem to take the same photo over and over (because Bruce is always dressed the same way on stage, and because they are only allowed to shoot during the first two songs), it’s nice to be reminded of a time when concert photography was an art form and every shot counted.
The Tempe DVD
There is no way around it: I have saved the best for last. The inclusion of three hours of the legendary November 5, 1980, Tempe show is a scoop that makes just about every other Springsteen film release pale in comparison…. which doesn’t mean they are bad. It just means that Tempe 1980 – apart from the missing non-existent hour of the show – is perfection. Other than in short clips here and there – such as “Quarter to Three” from the No Nukes movie or the “Rosie” video – the world had yet to see filmed documentation of just how good Bruce can be. The Tempe DVD is it. This is what we have been waiting for. This is finally a document we can show our non-believing friends and family and tell them, “if you want to understand why I see 10 shows in a year and happily spend all my hard-earned money on Bruce, watch this”. And unlike the other fifty times you have said that, this time, they really will understand.
So what exactly sets this film apart? Well, it seems like with every other live DVD release something has been wrong: the Houston ’78 show from the Darkness box had great picture quality, but the sound left a lot to be desired, just as the performance itself didn’t quite seem up there with other Darkness performances; the Hammersmith show from 1975 had great sound, the picture was good too, albeit a bit too dark, but again, Bruce seems affected by the hype surrounding his first European performance and delivers a somewhat lackluster performance; the Live in New York City release from the Reunion Tour is great, but ends prematurely; The Dublin Seeger Sessions DVD has great sound, great picture quality, a great performance, and great music… but just not the right music; and the 2009 Hyde Park show is a complete show, but again, it was actually one of the weaker performances of the tour and Bruce not in very good voice.
The Tempe DVD is not complete, but it feels like a complete show, because it’s three hours long and contains footage from the beginning, middle, and end. The picture quality is sharp, well-lit, and crisp, the editing flawless, and the sound quality is perhaps the best we have heard from any Bruce live release.
And then there’s the performance… oh, the performance! This is Bruce at his best. A 30-year-old, unrestrained man on a mission, fronting a band in their prime, mercilessly belting out one superb and beloved song after another, putting every muscle, every inch of his protruding veins, and every flicker of his soul into every moment, and always desperate and impatient to make the next moment even more intense, and the next. He never stands still. He is all over the stage. Now trying to coordinate a silly dance with Clarence, now urging Danny along, and now on top of Roy’s piano. Even singing into his microphone, his body is in constant motion, wringing out any body fiber that isn’t already being put to use in the attempt to reach that last person on the 134th row who has yet to make the unconditional surrender Bruce demands.
This DVD shows what those who were there, on that tour, thought they remembered, but weren’t quite sure anymore if they were just embellishing their own memories in the beautiful light of hindsight. But it turns out, they weren’t exaggerating. Bruce really was that good and then some. They now have the proof and can live the rest of their lives knowing that they saw the best performer the world has ever known, at the prime of his career.
Even without the Tempe DVD, The Ties that Bind box would have been a worthwhile addition to any Springsteen collection. With the Tempe DVD it becomes mandatory, as that is now probably the best single document we have of the man and his music. So forget your gripes about how one disc is half full of songs we already own on Tracks, or how they didn’t include the 2009 full-performance of The River, or whatever justified or unjustified reason you can think of for not shelling out the, admittedly, somewhat steep price for this. It simply comes down to the fact that you gotta own the Tempe DVD. And I promise, after it has converted your better half and your kids too, they will thank you for spending the family’s money so wisely rather than on such unnecessary, fatuous things as food and clothes.
Through the rain, through the snow, through the wind…