Bruce Springsteen’s Vietnam intro to ‘The River’ is one of the most tear-jerking moments in rock

1 November 2021, 14:20

By Mayer Nissim

Bruce Springsteen breaks hearts with the true-life story of his dad's response when he failed his army physical during the Vietnam war.

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Bruce Springsteen is one of the greatest songwriters and performers in rock and roll history.

Everyone knows how he can tear your soul apart with his songs, but he's just as capable of doing it with the spoken word, too.

In 1986, Bruce released Live 1975–85, a stunning 40-track collection of a decade of his best live performances with the E-Street Band.

Read more: The Ultimate Bruce Springsteen Quiz

And nestled at the end of side 7 of the box-set was a performance of 'The River', recorded at the Los Angeles Coliseum on September 30, 1985.

It's a typically great performance of a great song, but what really makes it must-listen is the five-and-a-half minute bit of storytelling from Bruce, set to a lilting jam from the E-Street Band.

Bruce has the entire audience in the palm of his hands as he tells the true-life tale of his dad's response when he failed his army physical during the Vietnam war.

Bruce Springsteen and the Vietnam war
Bruce Springsteen and the Vietnam war. Picture: Alamy

When I was growing up, me and my dad used to go at it all the time, over almost anything. But uh, I used to have really long hair, way down past my shoulders. I was 17 or 18... oh, man, he used to hate it. And we got to where we'd fight so much that I'd, that I'd spend a lot of time out of the house.

And in the summertime it wasn't so bad, as it was warm and your friends were out. But in the winter, I remember standing downtown and it would get so cold. And when the wind would blow, I, I had this phonebooth that I used to stand in. And I used to call my girl like for hours at a time, just talking to her all night long.

And finally I'd get my nerve up to go home, and I'd stand there in the driveway and he'd be waiting for me in the kitchen. And I'd tuck my hair down in my collar, and I'd walk in, and he'd call me back to sit down with him. And the first thing he'd always ask me was what did I think I was doing with myself. And the worst part about it was I could never explain it to him.

I remember I got into a motorcycle accident once, and I was laid up in bed and he had a barber come in and cut my hair. And, man, I can remember telling him that I hated him, and that I would never ever forget it. And he used to tell me, "Man, I can't wait till the army gets you. When the army gets you, they're gonna make a man out of you. They're gonna cut all that hair off, and they'll make a man out of you."

And this was in, I guess, '68, and there was a lot of guys from the neighborhood going to Vietnam. I remember the drummer in my first band coming over my house with his marine uniform on saying that he was going and that he didn't know where it was. And a lot of guys went and a lot of guys didn't come back. And the lot that came back weren't the same anymore.

I remember the day I got my draft notice. I hid it from my folks and three days before my physical me and my friends went out and stayed up all night. And we got on the bus to go that morning, man, and we were all so scared. And I went and I failed. I came home... It's nothing to applaud about.

But I remember coming home after I'd been gone for three days, and walking in the kitchen and my mother and father were sitting there. My dad said, "Where you been?" I said, uh, "I went to take my physical". He says, "What happened?" I said, "They didn't take me." And he said, "That's good."

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War and its effect on American soldiers who come home, as well as those who don't, has long been a theme in Bruce Springsteen's work.

That's most notable on 'Born in the USA', which contrasted the tubthumping of those back home with the suffering and poverty of the veterans who returned from Vietnam.

Springsteen himself was drafted in 1967 when he turned 18, but later told Rolling Stone that he played up his bike accident injuries to make sure he wouldn't go to war, being given a 4-F classification.

"I had some friends, very close friends of mine... guys who came home in wheelchairs and, then, I didn't go," Springsteen told Tom Hanks at a Tribeca Film Festival conversation with Tom Hanks at the Beacon Theatre in 2017.

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"I was a stone-cold draft dodger. I pulled the whole Alice's Restaurant [Arthur Penn's 1969 movie about Arlo Guthrie's real-life attempt to dodge the draft].

"'I'm sorry, sir. I don't understand what you are saying because I am high on LSD.' I did everything in the draft-dodgers text book."

He continued: "So, perhaps, I felt guilty about that later on. I had friends who went. I had friends who went and died. I had friends later on who were seriously hurt."

He added that his experiences and the generation-defining nature of the war meant that "it was something that needed to be reckoned with" and "something that I felt I had to come to terms with myself and I needed to sing about".

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