The Price You Pay — Bruce Springsteen

Operation The Boss at the Bradley 2016 (Part III) — By Ken Eifrid

Bruce & The E Street Band — 1980

It’s not an uncommon belief that if we make good choices then good consequences will arise from them. And in contrast, if we make mistakes in our lives then we may suffer for those faults. This is often referred to as fate.

Whether it is something minuscule or daunting, we connect the problems and tragedies to previous slip ups. Didn’t get that promotion because you didn’t prepare enough for the interview. You lost touch with that friend or family member because you didn’t make an effort. Like the laws of physics, the actions we take set fourth equal reactions in our lives.

This way of thinking was not lost on Bruce Springsteen as he produced his astounding 1980 album The River. In the first two verses of the eighteenth track, Springsteen acknowledges that we must face the choices we have made. We have a price to pay.

You make up your mind, you choose the chance you take
 You ride to where the highway ends and the desert breaks
 Out on to an open road you ride until the day
 You learn to sleep at night with the price you pay
 
 Now with their hands held high, they reached out for the open skies
 And in one last breath they built the roads they’d ride to their death
 Driving on through the night, unable to break away
 From the restless pull of the price you pay

In these opening verses Springsteen is saying that we are tied, whether good or bad, to the decisions we make in our lives. We must accept our fate. No matter how hard we try to overcome the past mistakes through newfangled deeds, fate pulls us right back. It’s a very old school and romantic point of view for a man that lived through the counter-cultural world of the 1970’s.

Oh, the price you pay, oh, the price you pay
 Now you can’t walk away from the price you pay

Even more haunting than coming to grips with our personal judgments is the idea of blind fate. The notion that we did everything in our lives the proper way and still ended up on the wrong side of the coin for reasons beyond our control. Sometimes there isn’t an answer when you ask yourself “where did it all go to shit?” Springsteen touches on working hard and coming up short in the third verse.

Now they’d come so far and they’d waited so long
 Just to end up caught in a dream where everything goes wrong
 Where the dark of night holds back the light of the day
 And you’ve gotta stand and fight for the price you pay

But it is Springsteen’s final verse that proves the most powerful. After a smoky, bass-fueled bridge that recounts the story of the Promised Land, the Boss tells us we need not dwell on our failures. He sings about forgiveness. He sings about pinpointing whatever it is that reminds you of your shortcomings and destroying it. After all, shouldn’t salvation be what’s next when the price has been paid?

So let the game start, you better run you little wild heart
 You can run through all the nights and all the days
 But just across the county line, a stranger passing through put up a sign
 That counts the men fallen away to the price you pay, and girl before the end of the day,
 I’m gonna tear it down and throw it away
Studio version with additional verse

I have to admit “The Price You Pay” has only been on my radar for a few months now. And while there are so many Bruce Springsteen songs I first heard as a kid that still move me today, there was something exciting and challenging about focusing on this song. I realized how meaningful the lyrics were after only a couple listens. Every time I went back to one of my Springsteen staples, I kept returning to this cut. The guitar and piano riff combo, the Dylan-esque harmonica, and especially the audacious delivery of that final line give me chills with each listen. I knew this song would be a favorite of mine from here on out.

I was fortunate enough to catch The River performed at the United Center in January with some good friends. With so many amazing tracks played that night, it was difficult to pick a favorite. But no question this burner is definitely at the top of the list. Can’t wait for round two with the boys in Milwaukee…