Meeting Across the River: Bruce Springsteen’s lyrical genius in one understated song

Sometimes, less is more and the penultimate track from Born to Run is certainly one of those times.  In just twenty eight lines lacking a chorus or any musical bombast, Springsteen spins a tale of a down on his luck wannabe gangster embarking on an unknown caper, told as a conversation between an unnamed narrator and his equally hapless friend.

Bruce Springsteen is generally known for his bombastic sound.  His first two albums, Greetings from Asbury Park and The Wild, the Innocent, and the E-Street Shuffle might as well have been recorded at a boardwalk carnival.  His breakthrough third album, Born to Run, famously used the “wall of sound” pioneered by Phil Specter, where 17 guitars and other instruments were layered on top of one another.

Sometimes, however, less is more, and in some of his understated songs we find the nature of his enduring appeal.  “Meeting Across the River” from Born to Run is one such track where the Boss’s songwriting skills are on full display.  “Meeting Across the River” is tucked between the rollicking “She’s the One” and the epic “Jungleland,” almost serving as an overture to the latter, the warm up act before the big finale.

The song itself is musically sparse, relying on Randy Becker’s jazzy trumpet playing, unusual for Springsteen at the time, and Richard Davis’s upright bass for its unique sound.  There is no screaming guitar or pounding drums, only the trumpet floating against the backdrop of the bass.  The story about to unfold also floats up from there, almost delicately, as if it were just one bubble among thousands of other similar tales taking place in New York and New Jersey.

The lyrics themselves are similarly sparse.  There is no chorus, no chest pounding cry of “Born in the USA” or “Born to Run.”  There is only an unnamed narrator speaking softly, cautiously, and not-particularly confidently with a friend, blending desperation and aspiration in the uniquely Springsteen mode.  At times, the story itself borders on comical in the narrator’s ineptitude.  We’re introduced to a man whose back is against the wall, yet he might not even have a wall of his own to lean up against. 

For starters, he’s broke and doesn’t have a car. We learn this in just the first two lines, “Hey, Eddie, can you lend me a few bucks, And tonight can you get us a ride.”  Still, the narrator is not without some sense of ambition.  He needs the money and the ride because he’s involved in some kind of criminal caper, and he’s “Gotta make it through the tunnel” for a “meeting with a man on the other side.”

Thus, the simple stage is set:  The would-be gangster has some deal in New York City, but he can’t even get to the meeting on his own.  From there, Springsteen subtly expands on the story with each additional line.  First, the narrator informs Eddie that the person their meeting with is “the real thing.”  At the same time, given the context, it’s difficult to take that phrasing at face value.  It’s unlikely that these two are meeting with the head of one of New York’s Five Families or some other criminal mastermind.  It’s far more likely we’re dealing with some mid level thug, slightly above the narrator and Eddie.

Regardless, the prospect of meeting this man makes the narrator nervous enough that he hints Eddie should come along with him.  Hints, without specifically asking, “So if you want to come along,” a phrasing that indicates a desire for some back up though he refuses to actually ask.  Presumably, Eddie jumps at the chance because the narrator promptly admonishes him to keep his mouth shut given “this guy don’t dance.”

Things get more ominous, when the narrator adds that the “word’s been passed this is our last chance.”  There’s a lot of story packed into eight single syllable words.  We learn that the narrator and Eddie have failed in their criminal doings in the past.  How many times they’ve messed up is unclear, but they know they’re at the end of the line this time.  The use of “word’s been passed” also suggests their failure has not been with the gentleman they are meeting in particular.  Instead, there’s some broader underworld, where somehow the dude that doesn’t dance has learned about their struggles from another criminal.

Either way, it doesn’t sound promising.

This idea is expanded upon in the next verse.  “We gotta stay cool tonight, Eddie” gives us a sense that their previous failures were the result of nervousness and inexperience without revealing exactly what happened.  The narrator’s own nervousness is emphasized in the next line, “Cause man, we got ourselves out on that line.”  We know he’s scared and intimidated because he repeats the notion that this is it.  “If we blow this one, They ain’t gonna be looking for just me this time,” another loaded phrase.

Who else could they be looking for?  It’s already established that the narrator and Eddie are on the hook.  Their other friends?  Families?  Girlfriends?  Wives?  It’s also another indication that perhaps their previous issues were more catastrophic than the narrator suggests; another failure will result in punishments far beyond the two involved.

These questions linger over the next few lines, where the narrator suggests the job itself is easy, “all we gotta do is hold up our end,” but then tells Eddie to pretend he’s carrying a gun, “Here stuff this in your pocket, It’ll look like you’re carrying a friend.”  Which brings us back to precisely how pathetic the narrator is:  No money, no car, and now no real gun.  At the same time, we’re seeing his nervousness in action as he wants people to believe they’re armed, thinking they will take him and Eddie more seriously.

From there, we jump to the idea that despite it all, the narrator remains an optimist with aspirations.  After admonishing Eddie again, this time not to smile to hold up appearances, he further instructs him to change his shirt “cause tonight we got style.”  Interestingly, those few words allude to another aspect of the narrator’s character:  Similar to Goodfellas twenty years later, he views the underworld as a place populated with sharp dressed, stylish gangsters.  He desperately wants to fit in there and be accepted.

Of course, he also has struggles at home and, once again, his desperation sets in.  His girlfriend, Cherry, is threatening to break up with him because he stole her radio and sold it, even as he tried to hide it from her, “cause she found out I took her radio and hocked it.”  It’s unclear whether or not the theft is related to the planned caper in New York City, but the idea is at least suggested, “But Eddie, man, she don’t understand, That two grand’s practically sitting here in my pocket.”

Desperation then gives way to aspiration once more for the closing verse.  The narrator confidently declares “tonight’s gonna be everything that I said,” and imagines himself returning home from a successful whatever and throwing the money on the bed in triumph.  “She’ll see this time I wasn’t just talking, Then I’m gonna go out walking,” note the use of “this time,” meaning they’ve been down this road before.

Alas, the song ends on a more plaintive note, back in reality, the narrator asks, “Hey Eddie can you catch us a ride?”

In just 28 lines, Springsteen has woven a compelling tale, enough for an entire movie:  A broke, down on his luck, would-be gangster, who’s failed before and is about to get the boot from his girlfriend, finds himself with an opportunity.  The only problem is:  He has no money and no car, so he hits up his friend, despite his friend not being a particularly good criminal either.  He also knows that his reputation in the criminal underworld leaves something to be desired, and this might well be his last chance to make it happen.  To help ensure success, he instructs his friend to keep his mouth shut, pretend he’s carrying a gun, and change his shirt.

Underlying the desperation is an aspiration.  If only for one night, he and Eddie will get dressed up and have style.  They’ll fit in and be taken seriously.  Also, if only for one night, he’ll show Cherry that he really isn’t the loser she’s starting to believe.  Despite the many times he’s failed in the past, most recently stealing and selling her radio, he imagines himself returning triumphant with $2,000 in cash, and then taking his lady out.  She’ll see the money and she’ll know he’s arrived.

Underlying it all, is a keen sense of character.  The narrator’s nervousness peeks through the story in the double reference to the last chance, his repeated instructions to Eddie, don’t talk, don’t smile, wear a nicer shirt.  The sense that he’s doomed to failure slips through in Cherry about to leave him and his desire to prove to her that he can make something of himself.  The criminal underworld is also hinted at, populated by guys that don’t dance, but dress well.  There are different factions, but the word’s been passed and it’s all over for them if they mess this up.  Even worse, they’re failure will affect more than the hapless duo.

Ultimately, as much as the narrator aspires to succeed and, by proxy, his desperation prompts us to wish it as well, it’s tough to imagine that he does.  The last line alone indicates they might not make it to the meeting in the first place.  The rest of the song, the failures, the pretend gun, hocking the radio, all indicate the narrator and Eddie have no chance.  Still, we can imagine the curtain closing as the meeting starts and for one moment they’re dressed sharp and fit in.

What more can you ask for in a song with precious little music and no chorus?

Meeting Across the River

Hey, Eddie, can you lend me a few bucks
And tonight can you get us a ride
Gotta make it through the tunnel
Got a meeting with a man on the other side

Hey Eddie, this guy, he’s the real thing
So if you want to come along
You gotta promise you won’t say anything
Cause this guy don’t dance
And the word’s been passed this is our last chance

We gotta stay cool tonight, Eddie
Cause man, we got ourselves out on that line
And if we blow this one
They ain’t gonna be looking for just me this time

And all we gotta do is hold up our end
Here stuff this in your pocket
It’ll look like you’re carrying a friend
And remember, just don’t smile
Change your shirt, cause tonight we got style

Well Cherry says she’s gonna walk
Cause she found out I took her radio and hocked it
But Eddie, man, she don’t understand
That two grand’s practically sitting here in my pocket

And tonight’s gonna be everything that I said
And when I walk through that door
I’m just gonna throw that money on the bed
She’ll see this time I wasn’t just talking
Then I’m gonna go out walking

Hey Eddie, can you catch us a ride?

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