David Louis Edelman David Louis Edelman

Bruce Springsteen’s “Meeting Across the River”

Bruce Springsteen’s “Meeting Across the River” (from 1975’s Born to Run) begins with a few exploratory notes of muted trumpet, cushioned with a soft, spare piano. The music has a yearning, questing feeling as it switches keys from G to F to A. You think a little bit of “West Side Story.” Then the main piano line begins in the key of E major: a tentative accompaniment that nevertheless chugs along with an inexorable rhythm.

You hear Springsteen kick in with a few understated lines:

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

So the narrator is crossing a river. Given what you know about Springsteen, you assume he’s talking about crossing the Hudson from New Jersey into New York, but that’s never explicitly stated. Furthermore, he’s making this trip at night through a tunnel. If you’re feeling Freudian, you can think of this as the birth canal. But regardless, you know that there’s some kind of transformative journey underway here. Borders are being crossed. Dark deeds await.

Springsteen’s voice grows urgent:

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

Who is this person that the narrator is going out to meet? You’re never told. You immediately assume that this is a drug deal of some kind, a theft, a money laundering operation. It could be any of these things, really, and it doesn’t really matter which. That the law is being broken here is a given.

And what does this passage reveal about your narrator? He’s a fuck-up; he’s been given opportunities before, and he’s blown them. Clearly your narrator’s aware that his track record isn’t too good — why would he be conning his friend Eddie into coming with him? He’s trying to make it sound like he’s doing Eddie a favor by inviting him along, but you think that the narrator has other purposes in mind. Backup, protection, possibly someone to foist blame upon if things go sour.

The second verse begins:

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

Now you start to see what a con operator this nameless narrator is. In the previous verse, he’s giving Eddie the opportunity to tag along on his meeting, as long as he keeps his mouth shut. But now suddenly Eddie’s fortunes are riding on the narrator too. We got ourselves on that line; if we blow this one, they’re going to be looking for us.

You start to get a feeling for exactly who Eddie is. You imagine Eddie as a younger brother, a protégé, someone who looks up to the narrator. What is Eddie thinking as he listens to the narrator spell out this plan? Does he trust this nameless thug who’s taken him under his wing? Or has he heard too many of the narrator’s crackpot schemes before to believe in them anymore?

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

It’s going to be a dangerous deal, dangerous enough that the threat of force might be required. You notice, of course, that the narrator isn’t stuffing anything into his own pockets; it’s Eddie who he’s putting in the role of muscle here.

But even more important in this verse, you see that the narrator isn’t just concerned with how this deal pulls off — he wants to look good doing it too. Now the dichotomy between what the narrator sees and what you see is starting to become more apparent. Your nameless thug sees himself as something of a hero, a swaggering Robin Hood on a romantic mission, a quest if you will; there’s a part of him that really does think that he’s doing Eddie a favor by including him in this scheme.

A brief musical interlude, and then the third verse:

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

Suddenly you think: two grand? This guy is putting his life on the line for a measly two thousand dollars? Even in 1975 dollars, two grand seems like a pathetically small amount to risk one’s life for. And suddenly you start to see the desperation of this character that’s lying just below the bravado. He stole his girlfriend’s radio for pocket cash. He’s putting his life in danger for two thousand dollars. Not only that, but he can’t afford the gas money to get across the river in the first place. He knows that he needs protection on this job, and yet he can’t afford a gun either. (What does Eddie have in his pocket? A wad of something that’s imitating a gun. What does the narrator have in his pocket? Nothing but “practically two grand.”)

This is not a recipe for a successful business deal. You’re really starting to get a bad feeling about this evening. It’s evident that something is going to go wrong on this deal. The narrator is too cocky, too unprepared, too lacking in resources.

But what does the narrator think?

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

You see that the narrator is either supremely deluded or simply desperate. He’s willing himself to believe that everything is going to turn out all right, when you know it won’t.

You can see from the circumstantial evidence that the narrator’s criminal career is going to be cut short. He and Eddie are going to venture from safe New Jersey through the tunnel into New York City, and they’re going to meet with a bad end.

And yet, Springsteen leaves you here, with the narrator on the verge of his big deal. You never see what happens to the narrator or Eddie; you never see if the narrator’s rendezvous goes off as planned, or even if he actually finds a way across the river. And by stopping at this moment, you’re left with a shade of hope. Maybe, just maybe, this thug is going to pull this deal off. Maybe, just maybe, he really is going to show up at Cherry’s door the next morning with a pile of money.

It’s a time of transition; it’s a dark night of the soul; it’s the night where the narrator is either going to rise above his petty circumstances, or fall prey to his personal demons forever. Eddie is going to make a fateful choice: to trust this deceitful older brother figure once more and share in his fate, or to blow him off and go his own way.

Hey Eddie, can you catch us a ride?

The voice is faint, almost plaintive.

The piano slows and finally ends on an unsettling fifth that doesn’t seem to resolve anything. The muted trumpet continues on in the background, venturing up and down the scale in one last drowsy flourish and then finally fades away.

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  1. Arie on July 14, 2006 at 12:40 am  Chain link

    hey there
    good analysis

    one thing i disagree with is the relationship with eddie – i see eddie as being merely a vehicle for the narrator – what he says to eddie he’s really saying to himself – ‘don’t screw up – this thing’s serious’. You get the sense that he’s trying to convince himself as much as eddie
    great song

  2. Barb Radmore on February 24, 2007 at 3:25 pm  Chain link

    I ran across your analysis of this song when researching for a book review. You would enjoy “Meetig Across the River”, a book of short stories all based on this song. Interesting interpretations.

  3. MK on August 23, 2008 at 3:26 am  Chain link

    What made you pick this song? I think it’s one of the best Springsteen songs ever…

  4. David Louis Edelman on August 23, 2008 at 11:53 am  Chain link

    MK: No real reason. It’s always been one of my favorite Springsteen songs too.

  5. jb23 on October 7, 2008 at 8:48 am  Chain link

    Go see the Movie, The Pope of Greenwich Village. Pure coincidence, but the narrator would be Mickey Rourke (Charlie) and Eddie would be Eric Roberts (paulie)

  6. Jim Jones on February 5, 2010 at 10:24 am  Chain link

    I’ve always loved this song – I can’t think of any songwriter who writes better short stories than Springsteen. The unreliable narrator is trying to talk himself into feeling confident. He keeps telling Eddie – and I agree with one of your correspondents, he’s really telling himself – of what is going to happen. Whenever he uses the future tense, he’s presenting his hopes as facts. He does this more as the song goes on, so that by the time we reach the last verse it’s all there, the perfect picture of success. Cherry? She’s so wrong, because he’s no loser, he’s practically got $2000 to throw arrogantly on her bed. Except he hasn’t got it. The quiet last line reminds us – and him – that he hasn’t even got a ride through the tunnel yet.

    I didn’t know about the book of short stories based on the song. I don’t feel any need to read it, because I can’t imagine anyone improving on what Springsteen achieves in little more than 200 words.

  7. mark starr on May 3, 2010 at 9:11 pm  Chain link

    My mom bought me this album when it first came out. I listened to it over and over. It means so much to me. An excellent interpretation by the author if you asked me.

  8. Derek on November 16, 2011 at 8:51 pm  Chain link

    I loved reading this! You really nailed it.

    With so many exciting, powerful songs on Born to Run, it’s easy to understand how this song is often overlooked—yet, it’s clearly not a filler track. On the contrary, it’s as poignant an illustration as any of his other tracks from any of his other albums.

    I’ve always imagined that the meeting across the river goes well, but it doesn’t really matter. This guy’s a loser. So’s Eddie for hanging around him and being his subordinate. So’s Cherry for only threatening to leave a guy that pawns radios.

    After he throws that money on the bad, things aren’t going to get better. It’s not a celebration or or turning point. It’s just vindication.

    He’s going to remain being the eight-ball—all he can hope for are fleeting moments of glory (again, another theme in Springsteen’s work).

  9. Matt on February 22, 2012 at 2:16 pm  Chain link

    Narrator is a drug addict looking to go through the tunnel from NJ to NY to meet up with a stolen car parts front man and/or major drug dealer. Narrator is using or manipulating his friend or brother to help him either get drugs or major drug money to satisfy his habit. The narrator probably steals cars, then parts them out through the man across the river. Cherry is most likely a whore whom narrator pays for drug induced sex. Hense the reference lay the money on the ‘bed’. Two grand to the narrator will solve all his problems because he can get high for a long period of time. Just my thoughts and/or imagination on the song. I listen to it about 2 times a day for 30 years. I dont know why. Altough Ive never taken drugs and never stole and I have good job and a family – I can relate to it somehow.

  10. Mr. Woodcock on August 28, 2012 at 5:32 pm  Chain link

    I think your wrong about most of your assumptions. “Dude” (just what I always called him in my head) & “Eddie” are not the sharpest tools in the shed, bit they are not losers and they are not idiots either. They are poor and probably under educated, they live in a tough place at a tough time and they do whatever it takes to get by, legal-or-not. Eddie is not some dupe, he’s Dudes sidekick-or-he’s his charge(think Lenny in “Of Mice and Men”) either way Dude genuinely cares about him, you can hear it Bruce’s voice when he says “and if we blow this one they aint gonna be lookin for just me this time”, I have known guys like this and I have been guys like this, so maybe I am a little more optimistic about the final outcome then you, but even more importantly I think Bruce knew guys like this too and he doesn’t look down his nose at them the way you do!
    Dude will throw that money on the bed and he will go out walkin!!!

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