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triumph at the golden collars

music friday: david + david, “river’s gonna rise”

In 1986, David Baerwald and David Ricketts were a couple of SoCal studio musicians who banded together as David + David. Baerwald was in his mid-20s, Ricketts in his early-30s. They made one album, Boomtown, which contained a minor hit in “Welcome to the Boomtown”. The album’s sales were unimpressive, and the two broke up the band at the end of the year. Baerwald continues to make the occasional critically acclaimed solo album that doesn’t sell, both Davids do soundtracks, and both still work on other people’s albums. Their most famous such work was for Sheryl Crow’s debut album, Tuesday Night Music Club, which was built around a casual group of musicians and featured songs co-written by Crow, the Davids, and others.

Boomtown was a far more interesting album than you’d expect from a couple of El Lay studio boys. The production by Davitt Sigerson makes the album sound “good” in that clean, studio musician way … Christgau said “it's got the goods technically--songs, hooks, subtle little touches.” It’s also something of a theme album, not a “rock opera” but a work that holds together thematically. The titles tell some of the tale: “Welcome to the Boomtown,” “Swallowed by the Cracks,” “All Alone in the Big City”. It’s not a peaches-and-cream look at the Reagan years, nor is it ironically funny like Randy Newman’s “I Love LA”. (Newman would write, “Look at those mountains, look at those trees, look at the bum over there, man, he's down on his knees.” David + David wouldn’t take as long to get to the bum.)

My favorite song from Boomtown has always been “River’s Gonna Rise”. It has a passionate vocal, effective sound, perfectly appropriate guitar solo, and lyrics about which I change my mind on a regular basis. The start is ominous: “God ain’t in his heaven, something ain’t right.” The song is full of apocalyptic imagery: church bells are ringing, a man is being dragged “by his insides through the broad daylight”, missions are packed with people “that got nowhere to go”, the curfew is on, and “all the proud things” are dying. All of this is evocative, but understandable: dark days have arrived. It’s the chorus that makes the song for me, and it’s the chorus that I’ve never been able to pin down:

The river’s gonna rise, it’s gonna rise
There’ll be dancing in the street when the river done rise

This chorus has always reminded me on “London Calling” by the Clash, when Joe shouts “London is drowning, and I live by the river!” He, too, is singing his way through the apocalypse, and the way I’ve always taken that chorus, the point isn’t that we’ll be saved, but that those of us who live by the river “have no fear” because drowning has always been our future. The joy of the apocalypse is knowing that everyone else is going to drown with us, including all of those people who thought they could escape. Similarly, in “River’s Gonna Rise”, people are dancing in the street because when the river done rise, everyone will be in the same boat (or, to properly agree with all these metaphors, everyone’s boat will be destroyed).

I don’t know why I think these are “happy” feelings, to believe not that we will be saved, but that we will bring down the powerful along with us. And, to be honest, I’m not sure my interpretation is “right” … I may just be imposing my own apocalyptic fantasies. I do know that, the last time I listened to “River’s Gonna Rise”, it occurred to me that perhaps this was indeed a hopeful moment, that when the river rose, it raised all of us along with it … the apocalypse would pass, and we would all be saved. I can’t say I actually believe this, but it’s a measure of the power of the song that more than one interpretation is possible. And if that is the case, what I hear in the guitar solo as the ecstasy of the apocalypse could be the joy of the saved.

Here’s a YouTube video of the song. I don’t think the imagery in the video works, but you can always just look somewhere else while the song is playing:


I’m never quite sure if I know how to do these, but here’s a Spotify URL to the song, if you don’t need the video:


And here’s a MOG link:


And Rdio: