This was really the album where we started a lifelong conversation with most of you folks here tonight… This is for you.
So announced Bruce Springsteen from the stage of Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio the night of November 10, 2009 before launching into the familiar harmonica riff that gently begins “Thunder Road” as my head simultaneously exploded.
Here it was, Born to Run, really happening, cover-to-cover, the way God himself intended.
A few several weeks back the editors here at DeadCurious sent out a request to all of us on staff that we consider covering our “most important album.” This being the kind of editorial thing that really gets my inner fanboy going, it took me all of 0.58 seconds to settle on the greatest American rock record of the last 40 years as my unquestioned choice. Over/under is set at 1,500 words.
The summer of 2008 was my first summer spent both living away from home and living in squalor. I shared a real dump of a house on West 10th Avenue in Columbus, Ohio with one of my best friends from my hometown. I worked at the time on a local campaign, didn’t make very much money, racked up a shit-ton of credit card debt, drank a great deal of bourbon, and found myself experimenting with writing and music and politics for the first time. Naturally, all of this lent itself to a newfound, undeniably still-adolescent desire to change the world, transcend all earthly limitations, attend some prestigious law school, and evolve into such a successful modern writer that Eggers and Wallace looked like absolute hacks. You know, real attainable stuff.
But wouldn’t you know it; none of these things just up and happen to someone. In fact, as you may be surprised to learn, as I did three hours and a fifth into my first night sitting at the living room coffee table on our piss-stained couch trying to write the next-great-American-novel: these sorts of things take work. Possessing no prodigious talent of any sort, this news was very problematic for me; and not being accustomed to work, was tantamount to a death sentence. And so of course began the inevitable 20 year-old tumble into self-doubt and insecurity. Standard really.
Then, by the force of divine providence in the form of iTunes shuffle, the clouds parted, the heavens roared with the peal of thundering chords, “Backstreets” happened, and Born to Run made its introduction right on time, by accident, and in the beer-drenched living room of a busted old house in Ohio, a mere 34 years after its release, appropriately devoid of answers but asking all the right questions.
Having released two critically acclaimed but commercially disappointing records prior to 1975, Bruce Springsteen was on the verge of being dropped by Columbia Records, helmed at the time by Dylan-discoverer John Hammond. Knowing he was down to his last rock and roll life, Springsteen dived into the writing and recording of Born to Run with a reckless urgency. And over the course of the next fourteen months (it took six months to record the title track alone), he poured everything he and the E Street Band had into leaving behind his “adolescent definitions of love and freedom.”
What happened next launched an iconic career spanning five decades to-date, and an album of perhaps unparalleled resiliency, resonance, and redemptive value.
We’ve got one last chance to make it real, to trade in these wings on some wheels; climb in back, heaven’s waiting on down the tracks…
Bruce, on many occasions (see above) has been known to describe “Thunder Road”, as an invitation, and it certainly sounds like one.
Always a stickler for narrative structure, the opening piano and harmonica sound as much like a calling as the speaker’s beckoning of Mary to “show a little faith, there’s magic in the night,” (This of course is then followed by one of the most pimp lines in all of rock and roll: “You ain’t a beauty but hey, you’re alright…”). As frank and forthcoming an assessment of one’s own limitations as I’ve ever heard, Bruce admits he’s “no hero—that’s understood—all the redemption [he’s] got is beneath this dirty hood.”
It might be a one-way ticket out of town, but he and Mary still have a “chance to make it good somehow,” and that’s alright with me.
Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out
Well everybody move over, that’s all; I’m running on the bad side, and I got my back to the wall…
One of the most fun and funky tracks in his catalog, “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” tells the story of the formation of the E Street Band and the start of Springsteen’s career. Faced with the stark reality that his dreams of stardom could end at any time, he’s “all alone.”
That is of course until “a change was made uptown, and the Big Man joined the band…” While Bruce himself has acknowledged that he’s not even sure what a “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” is, its apparent that the song itself pays tribute to the importance of the fraternity of the E Street Band. From being “all alone,” to Scooter and the Big Man busting the city in half, it’s a not-so-subtle admission that youthful independence can only take you so far.
And the world is busting at its seams, and you’re just a prisoner of your dreams hanging on for your life; cause you work all day to blow ‘em away in the night…
A preview of sorts to the other side of the record, “Night” is a damn-the-man, middle finger to the mundane. From the man who once quipped “No offense Mr. [Woody] Guthrie, but automobiles are MY business,” the track harkens to the open road and a love heretofore unrequited. Perhaps more than anything “Night” is an admission of insecurity, its inescapability, and the burning desire to transcend it.
Remember all the movies Terry that we’d go see, tryin’ to learn how to walk like the heroes, we thought we had to be…
Best song on the album. I know, I know, “Blasphemer!” you say. But “Backstreets” is in my opinion, the standout track on an album chock full of them.
Maintaining the lyrical dexterity of his previous two albums (Greetings from Asbury Park, and The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle), while moving resolutely into the emotional, rocking intensity that sets Springsteen apart from his contemporaries (what up Tom Petty?!), “Backstreets” is a narrative reckoning with adulthood as it chronicles a drifting friendship/relationship. Containing some of the best lyrics the “new Bob Dylan” and original New Jersey Devil has ever written, it stands alone as one of his most emotional and evocative tracks. Examples include:
1) “Running into the darkness, some hurt bad some really dying/At night sometimes it’d seem you could hear the whole damn city crying…”
2) “Blame it on the lies that killed us, or the truth that ran us down/You can blame it all on me Terry, it don’t matter to me now…”
3) “When the breakdown hit at midnight, there was nothing left to say/But I hated him, and I hated you when you went away…”
On top of all that, “Backstreets” is also a perfect ending to Side One of the record. Because, as we are wont to do in times of aching realization, we cope via a resounding “fuck it,” delivered from the rooftops at maximum volume…
Born to Run
We gotta get out while we’re young, cause tramps like us, baby we were born to run…
What is there to say that hasn’t already been said? “Born to Run” is one of the most iconic American rock-and-roll tracks this side of “Like a Rolling Stone.” It’s the unofficial state song of New Jersey, and even Chris Christie himself wants the prefix removed.
Following the begrudging acceptance of youthful dreams unrealized in “Backstreets,” BTR is a definitive expression of all things optimistic, resolute in tone and redemptive to its very core.
She’s the One
Oh oh, and just one kiss, she’s filled them long summer nights with her tenderness; that secret pact you made, back when her love could save you from the bitterness…
The most straightforward track on the album, bar none. Girl has guy by the heartstrings, guy is powerless to resist girl, but even girl can’t save guy from his inner demons and his perpetual struggle to find himself.
Or can she?
Meeting Across the River
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 talkin’…
A precursor to darker times ahead and no doubt a foreshadowing of what was to come from Springsteen on Darkness on the Edge of Town, and Nebraska. “Meeting Across the River” is some of Bruce’s storytelling at its finest; right up there with “Atlantic City.”
Hopeless and at a loss on how to improve his lot, the narrator attempts to enlist Eddie to take him across the river to New York City to commit a last-resort crime, one to make up for his betrayal of his lady by selling her radio. Like most of the characters in Springsteen songs who have reached the end of the line, the narrator here is no different in his inability to find a better way out of the hole he’s dug himself.
Unable to contemplate the possibility of a terrible outcome, he asks once again at the end of the track, “Hey Eddie, can you catch us a ride?”
Outside the street’s on fire in a real death waltz, between what’s flesh and what’s fantasy; and the poets down here don’t write nothin’ at all, they just stand back and let it all be…
Considered Springsteen’s magnum opus by many, “Jungleland” has got to be one of the most unique songs in rock and roll. A spellbinding account of a journey into New York City, it features the Boss at his lyrical best, and his wordless howls to close the song are at an emotional peak. From the time the Magic Rat crosses into the Five Boroughs and the metaphorical gang fights where “kids flash guitars just like switchblades,” to the slow, inglorious burn of defeat, Springsteen weaves one of the best tales in classic rock. Throw in the best sax solo (RIP Big Man) this side of “Careless Whisper” and you’ve got nearly ten minutes of unencumbered brilliance closing out a touchstone of rock and goddamn roll.
Just in case you haven’t figured it out yet, Born to Run saved Bruce and the band from the Columbia chopping block. Nearly 40 years later, the album stands as one of the most resilient cornerstones of the American rock canon. Comprised of eight tracks; independently brilliant in their own right but standing so much taller on the A and B sides of a 38 year-old vinyl record, they read of hope, failure, redemption, and the perpetual and timeless reckoning with the adult world.
In spite of all the knocks on Bruce Springsteen over the years, that he can’t relate to working folks anymore, that he produces cheap “American” anthems (listen to “Born in the USA again…), that he hasn’t evolved or grown since ’84, etc., it seems to me that the most basic attribute of the man’s music has gone unchanged—and that’s a good thing.
The Boss, if nothing else, is relatable. Sure everyone from Bob Dylan to Jon Stewart will tell you that he’s a musical genius, and one would have to at least accept the fact that arranging rock and roll for a band as large and diverse as E Street must take some talent; but the most vital element of Springsteen’s music is that it exists at least partially in a cultural vacuum, preserving its relevance and retaining its depth.
In that light it’s clear that writing an anthem doesn’t make you jingoistic, that being wealthy doesn’t make you dispassionate, and that being old doesn’t mean you never knew what it was like to grow the hell up. And that’s the simple, distilled beauty of Born to Run: yesterday, today, and tomorrow.
Born to Run reads and plays today just as it did in 1975, just as it did in 1990, and just as it did in 2008 in a thoroughly condemnable college house. It is not so presumptuous as to offer answers, but it is precocious enough to ask pointed questions of every listener, questions that repeated to one’s self seem to take on the most organic and personal of origins in that oftentimes earnest/clichéd/never-ending search for self.
For those looking for a rock album to solve every riddle, I wish you way more than luck. But if you’re looking for just about anything else… It’s Boss Time.
It almost always is.