Today, few figures in Rock and Roll are as beloved as Bruce Springsteen, but that wasn’t always the case. For his debut and sophomore albums, Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. and The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle, Columbia Records marketed their spirited young signee as “The New Bob Dylan” and as a so called “Street Poet”. As apt as those descriptions were and as much as Springsteen fans like myself love and appreciate those first albums the marketing wasn’t sufficient and Bruce had yet to find commercial success as an artist. Out east the young Boss and his E Street band were performing now legendary 3 hour long live sets and early fans insisted that “you’ve gotta see him live”, but Bruce had yet to earn himself a spot in the halls of the Rock Pantheon. With only 1 more record on his Columbia deal Bruce assessed himself as having 1 final shot at that dream and, likely, 1 last shot at the rest of his life. Under that pressure the raw talent of Springsteen evolved into a glorious brilliance and singular vision that most artists can only dream of. From that brilliance and vision sprang an album that I can’t hope to critique as its power and status are far greater than me. It is an album whose place in the Legend of Rock and Roll is definite and an album that tramps like us can’t help but revere. Of course, it was 1975’s Born to Run.
Born to Run is a work of art thoroughly steeped in adolescent ambition and an appropriately youthful mixture of exuberance and fear. The precise setting of Born to Run‘s musical vignettes is hardly of consequence, only the essence of it matters: a small town somewhere in the continental United States. It is an album that, despite being hopeful, is seldom positive. Bruce presents tales of desperation not unlike his own at the time: an invitation to run away for a better life, a mythological recounting of the E Street Band’s formation, a broken man’s therapy behind the wheel after sunset, the degradation of childhood promises amidst maturity and tragedy, hopeless obsession and love for a woman who can’t be tamed, a broke young wannabe criminal’s final attempt at a score, and an aspiring rock star’s love and demise in the streets. The stories that Bruce tells are hardly brand new, in fact, the recurring textual motifs of cars and women pervaded Rock and Roll (notably at the hands of Chuck Berry, The Beach Boys, and The Beatles) for nearly 2 decades. But through that language so familiar to middle-America and Rock and Roll Bruce found his vehicle for crafting great classic Rock.
Much of Bruce’s power comes from the tangibility and humanity in his figure that was, and is, rare of such brilliant musicians. While many of the legends and geniuses of music in the mid-late 60’s and early 70’s like Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, and David Bowie possessed a mythological and unattainable air around them, Bruce was just a hard working man with a guitar and a pen. Bruce’s voice could belong to just some guy in any town in America, and it’s limit, grit, and imperfection sell the stories his songs tell all the better for it. The language he uses, as I alluded to earlier, is understandable and relatable to anybody across the great nation he loves so much. He is a blue collar poet, writing verse that is not enigmatic like Dylan’s or nearly as complex, but no less profound and far more approachable. He gets the struggle of the every man because he lived the struggle of the every man. Springsteen’s persona reeks of this dirt road simplicity so deeply that once he became truly rich and famous in the early 80’s, he made a point to keep the same friend group, play in the same bars, and live in the same community as he did before he “made it”. We all root for Springsteen because, whether or not he knows it, he represents the purest realization of the American Dream. He made it, and it didn’t change him. His identity is so unflinching that, as he explained to former President Obama on the Renegades: Born in the USA podcast, when Bruce bought a $10,000 brand new Camaro in the 80’s, he was embarrassed to be seen driving it. “It wasn’t me,” he explained, “and I didn’t earn it”.
Springsteen takes familiar themes and considers them in the context of his time. In 2021, the concept of not having cell phones or the internet seems alien, but in the 70’s if you just hit the road then nobody had any hope of finding you. The country was less connected, had less people living in it, and altogether just felt bigger. The vast expanse of the open road was romantic, as it always has been, but unlike the 50’s and 60’s there was a sense of dread in the air, looming over our nearly 200 year old nation. The aftermath of the Vietnam war, Watergate, America’s loss of innocence, the gas crisis, and all of the trials and tribulations that defined this new American age are felt in Born to Run, despite never being explicitly acknowledged. The uncertainty that hung over the 50 states certainly runs throughout Born to Run, but, far more importantly, so did the hope. Hope for a brighter tomorrow, a better life, the promises of excitement that defined early Rock and Roll are what the listener comes away with, not the fear. Best communicated by the nameless narrators of “Thunder Road” and the title track to Mary and Wendy is the sense that, although we don’t know what lies out there for us, there’s only one way to find out. It could mean a new life better in every way than the old, or it could mean instability, pain, and tragedy. But hell, that’s a risk that these characters are willing to take. It’s a desperate call for one big shot at greatness that perfectly mirrors the Hail Mary pass for Springsteen that was this album. Appropriately, we never find out what happens to many of Springsteen’s characters, but sometimes ambiguity and wonder are much more satisfying than a concrete ending.
For the actual music of Born to Run, Springsteen needed grand, lush, sweeping instrumentals to capture his vision and oh boy did he deliver. The album’s liner notes acknowledge no less than 17 individual musicians for their work on Born to Run including the talents of violinists, trombonists, various types of saxophonists, an organ player, a man who played trumpet and flugelhorn, and a collection of several drummers and bassists who supported the core E-Street Band. The arrangements shine in particular moments in which the quality of the instrumentals seem to perfectly compliment the emotional intensity of Bruce’s lyrics. Whether it be fun little moments like Bruce singing about when “the Big Man joined the band” only for “Big Man” Clarence Clemons to throw in a little saxophone flair, or the triumphant infectious energy of Bruce counting 1-2-3-4 in the title track before launching into a mighty power chord and singing about the “broken heroes on a last chance power drive”. Of course Born to Run is a towering musical achievement when considered in its entirety, but it’s the little moments that they get right that make the whole thing, for me.
Under the pressure of the circumstances, the Boss needed everything to be just right for his last-ditch album to be a success. Reportedly, the recording sessions for Born to Run were torturous for the musicians involved. I’m glad they were because the album is what earned Bruce and his E-Street band great success and it gave us a great album, but when you hear that, allegedly, Clarence’s 3 minute saxophone solo in the epic 10 minute final track took 16 hours to record to Bruce’s liking, it is certainly shocking. The oppressive vision of an American master may cause suffering to those involved, but hey, if it means an album that is as deep and thoughtful as it is fun and easy to listen to, then I’d say it’s worth it. It’s the only way that Springsteen could have realized his vision, and listening to an album without any wasted time, where every piece of every song feels just right, I think the people who were tortured by the Boss during recording can appreciate the necessity of their pain.
Of the works of Rock and Roll that will live on forever, long past this current age in which true Rock and Roll clings hopelessly for dear life to a shifting musical landscape, Born to Run will always have a special place in the catalogue. Capturing the feeling of the individual responsible for it, the essence of the time, and a series of universal and recognizable themes all scored by incredible instrumentals, Born to Run is a landmark work for Springsteen and Rock at large. I, along with leagues of other music fans, love this album and always will. Sometimes we take music for granted, especially in the age of formulaic senseless pop music around every corner. Sometimes, though, I listen to something so good that it makes me stop and think to myself “Wow. We are truly lucky to have gotten the opportunity to experience music like this.” Born to Run is one of those works, and it gets me every time.