Born to Run is The Great American Rock and Roll Record.
In his Rolling Stone review for Born to Run in 1975, a completely floored Greil Marcus wrote in between his praises and awe, “We know the story: one thousand and one American nights, one long night of fear and love.” Comparing the album to an American iteration of the august and revered Thousand and One Nights is actually quite fitting. With its various, vivid narratives featuring characters determined to find something better and its all-encompassing narrative of heartbreak and hope through escape, Born to Run channels and epitomizes the qualities of those mythic, oft-attempted but oftener still never-quite-realized entities: The Great American Novel and The American Short Story.
Bruce Springsteen examines runaway American dreams and deadbeat town angst with sweeping narratives and songs so grand that when singing along or mouthing each of his finely-tuned lyrics you can’t help but bite back the tears. Springsteen paints a landscape illuminated by gas station signs where big dreams lay busted and decaying like the skeleton frames of burned-out Chevrolets. There’s genuine beauty to every urgent line the Boss belts out, each word, each idea, and each image as gorgeous as the promise of two open lanes reaching out far beyond the horizon. Almost every lyric resembles the type of late night, hush-hush, bring-you-closer confessions shared with buddies over a beer; and the first-person pleas to the ladies on the album resemble the type of last-minute devotions and the desperate “I love yous” and “never let me gos” shared between lovers whose quivering hands and entwined fingers are knotted together almost as tightly as their faces, their lips and their eyes.
For Springsteen, Born to Run was his last chance to make it or break it. His first two albums, Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. and The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle received critical acclaim but were commercial flops. Columbia pressured Springsteen to produce a hit or take a hike. The original idea behind Born to Run, before it evolved, supposedly centered on a day in the life of the Jungles of New Jersey, the album bookended by both acoustic and full-band versions of “Thunder Road.” The album was recorded with walls of sound and intense layering at the Record Plant in New York rather than the modest 914 Sounds Studios. Springsteen’s line-up on the album changed with introduction of new keyboardist Roy Bittan and new drummer/future television personality Max Weinberg. When determining the album’s song sequence, Springsteen settled on a four corners approach, placing optimistic tales of escapism to open each side of the record (“Thunder Road” and “Born to Run“) and ending each side with tales of loss (“Backstreets” and “Jungleland”).
Born to Run, propelled by much-deserved hype, peaked at number three on the Billboard charts, later placing as the 18th and 27th-greatest album of all time on lists by Rolling Stone and VH1, respectively. Though the title track only peaked at #23 on charts, it would eventually be voted the 21st best song of all time by Rolling Stone.
The sense of urgency that likely infected the album’s recording sessions can be felt throughout the album, from every half-sung growl by Springsteen to every impassioned cry, from the impeccable production to saxophonist Clarence Clemons’ bright blares that season almost every song. On the opener, the cinematic “Thunder Road,” you can sense that desperation to leave and start over as soon as possible even from its small town pianos and harmonica. The rush to make it out is particularly pronounced in those lovely last lines:
You hear their engines roaring on
But when you get to the porch they’re gone
On the wind, so Mary climb in
It’s a town full of losers
And I’m pulling out of here to win
Originally toying with the titles “Wings for Wheels” and “Glory Road,” Springsteen eventually arrived at the title by way of a Robert Mitchum movie poster for the film Thunder Road. On said poster, Mitchum leans forward with gun in hand, the tagline over a brightly colored car wreck reading that our hero “roars down the hottest highway on earth!” And the way the song reads plays, one can almost see an aged Mitchum walking up to homely Mary; Roy Orbison’s “Only the Lonely” playing in the background as he places his hands on Mary’s shoulders and utters the lyrics/lines, “Darling, you know just what I’m here for. So you’re scared and you’re thinking that maybe we ain’t that young anymore. Show a little faith, there’s magic in the night. You ain’t a beauty, but hey, you’re alright; oh and that’s alright with me.”
Following the first of the four corners is the autobiographical tale of the birth of the E Street Band, “Tenth Avenue Freeze Out.” Springsteen’s alter ego, Bad Scooter, seeks the dark night city sidewalks — “bright and lined with the light of the living” — for a groove. Scooter meets up with the Big Man, the alter ego of Clemons who, fittingly, wails on a sax fill when he’s mentioned. Clemons was originally an aspiring football player until an injury kept him permanently sidelined.
The tale of Springsteen’s and Clemons’ first meeting feels just as much a tall tale as “Tenth Avenue Freeze Out.” On a dark and stormy night in Asbury park, Bad Scooter was playing a show when suddenly the Big Man opened the door, a blustery gust sending it off its hinges. Big Man and Scooter eventually became friends and went on to bust the city in half while making little pretties raise their hands.
Closing out the first side of the album is the heartbroken ballad “Backstreets,” a familiar tale of relationship turned sour, leading to the fear of losing not just a lover but a friend in the aftermath. The piano that ushers in the song feels like the first cold rain of autumn or that first early sunset at the end of August, bursting into emotional blooms by the E Street Band. Terry is that analogue for the one that hurt you bad and left a scar; that one you couldn’t forgive and got away; that one that ain’t ever coming back.
“Backstreets” starts out with friendly beach house binges, leading to slow dances at Stockton’s Wing and fond memories in parked cars before the midnight breakdown. During the final verse, the most painful moment comes when Springsteen sings
Remember all the movies, Terry
We’d go see
Trying to learn how to walk like the heroes
We thought we had to be
And after all this time
To find out we’re just like the rest
The pain comes not from the memory of Terry at this point of the song, but from the fact the narrator is laying in the dark, alone, saying all of this, speaking to just a specter of his friend.
Some have suggested that “Backstreets” is actually about a clandestine gay relationship that falls apart because it can’t be kept hidden. Given the sexual ambivalence of the name Terry and the refrain about hiding on the backstreets, there may or may not be some credence to the interpretation. It may or may not be an accurate interpretation, but the fact that “Backstreets” can swing (and sulk) either way adds an extra dimension to the familiar tale. Thematically, it’d be a strong soundtrack candidate for a film adaptation of Michael Chabon’s The Mysteries of Pittsburgh if they ever decided to make one.
Of course there is the all important title song, the brightest of the four corners, “Born to Run.” It’s a song so powerful there was a movement to make it New Jersey’s official state song — ironic in that the song is generally thought to be about getting out of New Jersey. It’s the escape anthem with as much fire in its heart as it has tears in its eyes — one which all songs of escape inevitably get compared to. It’s a song where the proclamation “I wanna die with you Wendy on the streets tonight / In an everlasting kiss” can still make people melt and bawl while they sing along to the song’s conclusion. When Springsteen first played “Born to Run” opening for Bonnie Raitt in 1974, it caused rock critic and future manager Jon Landau to proclaim, “I saw rock and roll’s future — and it’s name is Bruce Springsteen.”
Unlike Springsteen’s prior compositions, “Born to Run” was written for studio production rather than to be played live. The song evolved in the suburban studios his two prior albums were recorded in. He would go on to develop his reputation for perfectionism, layering guitar track after guitar track, refusing to release the song until he got it just right. The end result was a song that reaches perfection from its love letter prose to its powerful production.
Whereas the heroes of “Thunder Road” are older and well worn, the heroes of “Born to Run” have the vim and vigor of youth. The feel of the two songs seems to reflect that as well. Though both refer to urgent attempts to escape the traps of a wicked little town, “Born to Run” is the more energetic and go-for-broke of the two bright corners of the album. The words even have that feel of a crazy kid in love, his emotions and his romance raw rather than refined. Older folks would be hard pressed to scrawl down or speak words with such intense images. The Mitchum man of “Thunder Road” wouldn’t tell Mary “ Baby, this town rips the bones from your back” in the same way that the narrator of “Born to Run” wouldn’t tell his beloved and worth-dying-for Wendy “You ain’t a beauty, but hey you’re alright.” It’s a testament to Springsteen’s songwriting that he can develop such distinct identities in his first person narratives even as he explores the same territory.
Springsteen said that the meaning of the song has changed over the years, and even performed a different version of the song during a 1988 tour. This version of the song was slowed down and the lyrics changed so that the narrator and Wendy were wed. This was perhaps a marriage between the more mature sensibilities of “Thunder Road” and the rush of the original “Born to Run.” But whether Wendy and our hero’s tale is about getting out of town, trying to figure out where their lives are headed, trying to get back home, or trying to beat the odds, the most important thing is that they do it together. Maybe, just maybe, they’ll make it.
The sprawling, nine-minute closer, “Jungleland,” was strangely not included on the 1995 Greatest Hits collection, much to the chagrin of Clemons who cites the song as one of his favorites. Comparisons have been made between “Jungleland” protagonist The Magic Rat and “Incident on 57th Street” character Spanish Johnny from The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle.
Springsteen’s lyrics are peppered by lush details like the notion of “Drinking warm beer in the soft summer rain” or saying of a fracas, “Man, there’s an opera out on the Turnpike / There’s a ballet being fought out in the alley.” There’s also the gorgeous imagery like “Kid flash guitars just like switchblades hustling for the record machines” or that image of an Exxon sign lighting the town. The song shifts from straightforward rock, giving way for Clemons’ sax solo, which in turn gives way to a defeated, downtrodden conclusion. Spingsteen’s voice and his accompanying piano sound exhausted as he recounts:
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 all be
Our heroes wind up wounded, not even dead, Springsteen points out, as the album rounds its last dark corner toward shadowy uncertainty.
At the end of any good story, we’re bound to ask a question in the vein of “What next” or “What will happen to…” because we’ve become so involved with the narrative and its characters. Will Sal Paradise still dream of Dean Moriarty? What will Scout be like when she grows up? How are James Nightshade and William Holloway; and Huck Finn, Tom Sawyer, and Jim; and Nick Carroway; and Holden Caulfield; and the Joads and the Trasks? So too, one wonders what will happen with the characters of Born to Run. How are Terry and the narrator of “Backstreets” doing now? Did Mary ride out for a win? Did Wendy wind up wrapping around her sweetheart’s body like he was a motorcycle in The Great Escape? Are Scooter and the Big Man still making the ladies squeal and is everyone okay in Jungleland?
But like any story that’s come to an end, we are allowed to imagine, to invent, to participate in the grandest of traditions in storytelling, that is, becoming the inventor of the tales that come after. So despite the darkness in the wilds of Jungleland, we can turn the page, we can turn the record over, and everyone can escape. As the old saying goes, it’s always darkest before the dawn.
So we turn the record over and there we see, cruising down the highway at sunrise in a Chevy that sounds like thunder, the characters of Born to Run. They’re laughing, they’re screaming, they’re belting out impassioned “carpe diems” as the sky turns from tangerine to powder blue. And they’re speeding away leaving burnt rubber contrails on the road as they cross the landscape toward the undiscovered country and that last chance American dream. What a joy it is to see them, all the vagabonds and tramps on their way, racing down the two-lane blacktop and disappearing as a glimmer on a hopeful horizon that stretches out as far as the eye can see.