BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN, Born to Run (Columbia, 1975)
PERSONNEL: Bruce Springsteen (vocals, guitar, harmonica); Garry Tallent (bass); Max Weinberg (drums); Roy Bittan (keyboards); Clarence Clemons (tenor saxophone), and guests
- Thunder Road
- Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out
- Born to Run
- She’s the One
- Meeting Across the River
It was hard to avoid Bruce Springsteen in 1984. The release of Born in the U.S.A. made Springsteen a universal constant on the radio, and seeing his “Dancing in the Dark” video on MTV (back when the network actually focused on music) was never a question of if, but when. It was a really catchy song, and before long I was ensnared in the Springsteen trap. The rest of the album was simply remarkable. This man, I figured, is about to conquer the world.
As it turns out, Springsteen had already done that a decade earlier. I just didn’t know who he was.
My local classic rock station played Springsteen songs like “Hungry Heart” and “The River” all the time. I had heard Manfred Mann’s Earth Band sing “Blinded by the Light.” and the Pointer Sisters belt out “Fire.” I would soon learn these were also Springsteen songs. But if there was one tune the radio was all over, it was a song called “Born to Run.” I never changed the station when it came on, but I didn’t go out of my way to turn it up, either. But now that the Boss bug had bitten, it was my natural instinct to dive into the artist’s back catalog. And that is how the 1975 LP Born to Run found its way into my collection.
I’ve always liked the album. But only very recently have I come to appreciate it for the work of sheer brilliance it is. The fact is, I got sick of Bruce Springsteen by the end of the ’80s. The man was everywhere! His songs of blue collar life, cars, criminals, and the women that came with them resonated the world ’round. (Ironic, considering Springsteen — by his own admission during his one-man Broadway show — never actually lived that life. He was just really good at writing about it.) By the ’90s, I had moved on to other things. A couple of years ago, I allowed myself to go back and re-collect some of the music I discarded in favor of progressive rock, jazz, and alternative rock. Springsteen was on the list.
There is nothing complicated about Springsteen’s songs. I was used to trippy time signatures, complicated chords, and esoteric lyrics. The Boss was the musical equivalent of “three chords and a cloud of dust” by comparison. I did watch a chunk of a concert video from a performance in New York shortly after 9/11. My acoustic guitar was on my lap at the time. It was almost frightening how quickly I learned some of his songs on the fly. There was nothing to them. But they worked!
Born to Run truly drives that point home. From the opening strains of “Thunder Road,” Springsteen reveals himself as a master lyricist. A good songwriter paints a picture with his words. Springsteen was filming a movie. “The screen door slams / Mary’s dress waves / Like a vision she dances across the porch / As the radio plays.” You can’t NOT see that image, and completely feel the story that follows. The narrator wants to move on to bigger and better things in his life, preferably away from where he lives. And he wants to take Mary with him. One can’t help but root for him.
“Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” establishes the presence of the E Street Band like few other tunes. It is the ultimate Saturday night tune, with Springsteen letting it all hang out lyrically while the horn section vamps and the rhythm section nails down the groove. Saxophonist Clarence Clemons steps to the forefront in a major way, an introduction to what lies ahead. I used to scoff that Clemons was no John Coltrane, but he doesn’t have to be! He was the perfect foil for Springsteen, and that is all he ever had to be.
“Night” is, for me, the weakest song on the album, and it’s still fantastic. It is the sound of the band settling in after the previous tune, and they officially lock themselves in with “Backstreets.” Just try to avoid howling out the chorus with Springsteen. That is very difficult to do.
The title track opens Side Two, and is without question one of THE rock ‘n’ roll anthems of all time. “Born to Run” seems designed to be played in a stadiums in front of tens of thousands of people, each singing the words at the top of their collective lungs. If ever I wanted to be on stage with the E street band, it’s during this song, particularly as the band holds a collective note at the end of the bridge before the final verse, waiting for their leader to count them back in. The image always brings a smile to my face.
I believe “She’s the One” — with its definitive (deliberate?) Bo Diddley shuffle — is vastly underrated. I have often called it a personal favorite on this album. And while I have backed off (slightly) from this statement in favor of the title track, this tune still thrills me to no end. I wish I could hear it live. It would be a LOT of fun to play.
The story told during “Meeting Across the River” is as compelling as it comes. A small-time wannabe gangster recruits his friend to go from New Jersey to New York City for a meeting with a genuine mafioso. Clearly our narrator has screwed the pooch once or twice before, because there is a lot on the line during this particular “face to face.” Equally clear is the feeling that he is going to somehow screw it up again, confirming his girlfriend’s lack of faith in him and leading to God-only-knows what level of consequence. I can’t help but feel for this guy, but I don’t want to be anywhere near that meeting.
“Jungleland,” the album’s finale, combines the best elements of storytelling and stadium anthem, putting the perfect bow on a fantastic album. A lot happens in these tunes, yet everything comes to an end in just over 39 minutes. My Springsteen overload in the ’80s has prevented me for seeing this album for what it is. Born to Run is more than just a classic album. It is a perfect album. And while I have enjoyed plenty of other brilliant records from Bruce Springsteen, none of them strike me the same way this one does. This is truly an album for the ages.
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This was a make-or-break album for Springsteen as his first two at the time had sold, like, three copies. He killed himself working on it in the studio for fear of being dropped by the label and spending the rest of his life playing in Jersey bars or worse. Not sure if you know this but “Tenth Avenue Freezeout” is the story of the band. (By coincidence it came up on my playlist today.) Bad Scooter is a pseudonym for Bruce Springsteen and the sax comes in when he says the Big Man joined the band. He also says “I’m on my own and I can’t go home.” True. His father had either thrown him out or they were badly alienated at the time. Lastly, I recall reading that Bruce was struggling with a horn line till Van Zandt – who was an old friend but not even yet an E Street member – figured it out. This may well all be in the Springsteen on Broadway thing, I forget. But if not, there you go.
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Yeah, the lyrics are too on-the-nose to not be autobiographical. The fact that you can hear the passion and effort just oozing out of the album grooves elevates it that much more.
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I just happened to listen to this great album again, in part to get in the mood for The B Street Band, a great Springsteen tribute I’m planning to see this evening.
With the caveat that I don’t know all Springsteen albums front to back, Born To Run remains my favorite from the Boss to this day.
Apart from the title track, I absolutely dig Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out – love the combination of rock and horns! In my humble opinion, it’s one of the highlights in Springsteen’s catalog.
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