A Musical Journey with Nicklas: Part 9 – Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band – Born to Run – 1975
So much of my musical universe revolves around New York and we will return to the Naked City – as it has sometimes been called – sooner or later but for now we are going to take the tunnel under the Hudson to revisit one of those singular moments that define not only the artist but also the history of rock. An album that without much argument can be compared to Pink Floyd – Dark Side of the Moon, Led Zeppelin – I, Rainbow – Rising, Patti Smith – Horses, Television – Marquee Moon or for that matter Sonic Youth – Daydream Nation, when it comes to greatness and influence on.
In 1974 Jon Landau wrote an article in the Boston based alternative weekly magazine The Real Paper in which he quite prophetically stated: “I saw rock and roll future and its name is Bruce Springsteen,” Having read the article Bruce Springsteen actually hired Jon Landau to be his manager and to co-produce his next album which was to become the album that would – at least over the next few years – prove his prophecy true.
Ladies and Gentlemen I give you: Born to Run.
Born to Run is a black and white rock n roll anthem exploding in full scale Technicolor about the youth of small town America with dreams larger than life but very little future or hope of escaping the inevitable steel mill, coal mine, teenage pregnancy and marriage and presumably a bitter divorce waiting down the years. It is also a celebration of its broken heroes in their suicide machines jamming the highway in their desperate attempts to catch the runaway American dream or trying to escape the trap about to close around them.
This is a feeling I think most people who’ve grown up in small industrial towns where the local industry has been shut down can relate to. The restlessness and hopelessness, living off dreams you keep chasing long after they have got away from you until one day you wake up and realize that you were shot down by your own dreams years ago because somehow the chase is always more exciting than the catch. And you kept chasing the dreams because the chase was the only thing driving you to keep going.
In many ways Born to Run is just as bleak as York its just a different angle and expression. York is a metropolitan album dealing with the problems of large metropolitan areas while Born to Run – like most of Bruce Springsteen’s music deals with small town or rural America. Plus the fact that there are more than two decades between the albums during which things only got worse both from a financial and social point of view.
Despite all this Born to Run still manages to exude an abundance of hope that the dreams in all their unattainable glory will come true if you only get out while you’re still young enough to pursue them. The following albums Darkness on the Edge of Town, The River and Nebraska are all much darker and much less hopeful than Born to Run.
The album begins in a relatively positive tone with Thunder Road about courtship and the freedom of the open road: “Lying out there like a killer in the sun” with “two lanes will take us anywhere” and ”Heavens waiting on down the tracks” The last verse indicates that the song is about that broken hero still full of dreams and a hope about making it out asking a girl called Mary – who has been “praying in vain For a savior to rise from these streets” and she “aint a beauty, but hey you’re alright” – to join him because “Its a town full of losers And I’m pulling out of here to win.”
There are of course hints of the hopelessness and more importantly the frustration present in Thunder Road too a frustration that grows as the album moves along towards its increasingly inevitable crash and burn when “The Rat’s own dream guns him down” and “No one watches as the ambulance pulls away” while the poets who write nothing at all reach for their moment in the quick of the night trying to make an honest stand but wind up wounded not even dead, in Jungleland.
Much of Born to Run is semi-autobiographical like for instance in Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out when “the big man joins the band”, this reference to saxophone player Clarence Clemons – who was such a vital part of the E Street Band’s sound – gives you the feeling that the song is about Bruce’s own journey out of Freehold, NJ and that first gig across the Hudson where he was: “stranded in the jungle Taking all the heat they was giving”. That feeling of being lost in the jungle once you actually make it out of whatever small town you left behind is what eventually drives the album across the monumental finishing line in Jungleland, after which you don’t know whether to scream or cry.
I mentioned earlier that the small town kids of Born to Run had dreams larger than life but very little future and between a football scholarship to the state university and joining the mafia the only way out was rock n roll fuelled by the broken dreams of those who didn’t make it out.
The frustration creeps up on you almost without you noticing it until the title track throws of the last rags of the American dream. The first verse of Born to Run is almost as desperately frustrated as York ever was although not as gritty and dirty.
“In the day we sweat it out in the streets of a runaway american dream
At night we ride through mansions of glory in suicide machines
Sprung from cages out on highway 9,
Chrome wheeled, fuel injected and steppin out over the line
Baby this town rips the bones from your back
Its a death trap, it’s a suicide rap
We gotta get out while were young
`cause tramps like us, baby we were born to run”
And now we are approaching that singular moment in rock history I promised at the beginning of this review. It is with the gravitationally intense build up and perfectly timed breakdown of pure rock n roll euphoria before the last verse of Born to Run that Bruce Springsteen truly earns his nickname. Those 30 seconds are where he stakes his claim to the rock n roll hall of fame and where Born to Run earns its immortality. It is one of the singularly grandest, most beautiful moments in rock history. And of course it is the moment where Jon Landau’s prophecy becomes true.
Cars and riding the highways have always been a central theme in Bruce Springsteen’s music and often used as a symbol for escape but also for freedom and to be honest having just got my driver’s license when I bought this album in 1992 I totally got the idea. I taped this album on both sides of a c60 tape and went riding through the night in my VW bug – a far cry from the Mustangs, Dodges, Cadillacs and Chevrolets of Bruce Springsteen’s world. But Maureen – as I named her after the drummer from Velvet Underground – was just as much a suicide machine and the mansions of glory were more or less the same just in a different context. More importantly the feeling of absolute freedom of a roaring engine flying down an empty highway is the same wherever you are and whatever you drive. The same goes for blowing of steam and frustration using much the same method no matter what you are trying to get away from.
And yes, deep down that is what Born to Run is all about, Freedom and Escape. Any which way but lose even though most who try do. About finding that one whose love can save you from the bitterness “With her tenderness that secret pact you made” And most importantly about not getting lost in Jungleland once you do get away.
Now Jungleland just as the title track is a masterpiece all in its own right and I neither of them can be done any form of justice using just words. They have to be experienced.
Lyrically Jungleland is one of Bruce Springsteen’s finest moments as it sums up the death and glory of any old summer night in New York City. From the Rangers’ homecoming up in Harlem to the silent poets trying to make sense of the ambulance carrying the dying Rat off into the grey misty dawn almost like a Cowboy riding off into the desert at the end of a Sergio Leone movie. The whole song could also quite easily have been a scene from West Side Story. Musically it is simply stupefying and as I said it simply has to be experienced so I won’t even try to describe it. Just be prepared to be blown away.
For the full album: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=74_BbBj2pVg