Classics Revisited: Bruce Springsteen - 'Born to Run'

This instalment of Classics Revisited sees editor-in-chief Cameron take a look back at Born to Run – Bruce Springsteen’s last-ditch breakthrough turned rock and roll staple.

Springsteen’s magnum opus. A controversial debate in itself, many would make a compelling case for the barrage of legend-status records which followed the one we find ourselves discussing today. Could it be the decade-defining, blockbuster pop of 1984’s Born in the U.S.A.? Surely the gritty urban rock of Darkness on the Edge of Town hits harder than any other? What about its follow-up double album The River, with all its colourful characters and stories packed into 84 minutes of concise, catchy songwriting? This writer argues in favour of none of the above, for it was the time The Boss spent writing and recording his breakthrough third album Born to Run in which he became one with the hopes, dreams and desperation of the fabled, road-worn characters whose stories found their voice in his songs.

"Born to Run is a classic purely by virtue of its impeccable perfectionism and unprecedented significance in Bruce Springsteen’s discography."

1975 is Springsteen’s last shot at the big time. His first two releases, Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. and The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle, had received praise from critics, but cuts now considered Springsteen staples such as Rosalita (Come Out Tonight) would only see the light of radio airplay after the release of his third effort. Albums now considered charming, with their film reel tales of coastal town romance, disorder and promise, simply failed to stand out in a post-Dylan era where folk-rock singers on the East Coast came ten a penny. With faith in his unique style (once aptly dubbed ‘the love child of Bob Dylan and James Brown’ by Jon Stewart at the 2009 Kennedy Center Honors Ceremony) and the radio response to an early demo of the title track, Columbia Records handed Springsteen the budget he needed to make his masterpiece. Which he did, but not without a few hurdles.

Image courtesy of Eric Meola

Clouded by intense artistic frustration and a deep desire for the universal recognition his songwriting so obviously possessed the potential to achieve, Springsteen spent an entire 14 months on Born to Run, with six dedicated to the title track alone. With a degree of physical and mental exertion perhaps comparable in contemporary terms to Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, engineer Jimmy Iovine recalled the final master of the record arriving for the first time with The Boss on the road, only for him to throw it into the nearest pool and propose scrapping the entire project. Under more pressure from his own vision than from the label, Springsteen assembled a vast array of musicians including newcomers drummer Max Weinberg and pianist Roy Bittan (now revered members of the E Street Band), and together they made diamonds, even if Bruce’s vision was moving too fast for him to see it.

Thunder Road is the most scintillating of openings but with the most humble of subject matters. Erratic piano from Bittan leads into The Boss’ enchanted bellow as the lead protagonist whisks his girl into the night to the beat of Weinberg’s drums and Springsteen’s chugging guitar licks. The sand from the New Jersey tales on previous records has settled into the tarmac as a prospective musician balances ambition and lust on the head of his guitar, only for the impenetrable sound of ‘The Big Man’ Clarence Clemons’ saxophone to blow the dust right back into the beach air as the pair escape closed-off monotony and spiritual unfulfillment. The power in Thunder Road isn’t intended for idealistic settings - in fact it prospers in desperation - and it sets out to prove that prosperity in a manner comparable to Springsteen himself.

"It is now difficult to fathom how one could hear the master and dismiss its value as a seminal piece of music."

In what has become known as the ‘four corners’ approach to sequencing a record (the opening and closing tracks of each side of the record evoke a specific emotion, Springsteen would employ the same technique on Darkness on the Edge of Town), the title track was chosen to kick off the second side to the record with an uplifting energy to parallel or even surpass Thunder Road. It was almost a project within a project, with Springsteen ultimately laying down more than a dozen guitar tracks to litter the song’s wall of sound, only to ensure the vocals and Clemons’ sax make even more of an emphatic statement as they break through in flashes of passion and desire. A steadier tune narrated by an adolescent on the brink of understanding what it means to feel love for the first time, Born to Run has become nothing short of a legendary offering amidst Springsteen’s vast catalogue of stunning singles, not least because of its magical allure in a live setting. It stands as Springsteen’s most prominent live track, racking up over 1,700 performances in 45 years.

The stints of opportunity in Born to Run serve to punctuate the despair that often lies between the lines of the tracks that appear jovial in their instrumental arrangements. The iconic piano riff on Backstreets flickers and grooves its way into Springsteen’s stomach-wrenching howl on the hook, yet the track’s lyrics dance around the specifics of its subject-matter, leaving all but the desolation of the titular urban areas and the heartbreaking destruction of a devoted relationship to the listeners’ imagination. Equally cryptic, Meeting Across the River features undoubtedly the most minimalist arrangement on the record but sees Springsteen’s voice carry the track through the tense air surrounding a make-or-break illicit transaction. “If we blow this one, they ain’t gonna be looking for just me this time” is soundtracked by distantly whimpering horns, as if to mark opposing banks of a river in the tense prelude to a civil war conflict. As has become one of Springsteen’s trademarks, the protagonist’s moral authority comes in the form of a female motif, as he assures his nerves “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 talking”.

Image courtesy of Eric Meola

A gargantuan near 10-minute closer, Jungleland is as much a piece of cinema as it is a rock song. An impossibly strong contender for best (Springsteen) song, it is now difficult to fathom how one could hear the master, with all the manic, lonesome pianowork in its closing moments, and dismiss its value as a seminal piece of music. To detail every moment of this jazz rock opera would be a disservice to both its uncodifiably thrilling quality and the potential for another to experience its beauty for themselves. Clemons’ tenor sax is always chilling, but when in perfect synergy with Weinberg’s rocking beat and Suki Lahav’s violin in the middle section, Jungleland becomes a monster even beyond the control of Springsteen himself. The Boss strips it back down to the piano for the last third to mirror the way the majority of his magnum opus was conceived.

Born to Run is a classic purely by virtue of its impeccable perfectionism and unprecedented significance in Bruce Springsteen’s discography. Clocking in at under 40 minutes in length, it’s a record which not only tells stories, but sparks the imagination as to the resolutions of its often open-ended plot lines. But it was Springsteen himself who suffered the most at the hands of an unresolved conclusion, never satisfied that Born to Run was up to date with his evolving artistic imagination.