22. Bruce Springsteen - Born to Run

There are pivotal points in the career of a musician.  Will anyone show up to my gig?  After that, it's the pursuit of the ever elusive record deal, usually cloaked in legalese that harkens back to the days of feudal lords and serfs.  Finally, you get to the point of asking if anyone is listening out there.  "Can I write that great album that everybody loves?"  There are pitfalls along the way, with countless bands and artists swallowed up by the unforgiving and unquenchable beast that is the music business.

 In early 1974, 24 year-old Bruce Springsteen was at the precipice of that last step.  People had come to his shows and liked what they heard, enough so that he landed that record deal that so many never even get a sniff of.  After two albums that resulted in lackluster sales and tepid critical response, Bruce found himself at that final threshold.  To use the ubiquitous (yet utterly appropriate) baseball metaphor, he had swung twice and missed, leaving him with two strikes and only one swing left.  If he missed again, he and his band, the E Street Band, knew they would lose their record deal and their musical lives would be, for all intents and purposes, over.  Not too much pressure, though.

Many other artists have wilted under that kind of pressure, but at 24, Springsteen decided that on his next album he was going to leave nothing in the tank.  He was swinging for the fences.  Go big or go home.  He wanted it to be perfect.  He needed it to be perfect.  If he was going to fail in the music business, it was going to be after giving it the best shot he knew how to give.  And he did.  He said in an interview, “When I did Born To Run, I thought, 'I'm going to make the greatest rock 'n' roll record ever made.”  And he may just have.  That arrogance and confidence is evident particularly in the title track.  The song “Born to Run” took him six months to finish, and instead of sounding like a tired, hashed retread that comes across like it's been overthought, there’s an excitement and freshness to it, with an abundance of energy that is so contagious that you can't help but sing along.
When you're listening to "Born to Run," it's easy to get caught up in the emotion and fast pace of the song.  In that frame of mind, it's also easy to miss the masterful musicianship that helps create that "live" feel.  The guitar starts out pretty standard, with an almost whimsical xylophone matching the melody.  The xylophone, mimicking the toy models of our youth, harkens back to simpler times where the world wasn't so complicated.  The drums pulse and the bass line matches, creating the heartbeat of the song.  Clarence Clemens' saxophone is used throughout the song as a rhythm instrument, which adds a depth to the sound of the song without making you think, "Hey, that's a freakin' sax in the background, isn't it?"  And Bruce pays Clarence back by letting him tear it loose with a sax solo instead of the stock guitar solo.  Ballsy move that pays off big time.

When you listen closely to the drum track, though, which at first sounds pretty standard, it turns out to be very intricate.  There's even been a rumor that to get a unique drum sound, Bruce had drummer Ernest "Boom" Carter play the track backwards (last beat to first), and that Bruce and producer Mike Appel then reversed in the mix.  I wish I could have found confirmation on this, but after an extensive amount of research, it remained only a rumor.  But what a cool rumor!  Much better than the one where Spock killed JFK.

As "Born to Run" transitions to the bridge, they add some flange effects, giving it a dreamlike quality.  As the bridge comes to a close, every single musician just goes nuts as they build up to, and through, the key change.  That trick of taking the song and kicking it up to the next key had been around before "Born to Run," but it had never been used as effectively.  Bruce used it to take the song to that next level that you didn't even know was there, and countless rock bands have cribbed the technique.  It's the songwriting equivalent to Spinal Tap's amps going to eleven.  If you need that extra kick, just add a key change.  Fellow Jersey natives Bon Jovi even paid homage with their own key change in "Livin' on a Prayer."

With such a strong musical base to start from, the lyrics in "Born to Run" had a high standard to reach.  Bruce nailed both sides of the equation.  The lyrics do a wonderful job of capturing the angst and restlessness of a young man who wants to do so much with his life, but has no real idea on how to do it.  He assumes the character of that headstrong greaser who's desperate to leave his hometown of Asbury Park, New Jersey, and hit the big time somewhere else - anywhere else. 

Baby this town rips the bones from your back
It's 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

So many of us growing up wanted to get out of that environment and move somewhere else that would fulfill our thirst for adventure and satisfy our soul.  Bruce made you want to grow up in Jersey, even if it was to just grow up and then frantically want to leave.  Truth be told, though, for just about as many of us, that place probably doesn't exist outside of our imagination.  The "grass is greener" cliche is there for a reason - it's true most of the time.  That perfect life is an oasis that so many modern-day Don Quixotes chase.

In all honesty, some of the lyrics border on the preposterous.  When he screams out the line "just wrap your legs around these velvet rims and strap your arms around my engines," part of me wants to laugh.  It's that macho, Maxim-magazine poetry where he's trying to be the blue collar Shakespeare.  But to his fellow gearheads, it rings true.  That's how they think, where their cars are the physical manifestation of their libidos, where one is almost inseparable from the other.

But even with the over the top lyrics, there's true honest-to-goodness poetry, where he realizes that they're not going anywhere and have to live with that fact.

Together wendy we'll live with the sadness
I'll love you with all the madness in my soul
Someday girl I don't know when were gonna get to that place
Where we really want to go and well walk in the sun
But 'till then, tramps like us, baby we were born to run

So there our hero remains, right where he started, tilting at windmills and dreaming of a bigger, better life.  It's a tale that unfortunately rings true to too many people.  With a wisdom well beyond his years, the twenty-four year-old Bruce Springsteen did, in fact, go on to record one of the greatest records in the history of rock & roll.  And the song that took him six months to craft ended up being the one that shot him into the stratosphere of popularity and critical acclaim that he so longed for.  The song about reaching for the stars and living with the fact of falling short reversed itself in real life, ending with almost all of Bruce's dreams coming true.  It's the life that every rocker dreams of, and Bruce ended up living.

Two videos on this one.  The first is a live clip of "Born to Run" (I looked through hundreds of YouTube videos looking for one with the album version, but couldn't find it.  I highly recommend listening to the fruits of Bruce's six months of work, though, it's pretty amazing).  The second is a great video that Jimmy Fallon did for the start of the 2010 Emmys, doing the song with the cast of "Glee" (plus a few more guests.  Who knew John Hamm had that in him!)  Enjoy!

(Ironic Fact #12:  There was a movement to make "Born to Run" the official state song of New Jersey.  A song where the protagonist longs to be somewhere else...  Bruce Springsteen also had his song, "Born in the USA" appropriated by the 1984 presidential campaign of Ronald Reagan, using it as a patriotic flag-waving anthem.  In reality, though, the song is about a man coming back from Vietnam who is disillusioned by his government and country, longing for the simpler patriotic lifestyle of years past, but stuck in a present where he despairs over the state of his country's future.)

(Fun Fact #512: You always picture Springsteen on a guitar, rocking out like his life depended on it, but with the exception of the great opening, he wrote the majority of "Born to Run" on a piano.)
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