I want to know if love is real
-"Born To Run"
For all intent purposes Bruce Springsteen's third album, Born To Run, is the greatest rock n' roll record ever created. Yes, I know there are other albums deserving of the title including the Rolling Stones Exile On Main Street, the Beatles Revolver, Bob Dylan's Blonde on Blonde, The Who's Who's Next and the list goes on and on. With my statement I'm merely trying to point out, that without question, I view Born To Run as one of the most essential, vital and astonishing records ever created. On any given day, it can stand shoulder to shoulder with some of the aforementioned classics. I first received the album as a gift on cassette back in the late 1980's and I eventually wore the tape out and purchased the only Gold CD I would ever buy in the 90's (remember those?). It turned out that it was during the 1990's when I needed this album the most. Outlining an overwhelming majority of Springsteen's work is heartache and heartbreak and while this album encompasses both, it sounds so glorious; it's hard to not feel buoyant when listening to it. Born To Run was the defining moment where Bruce Springsteen raised the stakes and decided to be more than a regional artist with a cult following. After writing and recording two niche albums displaying varied styles, Springsteen dug his heels in to create an album that wasn't just streamlined and more approachable, but he set out to make the greatest rock n' roll record ever. I'm happy to say he didn't just succeed, but did so wildly.
The legend behind the writing and recording of this album is featured brilliantly on the documentary Wind For Wheels housed inside an equally impressive special edition of the album released in 2005. It features all of the usual elements that make a great drama; Springsteen was almost dropped by his label, the song "Born To Run" took six-months to record, two band members left, arguments over direction, production and management and whether or not the album would live up to all of the hype. Born To Run consists of eight perfect compositions; simplicity at its finest-all killer, no filler. For the first time in his career, Springsteen learned how to use the studio as an instrument to create what was in his head. One of the reasons Springsteen wasn't dropped from his label is because anyone who saw the live show walked away in awe, something that his recorded output up to that point didn't match. For the first time in their career, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band created an album that matched the jubilant and ferocious nature of their live shows. Sonically, Springsteen found middle ground between the pure pop of the 50's and 60's and coupling it with impassioned and prosaic lyrics. It's been said that he melded Dylan's poetic sense but took it a step further by inhibiting the physical and sexual prowess of Elvis, something no one had been able to make a hybrid of up to this point. He simultaneously sounded fresh while evoking a sense of nostalgia to a whole other generation by channeling the likes of Roy Orbison, the Beach Boys and Buddy Holly and framing it inside a Phil Spector "wall of sound". One listen to "She's The One" and you know exactly what I mean. This is a band that brought their aggressive stage energy to the studio for the world to hear. Most importantly, Springsteen found his voice and this was one he would carry with him for over a decade.
At the end of the day, the critics could herald Born To Run as a masterpiece, but if it didn't connect with a larger audience, I wouldn't be writing about it today. Ultimately, for music to grow and evolve over time, it must make a connection with the listener, which Born To Run did victoriously. Beneath all of the marvelous performances and breathtaking lyrics is an unspeakable feeling the album as a whole gives the listener. While I always admired and loved the album, it wasn't until I was older and experienced the loss of love that it truly spoke volumes. The sway and drive of the music simultaneously made you yearn for that lost love, but also provided you with the hope that the best was yet to come ("Where we really want to go and we'll walk in the sun"). Four songs fill each side of the record. Each side kicks off with escapism anthems ("Thunder Road" and "Born To Run") and finish with devastating epics of loss ("Backstreets" and "Jungleland"). In between are four other songs touching on the same themes of love, friendship and getaways including the celebratory "Tenth Avenue Freeze-out" which breaks down the formation of the E Street Band in a rousing party-like atmosphere. The understated ballad "Meeting Across The River" (which serves as a precursor to "Jungleland") is faint and seducing with its tale of desperation. The anti nine-to-five "Night" finds the E Street Band leaving everyone in the dust of their searing drive while the thunderous Bo Diddley backbeat of "She's The One" speaks of a devil woman who leaves her lover in agony, but the bombast and swaggering music congeals into a succinct, exhaustive and breathtaking finale. All of these songs are still performed in concert to this day eliciting roaring responses nightly. These four songs fill in the gaps of the albums bookends which are the soul of the record.
"Jungleland", which closes the album, is one of the grandest and most sweeping rock epics ever committed to tape. Beginning with hope and optimism, the songs ends amidst death and defeat. Despite this, the nearly ten-minute epic is nothing short of pulverizing with an avalanche of instruments featuring standout moments for pianist Roy Bittan, violinist Suki Lahav and a strident guitar solo but when Clarence Clemmons churns out his saxophone solo, you feel like you are already on the road to redemption despite the characters tragic endings. The E Street Band set their place in history with their performances on this record as they are as vital to the album's outcome as its lyrics and production. Not any of set of musicians could have pulled this off or sound as conquering. The E Street Band should be in the Rock N' Roll Hall of Fame if for no other reason than for being the musicians on this record. Without Born To Run, Springsteen would have not of had the opportunity to evolve into the artist he is today.
On the heart wrenching "Backstreets", the E Street Band continues if reverberating and glorious execution right from the opening piano chords. This song strikes an intensely emotional chord with fans; there is even a fanzine named after it. It reminisces about innocent days where the bond of friendship would never end but as we all know, life doesn't always work out that way. Springsteen's impassioned vocals are one of the defining elements on this record. He always used his voice as an instrument, but here it comes into full bloom. The cracking vocal of "Backstreets" tears through your heart like a samurai sword with a purpose to kill ("I hated you when you went away"). I spent hours listening to this song driving around during the years where I felt abandoned. Sometimes a song doesn't need a silver lining to make you feel better but knowing that someone else out there who has had the same experience provides you with a sense of belonging even if it is in the broken hearts club. We've all had someone we love abandon us whether it be a family member to death, a friend or a lover and the E Street Band's rumbling momentum parallels our highly emotive senses. Love is not a rational thing and at my loneliest I wished I never had known of the feeling of love, because then I never would have known what I lost. Springsteen's aching howl shows him at his most vulnerable and I'd often rewind to hear his gut wrenching vocals time and time again. The lyrics, while rich and evocative, are thankfully lacking specifics. If Springsteen had been too specific, it would not allow us to draw from our own experiences and place ourselves in the song. I often think about the loves lost, friends I've lost touch with and those whom I rarely see anymore. The youthful bond between friends and lovers is finely tuned in our youth and in some ways, whether words are exchanged or not, the acute love we feel for these people may go unequalled in life. "We swore forever friends on the backstreets until the end" isn't just a lyric; it's a way of life for legions of Springsteen fans. In it we find solace from the heartache of life while hope that we find another "Terry" somewhere down the line.
While each side of the album ends in a pained crescendo, the lead-off tracks on both sides are full of muscular resolve. On "Thunder Road", no dream seems unrealistic and no amount of bravado seems out of place. This is one of those songs so sweeping, redemptive and romantic it houses your fears and makes you stronger. The opening lyrics are where I culled my blog's name from ("The screen door slams") and Springsteen and the E Street Band set the template for a rare and wondrous ride. In a world full of chaos, sometimes the simplicity of you, a dear friend and nothing but the road in front of you is enough to make one believe. There is a beautifying glimpse into a divine inner light of this song. Over its three-decade life, "Thunder Road" it has evolved into something larger than life or art. It's a song that transcends pop-art into a hymn of hope. The song's romanticism and eternal sanguinity are brought to light by the E Street Band where collectively they evoke a tidal wave of dreams ("These two lanes will take us anywhere"). Sometimes we just need to be reminded that beneath the hardships of life, there is always a silver lining. One can escape their own predicament in life by merely taking your car out down thunder road where tomorrow is always better. Inside Springsteen's dreams, we find our own and this is where we find the road to redemption.
Ultimately, Born To Run is defined by one lyric, "I want to know if love is real". What happens if you're brought into a world taught to love and the world doesn't love you back? When one finds love, it's as if nothing that led up to that moment matters; all that matters is the here and now. It's more powerful than any drug. When one experiences love, it is so profound that the lost of it is equally devastating. Despite the high it provided, you ponder what life would have been like if you never knew what it felt like. "Would I be better off now than I am today?" goes through your head and this is how people become jaded and cynical. But when you hear Springsteen sing "I want to be your friend and guard your dreams and visions" on the album's title track, you once again believe in that redemptive power and are reminded that anything associated with great gain, there is also the potential for great pain. "Born To Run" reminds you that in order to find that profound love in the song, you sometimes have to go to great measures to find it, cherish it and keep it safe. There is no reward without risk. The dark side of life is so unrelenting and isolating, some people turn inward vowing to never love again. There is nothing worse in life than one that goes without love. During a period in college I had friends abandon me, my first love throw me out like yesterday's trash and I felt isolated by a world that couldn't care less. I let the world get the best of me instead of standing up to it and turning the other cheek ("Baby this town rips the bones from your back"). There is darkness in life but there's also love and I can confirm it's real. Part of life's journey is all about finding it and not giving up in your search. The rapid fire intensity that kicks off "Born To Run" is enough to send shivers down my back and fill my arms with goose bumps as I type this. I'm reminded that beneath all of the ugliness and gloom in the world are glimmering glimpses of hope. When Springsteen ponders, "I want to know if love is real" he opens the listener to a whole new world, the same way one falls in love. The images and layered instrumentation heightens the music, its themes and its overall effect. As a young adult, we experience extreme emotions that we attempt to reclaim for the remainder of our lives. If you are lucky enough to find that one person for your life journey, anything is possible. Let me repeat that once again; anything is possible.
There is an immense dichotomy on Born To Run with a fine line drawn between faith and defeat. The album attacks you with non-stop picturesque storytelling lyrics harnessed with cinematic inferno. Sometimes life's most extraordinary moments prove to be within our grasp. It's about not being terrified to take that leap of faith. Vulnerability is viewed negatively, but the truth is that the only thing people should regret is not allowing their emotions to flow forth. Every aspect of Born To Run is heightened to induce intense emotions. The music is so resounding that it doesn't just crawl under your skin, but breaks through and let the blood gush. The characters of Born To Run may be poetically beautiful but are far from triumphant and at times they're defeated, but they made their stand and went out on a limb. How many of us can say we do this in our lives? We often hold the keys to our own cage and it is up to us to unlock it. Right before the final verse on the title track, there is an edgy build right before the combustive finish…
The highway's jammed with broken heroes on a last chance power drive
Everybody's out on the run tonight, but there's no place left to hide
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 we're gonna get to that place
Where we really want to go and we'll walk in the sun
But till then tramps like us baby we were born to run
This final passage is a peek into the mind of a romantic for whom vulnerability is foreign; Sprinsteen's vocal climaxes in a hopeful and fierce howl while the E Street Band steers the song into a finale that is nothing but pure soul-searching elation. The narrator has taken their knocks but they believe in the redemptive power of not just rock n' roll but love as well. Life's journey's are best experienced with close friends and as Springsteen and the E Street Band performed these eight songs (and continue to do so) with triumphant glee, they remind us that indeed, love is very real.
Anthony Kuzminski is a Chicago based writer and Special Features Editor for the antiMusic Network and his daily writings can be read at The Screen Door and can be contacted at thescreendoor AT gmail DOT com.
Flashback: Bruce Springsteen's Born To Run
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