The Infinite Jukebox: Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Born to Run’

Has there ever been such a compulsive, self-mythologising rush as this? Has there ever been another song that tries to cram a world both real and exaggerated into 4 minutes and 31 seconds of the most massive sound Phil Spector never recorded? Has there ever been a more astonishing piece of rock music as ‘Born to Run’?
I was there in 1974 when this happened, when critic Jon Landau proclaimed that he had seen the future of rock’n’roll and it was called Bruce Springsteen. I was there but, as I don’t think I’d heard a single note from Springsteen’s first two albums before then, nor knew his supposed reputation as the new Bob Dylan, I had no preconceptions to be busted.
And this sound appeared, everything and everybody scrambling over themselves to be out there, out front, hammering into your ears, battering you into submission before even a word is sung.
The opening couplet lays out for us where we are and what worlds this is to take place in. In the day we sweat it out on the streets of a runaway American dream, at night we ride through mansions of glory in a suicide machine. Night and day. Reality and fantasy. The one is the world of the working stiffs in their checked shirts, jeans and working boots, working dead end jobs as modern slaves, the other is the night when they have the freedom to not take orders, the Jersey boys and girls, cruising endlessly, dressed up as who they want themselves to be.
Only a year later, George Lucas was to dress up those dreams for teenagers in American Grafitti, but these are the boys and girls a generation later, a lifetime older and there is still no greater outlet.
Springsteen has a girl. It’s what these songs are always about, the only real escape is into the private world formed by two as one. Her name is Wendy, he wants her love, he wants her to let him in. He isn’t an invader, a threat. He wants to be to her what she wants and he will guard her dreams and visions and we hear the pre-echo of Shane McGowan telling Kirsty MacColl that he kept her dreams with him, along with his own.
Together they can break this trap, he proclaims, they’ll run till they drop and never look back. She’s just got to have the courage to go into the wild, to cross the circus wire with its gulfs all below, relieve him of the fear of being a scared and lonely rider. Nobody does this alone. All the power to hide the weakness and the need. Springsteen has never been in love before, not even to the point of knowing if love is real?
To answer that, Clarence Clemons blows one of rocks most fundamental saxophone solos, from which we emerge into the song’s only moment of respite. It’s a moment of contemplation, marked by the music’s slight slowing tempo, its smooth transition into a lowering intensity. Springsteen sees the fantasy of the night around him, elevates the moments and the movements into the mythology he’s creating to deal with emotions.
Cars and bikes scream down the boulevard, the Jersey people preen. Girls comb their hair in rear-view mirrors and the boys try to look so hard, everything around him is fruit to his vision and he spills out the heart of his desire, to die tonight on the streets, with his Wendy, in an ever-lasting kiss.
Again the vision is interrupted by a solo, this time a guitar, hard, powerful, rapid, thundering out notes as Springsteen tries to master himself. There’s a still point, a moment in the middle of things, the E-Street Band, the gang, drawing back, a final chance to gather our breath, as Springsteen hollers ‘1-2-3-4!’ at the top of his lungs and we’re suddenly in the endgame, and if you thought Bruce was intense before now, you haven’t heard anything baby because this is where it gets serious, where reality demands its pay-cheque and not anything that can be imagined can stand against that.
This is the zenith, baby. Or the nadir, depending on where you stand.
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. There’s nothing left but that most dangerous thing of all, hope. The whole point of the song is that no matter how fast they move or how hard they dream, the Jersey boys and girls have no way of moving up to even the next rung of the ladder. The only thing Bruce can offer Wendy is ‘Someday’, the never-day when they get to go to that place where they really wanna go, that place they have not yet and maybe never will define even to themselves, except that once there they will walk in the sun.
But until then, as they always were and ever will be, they are tramps and they were born to run just to stay alive.
And the repetitions do nothing but reinforce it.
The song doesn’t fade out, it runs to a frantic stop on the back of Springsteen’s whooping and hollering ‘Oh-woah-woah-woah’, articulacy died, emotions too much for words, roared back at him in concerts by 50,000 throats en masse, the collective heart breaking through that separation to run with the man who put all this into word and sound, brilliantly.
If there is a criticism to be made it’s that this song has a degree of artificiality to it. Degree? Bruce is going all out for the big one here, mythologising like mad, but it’s a calculated attempt to create something massive, something mind-blowing, to blow off not just our socks but, Charlie Brown on the mound-like, everything down to our underwear. And the criticism is unimportant because the song succeeds wildly, because we go along with it because we want something like that in our lives, we want things to be like this, mysterious and strange, an encoded version of a life we never quite get to live. We want the strangeness and the exaggeration, we want the girl with whom we’d die on the streets in an ever-lasting kiss. We are not so much seduced by Springsteen’s vision as throwing ourselves into its arms, naked and wanting. Could life really be this excessive? And above all else the song triumphs over any reservations about its artificial aspect because the band believe, by god they believe, and they throw themselves into playing the damn heart out of this, until at the end there is no resistance, and we are Bruce, looking into the heart of the sun, those glorious yet resigned whoa-oa-oas leading us to the song’s only point of stillness, it’s end, are beyond irresistible.
This isn’t a song, it’s a lifetime, and we wanna live there.

2 thoughts on “The Infinite Jukebox: Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Born to Run’

  1. Back in Asbury Park in the late ’60s, you were either a fan of Bruce Sprinsteen’s Steel Mill or you were a fan of Joe Rubin’s New Menthol Phome (no points for guessing which was the psychedelic band). A friend and I went to see Steel Mill once and they were SO LOUD that we stuffed cotton so deep into our ears that it had to be removed by a doctor with forceps. And, yet I’d seen The Who at the Fillmore East from the 6th row. Jefferson Airplane, who were even louder, but didn’t have the rep., from about the same spot. Ditto, Blue Cheer, who we’d once heard rehearse from the other side of The Hudson River (not a stream). In a few years, we’d be sitting in front of Johnny Ramone’s Marshall stacks at CBGBs. (There’s a reason why I’m clinically deaf.) But Steel Mill’s noise was somehow more painful. And we were New Menthol Phome fans, anyway. Rubin’s tight outfit was a lot like Jeff Beck’s quintet (with Nicky Hopkins) in those days, anyway. I guess you always stick with your tribe, because they only other time I saw Springsteen was when my girlfriend of the time wanted to go to a No Nukes benefit.

  2. Tribes: you can never get away from them. I love The Beatles, and I’ve a lot of time for The Searchers, and other Merseybeat songs but deep down inside they were from Liverpool and i am from Manchester. Sure, we had the Hollies, but we also had Herman’s Hermits and Freddie and the Dreamers (I used to know Freddie Garrity’s daughter when I was in my first post-qualification job: nice girl). It took till Joy Division and The Buzzcocks to feel we’d outdone the Scousers.

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