Two of my all-time favorite rock albums were released in 1975. Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks and Bruce Springsteen's Born to Run. To commemorate the latter, which came out 40 years ago today, I've revised a piece I wrote a few years back.
I was in 11th grade in 1975. A classmate, Steven Gladstone, was touting an album, Born to Run, by a guy with the Jewish-sounding name of Bruce Springsteen. Turns out, Springsteen is a Dutch name, and Bruce was raised Roman Catholic. No matter. His songs, with their epic stories about the love, rebellion, and lost innocence of working class folks on the Jersey Shore resonated with this relatively privileged kid from Long Island. Throw in a great band, blistering guitar and a soulful saxophone, and I was hooked.
Greil Marcus, reviewing the album for Rolling Stone, described its power and beauty as a revelation:
The song titles by themselves — "Thunder Road," "Night," "Backstreets," "Born to Run," "Jungleland" — suggest the extraordinary dramatic authority that is at the heart of Springsteen's new music. It is the drama that counts; the stories Springsteen is telling are nothing new, though no one has ever told them better or made them matter more. Their familiar romance is half their power: The promise and the threat of the night; the lure of the road; the quest for a chance worth taking and the lust to pay its price; girls glimpsed once at 80 miles an hour and never forgotten; the city streets as the last, permanent American frontier. We know the story: one thousand and one American nights, one long night of fear and love.
What is new is the majesty Springsteen and his band have brought to this story. Springsteen's singing, his words and the band's music have turned the dreams and failures two generations have dropped along the road into an epic — an epic that began when that car went over the cliff in Rebel Without a Cause. One feels that all it ever meant, all it ever had to say, is on this album, brought forth with a determination one would have thought was burnt out years ago. One feels that the music Springsteen has made from this long story has outstripped the story; that it is, in all its fire, a demand for something new.
The songs, the best of them, are adventures in the dark, incidents of wasted fury. Tales of kids born to run who lose anyway, the songs can, as with "Backstreets," hit so hard and fast that it is almost impossible to sit through them without weeping. And yet the music is exhilarating. You may find yourself shaking your head in wonder, smiling through tears at the beauty of it all.
"Oh-o, come on, take my hand," Springsteen sings, "Riding out to case the promised land." And there, in a line, is Born to Run. You take what you find, but you never give up your demand for something better because you know, in your heart, that you deserve it. That contradiction is what keeps Springsteen's story, and the promised land's, alive. Springsteen took what he found and made something better himself. This album is it.
After devouring Born to Run, I bought his two earlier records -- which were far more spare, but with equally unforgettable characters and stories embedded in Bruce's eclectic, infectious music -- and gleefully anticipated his next release. But due to legal wrangling with his manager, the next album, Darkness on the Edge of Town, did not come out for three years, an excruciatingly long time to wait. But then came the album's eventual release and the Darkness Tour.
Madison Square Garden in the summer of 1978. I had never seen a performance like it before. There was a relentless energy and intensity throughout the marathon show. And there was the sheer joy Bruce and his E-Street Band conveyed on stage and the sincerity of the stories Bruce told in the lead-up to some of the songs. And, of course, there were the great songs themselves. When I returned to college in the fall I was a fanatic, and sought to spread the gospel of Bruce to my friends by endlessly playing the bootlegs of his concerts that I had obtained. Then I learned that the tour was coming to my school. My friend Henry and I, as well as a few other acolytes, slept out overnight for tickets. We were rewarded with third row seats, and the show remains unforgettable.
Springsteen sort of lost me with some of his later albums and I can't say I listen to his music much anymore. But, his keynote address at the 2012 SXSW, reminded me of what I loved about him -- the sweep of his vision, the depth of his passion and his unparalleled music chops. (See The Boss Gives A History Lesson) He concluded his speech/performance with this advice: "Treat it like it's all that we have, and then remember: it's only rock and roll."