Sometimes it is hard to imagine that there was a time when Bruce Springsteen actually meant anything. That there was really a time when he stood, at least in the abstract, for something; especially something musically significant. I know he is a rich liberal that many politicians on the left like to solicit donations from. I know he is a slightly less aggravating American version of the patronizing and overtly political U2 frontman Bono. But how long has it been since musically, sonically, and historically Bruce Springsteen has been relevant?
Sure, he stood up to the modern world, hitched up his jeans and asked: "57 Channels (and Nothin’ on)?" But for the most part, to younger generations he is the progenitor of a misunderstood, yet explicitly inward-looking, mid-American ethos — characterized by his album Born in the U.S.A. — an ethos that is now championed by car-commercial patriots like Toby Keith and (unfortunately) John Mellencamp.
Bruce Springsteen though, has authored albums that stand alone in the American canon: the defiantly lonely Nebraska, the messy, spoilt-broth masterpiece The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle and the singularly thrilling Born to Run — a magical love letter to the (often vehicular) romance of a dirt-poor, greasy, and romantic youth which has, as its title track, the spine tingling piece de resistance of the Springsteen catalogue: the magnificent "Born to Run."
Greil Marcus famously said that Born to Run was a ’57 Chevy that ran on melted Crystals records. And obviously Springsteen had sixties hot rod muscle on his mind, as he brilliantly conflated the Phil Spector-inspired Wall of Sound with James Dean-mumbled sensitivity and a Dylanesque scope of Americana, making "Born to Run" a sonically intense epic reading of a mythic and lost American youth.
Today though, Springsteen is bloated, happy, and well-heeled; a brand name and a corporate entity unto himself. He is not that lean and hungry boy that he once was. With his oversized hat, youthful scraggly beard, and tank top, he seemed such an outsider. He was just another gauche kid from New Jersey. Now, with his rich and paunchy tucked-in middle section and pasty fiftyish face he is The Boss (of what, I do not know).
He was though once a hungry and beautiful kid, the impoverished New Jersey street poet as Dickensian wastrel; and a kinder, gentler version of the intensely crabby Bob Dylan. Springsteen was also a Telecaster-wielding conductor of an East Coast rock orchestra that was as tight a live act that ever sweated over a crowded throng, and he only canceled shows when he was so worn out he was reduced to vomiting blood. Bruce Springsteen was once the real thing.
"Born to Run" starts with a minimally epic and iconic opening. Mixing in a simple saxophone run and bare-bones glockenspiel-sounding keyboard, the band wastes little time getting to the meat of Springsteen’s grim narrative:
In the day we sweat it out in the streets of a runaway American dream
At night we ride through mansions of glory in suicide machines
Sprung from cages out on highway 9,
Chrome wheeled, fuel injected and steppin out over the line
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
The song is beautifully literate, a kind of sweeping and inglorious tale informed by the kind of depression-era songs and novels made famous by Woodie Guthrie and Edward Anderson; stories about beautiful small towns, or country losers just trying to hold on to something. And it is about cars — or as Bruce Springsteen so beautifully puts them: suicide machines and for the futurist-minded: hemi-powered drones.
Though I am not a fan of Clarence Clemmons, his seventeen-second-sax solo is seamless, a bit busy but not at all out of place or incongruous like the saxophone can often be in rock and roll after say Exile on Main Street.
After Springsteen delivers the fatalistically romantic line “I wanna die with you Wendy on the streets tonight in an everlasting kiss,” the song lurches into its iconic breakdown, perhaps the most famous of all breakdowns for it seems as if it will never end. And then, the barely audible but spine-tingling nonetheless: “1, 2, 3, 4,” is uttered, followed by the last stanza of his nihilistically romantic hot-rod fantasy:
The highways 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 well walk in the sun
But till then tramps like us baby we were born to run.
Both lyrically and sonically, "Born to Run" is a masterpiece; it is the most economical four and a half minutes of rock and roll that I will ever hear. Like any great writer, Bruce Springsteen created an alternate universe — in this case an almost futuristic past that is narrowly drawn and beautifully rendered.
I don’t know what the best song ever written is, nobody does. Perhaps it’s The Rolling Stones' "Little T & A," or Guided By Voices’ "Peep Hole," or The Beatles’ "I’m Only Sleeping." Maybe it's Chuck Berry’s "Memphis," or The Ronettes’ "Do I Love You?," or The Flamin’ Groovies’ "You Tore me Down," perhaps The Kinks’ "Come Dancing," or "96 Tears" by ? and the Mysterians. I suppose that those songs represent just an ultra-slim fraction of the candidates. "Born to Run" though has to be, at the very least, considered one of the greatest songs ever written and recorded. It is a miraculous thing of beauty that gives one the chills upon each listen.