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Is “Born to Run” the Best Song Ever Written?

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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.

About Bryan Price

  • Mark Saleski

    What right did Bruce have to exploit this?

    it’s called: being an american.

    man, you guys are scary.

  • J.J. Hunsecker

    “It’s almost as if Bruce helped plan the terrorist attacks just so he could write a “song” about it.”

    That makes just as much sense as saying you helped plan the 9/11 attacks because you knew an artist like Bruce would write about it.

    “Everything that this guy has done since The Greatest Hits album was been cheap, boring, and irrelevant.”

    What a coincidence. That sounds like all your work, Daryl, although you haven’t accomplished anything great yet.

    “My husband is a police officer. He hates Bruce Springsteen. He often says he should be shot.”

    your husband is an idiot and an embarrassment to the badge.

  • Paul H

    hey, I read your article. You are an angry little fellow aren’t you Bryan? Did your liberal daddy lisen to Bruce? Are you angry at your daddy? Was he mean to you? Unavailable? Didn’t go to the big game? Is that why you lost the big game. Daddy? If you were a girl you could’ve become a porn actress. That would show daddy. But you are not a girl. This internet rant should do the trick. Take that daddy you bastard!

  • http://goodnight-gracie.blogspot.com bryan price

    This has really entered the realm of the bizarre.

    b

  • D’oh

    Pay no attention to the echo chamber bitches that can’t add any semblance of thought or reason to a discussion and merely attempt to tear things down in vain.

    They demonstrate their own idiocy with every word they type.

    For them, and everyone…just a Thought…

    the Tao of D’oh.

  • nypd rules

    Daryl d, Chris,luciano: you guys are intelligent people that think for themselves. Bruce Springsteen is an insult to law enforcement. Trust me, MANY people on the NYPD hate this guy. He was so willing to bash us when it was the fashionable thing to do, but then ran like a jackrabbit when it wasn’t fashionable. I heard, by the way, that his son Evan is gay.

  • http://goodnight-gracie.blogspot.com bryan price

    OK, that’s totally off the topic and just an enormously dumb thing to say.

    please. if you are going to comment, keep it within the realm of taste and good sense.

    I really don’t understand some of you people.

    b

  • ardee

    Wow! First off good article. Pushing 50 myself I thought that there was a bit of ageism but that’s been addressed better than I could do it. To you New York cops (he should be shot): Thank god I live in Chicago!

  • http://www.friendlymisanthropist.blogspot.com alessandro nicolo

    Bryan good job. I’m not one to degrade into name calling but I must say the abyss of ignorance displayed over a singer is shocking. Not only that; the knowledge of music shown by some is tenuous at best. #35 was bang on. So Springsteen hints left. Big deal. One person alluded that if you’re from the factory you get Springsteen. I disagree. Like any great writer he transports you to another time. You can be from the suburbs in Australia and still get him. His themes are often universal. He finds ways to be relevant. And oh yes, ‘Born to Run’ is a majestic song. Back to the surreal show.

  • Jordan

    “I heard, by the way, that his son Evan is gay.”

    Idiot.

  • STM

    The answer to the question posed by the headline for this story: no, it’s not

  • STM

    J.P Spencer wrote: “Let’s put it this way. If you’re an American, who grew up in a factory town, where the factory eventually left the town and you watched the town slowly wither away to an empty shell, “Born To Run” is the best song ever written. For the rest of the world, it’s “God Only Knows” or something.

    Yeah, right JP, ’cause of course, nothing like that ever happens outside the US.

  • Michael

    Is Springsteen still relevant? Well.. it’s not black and white. In the early 70′s, he was a force. He was as literate as Dylan, but more earthy and approachable. Highly charismatic, cinematic and everything you wanted in a rock star. He was the perfect mix of influences.

    He’s almost in his 60′s now, so.. he’s never going to have the same impact again, no. Yes.. he’s much older. He’s happy. He’s rich. I can’t say I am a huge fan (hated most of the 90′s stuff), but “Devils and Dust” was a beautiful album – poetic, melodic. I’ve been watching some of the clips from that tour on YouTube and.. I think I missed one of the great tours. What I respect about Springsteen today is that he keeps growing and challenging himself. Watch some of the performances from that tour on YouTube and you’ll see what I mean; he reinvented his own catalog. The Seeger Sessions.. did anyone see that coming? I thought.. “Oh, great.. another ‘Tom Joad’ experience”, but.. wow.. it was incredible.

    The only other “aging rocker” that can match him is Tom Waits, but then.. Waits never had the same level of fame. You have to respect that, too. I mean.. Springsteen could get away with so much. I mean.. he’s beloved by millions of adoring fans. While he may not be “Saint Bruce” and many would love it if he stopped pushing his politics, I’m sure he’d be forgiven for most anything. That he doesn’t allow the use of his songs in ads or pander to his fans and is willing to follow his own artistic muse is rare among superstars.

    I tend to listen to newer bands (TV on the Radio, Ryan Adams, My Morning Jacket, etc) .. scouring Pop Matters daily for new tunes, but Springsteen is and was the real deal. Definitely. “Born to Run” was one of the greatest songs of all time – in any genre. It was a masterpiece.

    We’ll see if he keeps challenging himself..

    I hope so. I appreciate the effort.

  • jocking

    I can’t remember so many comments that appear to be written by ignorant morons.

    “All the cops hate him.” Indeed, the head of the NYC police officer’s union called Springsteen a “queer cop hater” before he had even heard the song (41 shots (American Skin) was debuted in Atlanta the week before Springsteen began playing 10 already sold out shows in Madison Square Garden). The song’s meaning is unclear. If you want to hear criticism of the officers, you can. If you want to hear empathy for them, that’s there, too. If you want to feel sorry for the innocent victim and his family, who was shot 19 times in what is hard for me to conceive as other than, at best, incompetent over reaction, the song can evoke those feelings. If you want to feel sorry for the officers and the difficulties they face daily, and the guilt they’ll have to deal with the rest of your lives, that’s in the song, as well. The song refects the ambiguity of the situtation the four police offers faced that night in 1999, when they shot 41 times at an unarmed African emigrant who had reached for his wallet in an effort to identify himself to four police officers who, once they began shooting, didn’t stop until their guns were empty.

    The person who said the officers were “vindicated” at trial misunderstands fundamentally the meaning of a “not gulty,” verdict. The verdict in no way “vindicates” the act of shooting an unarmed man 19 times. It means that the State was unable to prove beyond a reasonable doubt to twelve of the officer’s peers that they intented to kill Mr. Diablo(?). The fact the City settled a civil trial for three million dollars suggests strongly that these officers were far from vindicated. You don’t give away three million dollars prior to the civil trial even commencing when your officers have been “vindicated.”

    The person who asked, “what gives Springsteen the right [to write about this incident]?” is truly amazing. The first Amendment of the Constitution of the United States gives him the right to write about this or anything he choses. Would you take this right away from Springsteen, or anyone, who writes what you don’t care to read or hear?

    The police officer who says “[Springsteen] should be shot,” if it’s really true, is a disgrace and has no business wearing the uniform.

    What are people who have commented that Springsteen is a leftist and unamerican, presumably the same thing, talking about? Is being a vocal critic of the war in Iraq, or publically (in the NY Times) denouncing tax cuts “for fat cat executives and well-to-do guitar players,” leftist and unamerican? Seriously, I’d like to know. Throwing around casually charges like “unamerican” is cowardly McCarthyism, but I doubt the ignorant authors have a clue what this is.

    The comment about Springsteen’s son is contempable, not that being gay is in any way negative, but obviously the homophobic author thinks it is and the comment reveals his bigotry, small mindedness, and ignorance, all wrapped in crude McCarthyistic tactics. I hope your parents are proud.

    Have those who have posted that Springsteen has no talent ever listened to a Springsteen album or attended a concert? I doubt it. Have you? I’m serious.

    The person who says Springsteen has accomplished nothing musically in the 1990s, or later, backs up this claim by stating that he has not had a hit single since 1994, presumable “Streets of Philadelphia.” This is downright funny. That is one sophisticated measure of music quality: number of hit singles. Who are the greats, my friend? Who are the musicians with those number one hit singles whose talent and accomplishments make Springsteen’s pale in comparision?

    I would suggest that the posters who have accomplished nothing in their lives, who fail to understand basic civics, who would censor those with whom they disagree, who criticize blindly without knowing what they are being critical of, should consider remaining silent and running the risk of being suspected fools, rather than typing their thoughts, and removing all doubt.

  • http://www.friendlymisanthropist.blogspot.com alessandro nicolo

    Jocking, amen.

  • Brian

    Springsteen is absolutely relevant. Just ask the endless stream of young bands/artists now bowing down and confessing to his influence: The Killers, Hold Steady, Death Cab for a Cutie, Rage Against the Machine, Pete Yorn, Badly Drawn Boy, Keane and on and on. He’s getting older, but.. you can’t hold that against him. Sure.. you used to able to say (as Prefab Sprout once did) that Brucie likes to write about cars and girls, but then this new Boss isn’t your Father’s Boss. “Devils and Dust” was a literate masterpiece. The tour was amazing. The Seeger Session album/tour blew me away – and I hate folk music. I remember seeing him do a gospel version of Jacob’s Ladder with a New Orleans twist and thinking “unreal”.

    Hey.. if you think Springsteen is just the “Born in the USA” 80′s guy and/or you didn’t like some of his folk turns, well.. I understand. You don’t see what these young bands do, though. When he was young, he was this incredibly romantic street poet with Van Morrison as his Muse. He was one of the greatest live artists in the history of rock. What is he today? He’s a hugely influential guy with an incredible back catalog who is still (as someone said) growing and evolving as an artist.

    How much more “relevant” do you need to be?

  • zingzing

    michael: “The only other “aging rocker” that can match him is Tom Waits.”

    scott walker.

  • Megan

    I am a huge Born to Run fan, but I think Bruce is just as good now as he was then. He will always be superb. As long as he is full of passion for playing, he will be great. He is not even comparable to anyone at his age. Bruce has not died out since Born to Run. I heard he and the E Street Band our getting back together this year to make an album. He is genius. That will be exciting!

  • John

    Wow! Such a thread for an irrelevant singer ! So irrelevant that a police officer (and his wife) does want him shot because he wrote a song ! That a R. takes out the 9/11 conspiracy theory and includes Springsteeen in it.

    Born to Run is one of the best song ever, one thas always gives me the bumps. And I do agree with Bryan about the records Bruce is putting out now. But his shows still are the best!

    Maybe Springsteen has never been as much relevant as he was with 41 Shots (American Skin). Before 41 Shots, I never thought of the anguish of police officers facing a guy who might has well put a gun as put a wallet out of his pocket and a fracton of a second to make up your mind. As much as felt for the mother, I used to feel for these police officers praying for Diallo’s life. But from what I read here and from what I heard in the days following “41 Shots”, Bruce and I were probably phantazising. It seems too leftist or too Christian to think that they would have prayed for the guy’s life. How could you pray for Dialo’s life and wish the singer to be shot? But maybe they are not one and the same.

    Great post, Bryan!

    John

  • stonepony

    While everyone is entitled to their own opinion, I guess I would hope they would at least have their facts right. “41 shots” is not “anti cop” and Bruce certainly isn’t “anti-American.” I share the opinion that a cop who actually says “he should be shot” is part of the problem, not the solution. Oh yeah, “the Rising” was written is response to an outcry asking for his help and not as someone who took advantage of a situation (hard to believe someone can say with a straight face that Bruce would be happy or caused the 9/11 tragedy. Probably friends with the cop mentioned above). Bruce’s music has kept me great company during my life. His music helped me through personal loss and through moments of triumph and anticipation. While Born to Run isn’t the grreatest song ever written, Thunder Road is, it would be the song I’d have played while leaving the dugout heading to the plate to pump me up.

  • Michael

    Yes ZingZing.. Scott Walker is good

    I was just stating my opinion and opinions, by their very nature, are subjective. Thank you for correcting me, though. We should all preface our remarks with a disclaimer.

  • zingzing

    i was stating an opinion myself. sorry. didn’t mean to offend. let me restate: “in my opinion, scott walker is as relevant an “aging rocker” as bruce springsteen. in all actuality, i find him to be artistically superior to tom waits, who, in my opinion, is a hack.”

  • Michael

    Actually.. John brings up a good point. I guess if Bruce were truly irrelevant, this would have been a very very short thread.

  • Michael

    You didn’t offend .. and I’m sure you’re not the only one who thinks Waits is a hack – just as I’m sure there are 10 million people who hate Bruce. Opinions are opinions. It’s only fair that we can speak our mind just as artists can speak theirs.

    Thanks for the post..

  • zingzing

    oh, i don’t hate him. in fact, he’s a pretty good songwriter. but he presented himself the same exact way from swordfish all the way to mule, which is when i lost interest. i actually like the sound… but i got bored with him. he just stopped growing.

  • http://mondoproject.com Mark Saleski

    oh gawd. Franks Wild Years sounds nothing like Rain Dogs….and Bone Machine is a big change from Franks.

    and the Black Rider doesn’t sound like anything else..

    ah forget it. you’ve stopped listening.

  • zingzing

    maybe i do need to give him another chance. everyone seems to like him… i mean, one of my favorite bands is the fall… and if i can levy those charges against tom waits, why do i like the fall so much? if they changed drastically at their core, i would have a problem with that… i dunno. it’s all taste, i suppose.

  • http://mondoproject.com Mark Saleski

    two choices, i think: either Alice…or just go for broke and pick up Orphans, probably the best ‘leftovers’ collection i’ve ever heard.

  • http://goodnight-gracie.blogspot.com bryan price

    I don’t know if the Fall have “changed drastically at their core” but it seems like a band that has put out so many albums had changed quite a bit between, even, say Grotesque and The Frenz Experiment. I’ve always thought that Witch Trials with Martin Bramah on guitar and Dragnet which featured Craig Scanlon were pretty different, and though I like the Blue Orchids, and love the Fall, I don’t particularly care for Witch Trials.

    As far as Tom Waits goes. People seem to love him or think that he sounds like the Muppet band.

    as far as old rockers are concerned though, I tend to feel that it may be time for Mark E. Smith to hang it up.

  • Clara

    slightly off topic, but since he was brought up… Scott Walker film

    v.interesting

  • http://goodnight-gracie.blogspot.com bryan price

    believe me. I’m all for off-topic.

  • http://www.iamcorrect.com Lono

    Firstly, I want to say that I didn’t read any of your comments. I simply had to drop in after I saw the title. Y’all know me, I am a music guy first and foremost. I don’t even own a single Springsteen record, but the answer is YES.

    Born to Run is the best song ever written

    I do not make statements like that lightly, I assure you.

  • zingzing

    the fall never change “at their core,” as their “core” is mark e. smith. and actually, their last couple of albums have been amongst their best. new album out soon, as it always is.

    “the fall-always the same, always different.” or is it, “the fall-always different, always the same”-john peel… makes no difference.

    and the scott walker film is interesting. yep. “the drift” is amazing.

  • http://goodnight-gracie.blogspot.com bryan price

    If you say so.

  • zingzing

    meh. go buy “the real new fall l.p.-a.k.a. country on the click” and tell me different. rock n roll, baby.

  • http://goodnight-gracie.blogspot.com bryan price

    I have it right here in my hands, on baby blue vinyl if you must know, but i just don’t like it.

    It’s not the kind of significant departure that marks the gulf between, say, born to run and 41 shots, but I am just not in to it.

    I’ve had it since it came out and, I don’t know. it certainly doesn’t stack up against hip priest or dragnet or hex enduction hour. that’s just me, i know, but…

    i at least respect Mark e. smith for holding it together, and being in love with it, because his records must sell nothing, I mean Narnack records? And his touring must barely pay the rent, not like some other guys who just shamelessly rip off fans during their tours.

    here’s old guys holding it together in the new millenium:

    thee headcoats

    now that’s rock and roll.

    b

  • zingzing

    dude. real new fall l.p. is grand. heads roll? got a few great tunes on it, i must say.

    narnack has got some great shit on the label.

    will check out thee headcoats. anyone with “thee” must have heard some throbbing gristle.

    gotta love the fall, though, even when they suck. have you heard any of the new stuff? he’s got an american band now… tis rather worrying. in some way.

    when, in your opinion, should they have hung it up?

  • http://goodnight-gracie.blogspot.com bryan price

    Maybe I shouldn’t have said, he should have hung it up, I mean, the Fall have put out some seminal albums, and I think they were really good for a long time, which is pretty good because most bands flame out relatively quickly. it’s just that with a band like that, if you’re not a super fan, you just kind of tune out after a while. but i listened to that album last night, and it was good, but there was no “the classical” or “totally wired” or “leave the capitol” or “before the moon falls” there is no truly great Fall song that stands out. I don’t know, it’s his prerogative to hang it up or not, not mine. so more power to him.

  • Aaron

    Every new band seems to be paying homage to Bruce. His influence is everywhere – The Killers, Hold Steady, Arcade Fire. “Born to Run” is the album fueling the inspiration. My guess is they caught the Hammersmith show and were left speechless.

  • STM

    Bryan Price wrote: “here’s old guys holding it together in the new millenium: thee headcoats”

    Try for diversion some of Billy Childish’s other bands … The Pop Rivets, The Milkshakes, Thee Mighty Caesars, Delmonas and Natural Born Lovers. The Buff Medways are the latest incarnaration – the name comes from a chicken once bred in Kent (England) that some local chicken fancier friends of the band were trying to re-breed in Chatham, where Childish lives.

    I assume the chook fanciers didn’t have much luck and gave their name to the band instead. But it’s still classic Childish and worth a listen.

  • JerseyBoy

    And Bob Dylan should be crucified for standing up for Rubin Carter, Hattie Carroll, and Hollis Brown, all African-Americans who were victims of America’s justice system. Some of you people should educate yourself so you don’t make yourself look like an idiot.

  • Sean Collins-SMith

    First of all, to #64 – great writing, great points, great execution. That was just as well written as the article which these responses are aimed toward. I’m glad there is someone who shares my love for good grammar and well-written arguments.

    “Born to Run” is a great song, an amazing song. As a Bruce fan of more than 9 years (I am the ripe old age of 19), I have to admit that I find just about anything he does to be pretty darn special.

    But I have to say that I think his Born to Run album-opener “Thunder Road” is slightly better. It is so sweeping and full of imagery with its lyrics (“There were ghosts in the eyes of all the boys you sent away/they haunt this dusty beach road in the skeleton frames of burned out chevrolets”). His Live 75-85 album has an amazing solo version of this song, and I get chills every time I hear it.

    I, too, believe that he is still relevant. I saw Price withdraw his statement, so I won’t delve into bitter rants or distasteful dialogue (not that I would anyway, since I have witnessed first hand how stupid it makes you sound).

    Springsteen is just…Springsteen. His voice is scraggly (which many hate), his politics lean toward the left (which some people hate), and his most famous (not most loved, but most famous) song is a highly misunderstood anthem which many see to be nothing more than an American-praising propaganda parade.

    But for the lovers of classic rock’n’roll (of which i will always be), he is an amazing artist, extraordinary not only in his ability to give his characters life and purpose, but to give his audience a clear picture of what that life and purpose is:

    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.

  • Scott

    All I want to say is that I’m glad to have a man who is a great artist and story teller showing us baby boomers how to grow old gracefully. As I near 50, I grew up with Springsteen’s music. No one before or since has his vision and story telling abilities. His live shows are legendary. My Father passed away just one month ago, I played “You’re Missing” at his service and it touched everyone there.
    As for some of the negative comments and personal attacks, I guess it’s just human nature to scorn someone with millions of devoted fans in an effort to make yourself sound important, knowing there would be a huge uproar to follow.
    If Bruce has taught us nothing, it’s that we need to rise above the people who would drag us down. If he were to never record another song, his place in Rock and Roll History is secure. A living, breathing icon still challenging himself and his listeners to keep going, keep looking for some happiness in this world.
    Thank you Mr. Springsteen.

  • bryan adams

    its shit compared to run to you

  • JSUK

    You can’t discuss the question of the greatest song without considering ‘Born to Run’. Bruce carries so much feeling and empathy with those words that it’s easy to identify and feel with the characters. It’s also timeless – a troubled teen hearing it now would surely relate to the narrator and Wendy. I don’t think Bruce has ever topped this, maybe Dylan has but it’s doubtful.

  • Me

    It is… for me. No song ever has touched me like BTR… everytime, everywhere…

  • Steve Howe

    What about “Growin Up”? Or even that whole album? (Greetings From Asbury Park, NJ)? it’s pretty messy, too, but man, does it have some gems.

  • Paul

    Is Born to run the greatest song ever written? Of course its subjective, and there cant ever be one single greatest song, but Born to Run would be as good a candidate for the top slot as any. I’ve never felt so much emotion in a song.

  • Gina

    It’s not the best,but it can easily enter top 15

  • USA LOUDSquall

    It’s kind of astounding how little of the point you get, how 3 pages barely scratches the surface of what makes the song great. Actually, it barely says anything other than “this song is really good.” None of the subtlety is captured.

    Not to mention how much of it you spend more or less attacking the person you consider the writer of the greatest song ever.

    Springsteen remained relevant into the early 90′s, though he’s continued being excellent for his entire career.