First posted on Mark Is Cranky:
This is a special Friday Morning Listen in more ways than one. Normally my thoughts and words swirl around that first recording ingested at the start of the weekend. This week though, I've invited a couple of guests to celebrate the 30th Anniversary re-release of Bruce Springsteen's iconic album Born To Run. Though we are all quite different people, our ties to this monumental record draw us together. And yes, I did listen to Born To Run on the way to work this morning....and yesterday and the day before that and...OK, every morning this week!
Please allow Blogcritics Lisa McKay and DJ Radiohead and myself to expose the madness in our souls.
Well, Mark, you got the ball rolling on Tuesday when you described Born to Run as "a nearly perfect record." I agree with that description, and now here I am faced with the challenge of explaining why. Where do I even start?
This is probably the album I've listened to more times than anything else in my collection. I've never grown tired of it. I put it aside, sometimes for months at a time, but it eventually makes its way back into the rotation, and it always sounds fresh instead of nostalgic, unusual for an album that old. I think that for me, part of the impact of this album has to do with the timing of its release. I don't know what you guys were doing thirty years ago, but 1975 was a really huge year in my life. Specifically, between the end of May and the beginning of September of that year, I graduated from college, got married, and started grad school. It was quite literally the year I entered full-fledged adulthood, with all of the simultaneous terror and exhilaration that entails. This was the music that accompanied the transition, so to call it meaningful would be an understatement; Springsteen has, over the course of his life, written the soundtrack to my own. I said earlier that it always sounds fresh; I think that what I meant to say is that in spite of its high familiarity quotient, it never fails to evoke in me the same set of emotions. My favorite venue for listening to this album is my car, with the volume cranked way up.
This is one of those rare albums that never puts a foot wrong. There's no filler here, no tracks to skip over, no sense that you're listening to an emerging artist whose best work may be yet to come. His talent is already in full bloom here, and if he'd never written another song, this would still be one of the best records ever made, because Born to Run contains some of the finest songwriting of Springsteen's (or anyone's) career. From the first track, with Mary dancing across the porch to the radio, to the last, with that barefoot girl sitting on the hood of a Dodge, this record is rich with the visual imagery that recalls growing up in working class America, replete with cars, sex and young people looking to escape the dead end destiny of their elders. While none of that was particularly new to rock and roll, Springsteen infused all of it with a much larger theme — the idea that redemption was always a possibility, that the flame of hope was always flickering somewhere and would burn again if only we could find the love that would keep it alive. Not even the small-time loser who narrates "Meeting Across the River" has lost that hope, even if it's just the unrealistic promise of one last chance.
The music itself became bigger on this album, as Springsteen developed his reputation as a teller of stories that were larger than life yet recognizably familiar. These aren't songs as much as they are part of a larger mythology, one that Springsteen would retell over and over in the years to follow. The quiet despair and intimacy of "Meeting Across the River" gives way to the huge sound of "Jungleland", which is the kind of music that leaves you wet and wrung out when it's over, but at the same time renewed. It's a huge canvas, but if you stand close to it and look, you can see the faces of everyone in the painting in sharp detail. His genius has always been in taking those large, overarching themes and bringing them into focus at the personal level. The stories are intimate and universal at the same time; they are both pure rock and roll (with all of its cultural connotations) and human history as we know it, and that's the genius of this album.
What do you say about a 30-year old album that has reached legendary status? Bruce Springsteen & The E-Street Band are in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Born to Run has more than a little to do with that. Born to Run is the rock on which the Gospel of Springsteen is built. Fans might like other Springsteen albums better but no one can deny how important this album was to his career and is to his legacy.
A lot of Springsteen-ologists have waxed poetic about the virtues of this album and done so in a manner that would put my tiny tribute to shame (our own Lisa McKay, for instance). I am not going to spend time trying to convince anyone that the album is great. It is. That discussion was laid to rest decades ago. Instead, I want to talk about why this album moves me.
Born to Run is teenagers and youth. The youth of today might not be listening to Orbison anymore but they have not changed that much. Cars are still independence. Dreams are still big. Life is still dramatic and adventures epic. Every decision is filtered first through the emotional lens. Love still feels like a matter of life and death. Patience is no virtue because every moment is filled with potential and the possibility. Defining moments or breaking points are a heartbeat away.
They are not exactly kids, the characters in these eight songs. They are young and mostly inexperienced. They still have the hopes and dreams of the young but now they are old enough and experienced enough to see pitfalls and obstacles between them and those dreams. The invincibility of youth is still in tact but it is beginning to fray at the edges. Desperation is setting in.
Every note in every song tells us these kids believe they think this might be their last chance for salvation. The music and the vocals match the intensity and drama of the lyrics. The desperation is palpable. Some of these people are going to find redemption and glory and freedom and all the things their dreams are made of. Most of them will not. That realization is just beginning to take shape in their minds. These eight songs play like eight scenes from a movie or eight scenes from eight different movies. There are characters and scenes and actions and dialogue. Some of today's directors might do well to include some of those things in their movies! What better way to capture the drama in the songs than turning the songs into dramas themselves?
Not every song on the album deals with themes of teenage rebellion, youthful hopes and fears, or escape and freedom. Those themes permeate the album because of Springsteen's vocals. The youth and vitality in his voice is undeniable. There are moments when it sounds like he is trying to sound wise beyond his years and experience. He almost pulls it off but cannot quite escape the youthful exuberance in his soul. The earnestness makes the album all the more endearing.
The last verse of "Born to Run" might be my favorite moment on the album lyrically, sonically, musically, and spiritually. The song opens with such a bang you would think it impossible for there to be any room for it to climb the ladder. It defies explanation. When that part of the song plays I just have to stop what I am doing and listen. It might not be particularly chique to say "Thunder Road" and "Born to Run" are my favorite songs on the album, but they are. These songs are classics because they really do matter and are nearly perfect. I love them and understand why people who have seen Springsteen in concert dozens of times never tire of hearing them.
This re-mastered CD is a revelation. It would be cliché to say it alone is worth the price of admission but I feel comfortable saying that here because without the album no one would care about the rest of the goodies. The music on the first pressing was solid. The sound on the re-issue is better (a lot better). The CD almost delivers the sonic punch one imagines Springsteen was aiming for when he recorded it. It is disappointing Super Audio CD seems to have stiffed in the market place. Short of DSD re-mastering, this is probably as good as this album will ever sound.
I leave you with one final thought: I still do not know what a "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out" is. My whole life I have never known. I still don't.
There are some pieces of music that have been a part of me for so long that it's difficult to remember life before them. I mean, I know that I existed before Born To Run but somehow...it just doesn't seem possible.
As both Lisa McKay and DJ Radiohead have so eloquently illustrated, this record had (and still has) impact. The stories. The narrative. The music. It all fits together so seamlessly that, were it not for the differing tempos and rhythms used, you might perceive the album as one extended song.
Born To Run came into my life a few years after its initial release. It went into heavy rotation toward the end of my high school career (1979) and into ultra-heavy rotation in college. Those stories of hope and escape coupled with the cathartic explosiveness of the music quelled my fears. Fears of the future. Who knows what I thought I was escaping from, but I was deathly afraid of what lie ahead. Born To Run gave me a sense of comaraderie with this great and anonymous mass of searching humanity.
Plus it just plain rocked. Hard.
I listen now and have to agree that it does seem fresh today. Let's face it, despite the album's high level of past radio play, familiarity cannot dull the absolute uniqueness of the record's sound.
But what about nostalgia. C'mon, you knew I'd bring that up. There are many reasons I love this album, not the least of which is that there are so many memoir-bits firmly glued to the songs: The emotional releases felt during past concerts. Car rides with an old buddy, windows rolled down and stereo too loud. Long nights hanging out with friends sharing music and building attachments that felt like forever. The slow fade of a dying relationship. New love almost too intense to bear. A hot summer night. A hot summer night with beer.
All of these thoughts (and more) flash through me as Born To Run plays. There's not a dead spot on the album. "Thunder Road" is my favorite? No, they're all my favorite. In the middle of "Tenth Avenue Freeze Out" I just can't imagine anything better...until "Night". And on and on.
Born To Run, the song, is the obvious emotional heart of the album. Blistering in its intensity, its aural cinema has no equal in rock. For me, the first and last cuts provide comforting bookends. What amazes me are my reactions. I don't know how many times I've listened to this but when the piano gives way to Bruce's first words..."The Screen Door Slams", my eyes well with tears. Every single time. When those big guitar chords explode after "Tonight In Jungleland"...the hair spikes on my neck and arms.
Oh yes, it is the perfect record.
A note on sonics. At first I wasn't so jazzed about the prospect of a remastering job, since this record was never really what you'd call 'audiophile'. But I was pleasantly surprised to hear how much the noise floor has been dropped, bringing forth all sorts of detail and shading. There are horn ports, guitar licks, strings and vocal bits that I guarantee you have not heard before (unless you've got a good vinyl copy, that is).
And there you have it. As you can see, we just plain love this album.
Please note that part two of this special edition will follow early next week. There, the authors will respond a bit more the the text above. This will be followed by some thoughts on the extra goodies packed into the 30th Born To Run box, namely the documentary DVD Wings For Wheels: The Making of Born to Run and the stupendous live concert DVD recorded live at the Hammersmith Odeon, 1975.