Thursday, 23 May 2013

My Album for Life: 1: Bruce Springsteen: Born to Run

"Brucey dreams life's a highway..."

Paddy's got him sussed.
'Cars and Girls' could have been a subtitle for this album.
As could 'Show a Little Faith' or 'There's Magic in the Night'.
I know that some will dismiss this as overblown and bombastic nonsense, Bruce is much maligned simply for being influential. His early work has been tainted, disassembled, often too easily dismissed as lumpy and grumpy, guilty by association with the pale imitators; the Bon Jovi's, the Meatloafs.
Way back when, in the early 70s, Bruce Springsteen was a contender, young, vital, full of piss and vinegar.
Bruce was fucking euphoric.
He had fire in his belly and much to prove...
He had a guitar.
He knew how to make it talk.

He had a car, a dream and faith in the power of dreams.
With cinematic vision he pitched a polemic that I could buy into.
There was romance in the rhetoric:
In the skeleton frames of burned-out Chevrolets… 
Your graduation gown lies in rags at their feet

The discovery of this album was pretty seismic for me.
I remember it vividly.
I was 15.
I was in the dormitory at boarding school.
Just me and a mirror.
Checking that I was still there...
I used to talk to myself a lot.
I didn't have an awful lot to say... 
Like most pale, male adolescents I was absorbed by my profile, in awe of my shadow. 
I was pretty insular, a self absorbed shit.
I wasn't great academically but was desperate for engagement and for some kind of affirmation. 
I was good at rugby, enjoyed the pats on the back.
But beyond the playing fields I still felt the need to please.
I just didn't know how to engage; how to connect...

Back to the confines of that dormitory: I think I was admiring the new shadow on my top lip when a song came on my little red transistor radio.
'Born to Run'.
The energy, the dynamics, that bit when Bruce counts the band back in after the solo, when the strings echo the main riff. 
Chicken Skin of chicken skins...
Ane he spoke about escape with an irresistible emotional intensity:

Together, Wendy, we can live with the sadness 
I'll love you with all the madness in my soul...
Its a town full of losers, we're pulling out of here to win

It stopped me in my tracks.
I scraped together my pocket money and the cash earned singing in the church choir (2d for services, 4d for weddings and funerals). 
I brought the record and immediately brought into Bruce's world.
It took me out of myself; I was transported from my own self absorption into someone else's.
I started to care for somebody else...
Pretty pivotal for me.
Ever since that epiphany the essence of my music has become its transcendent power, its potency, its potential to connect and transport the listener into the lives of others. 
This album is the reason I wanted to write songs. 
Not to emulate Bruce, not to pull chicks, not to make my million, but to tell tales that would please, connect, engage and endure. To invite people into my world and persuade them that I had something to say; something worth hearing...

In 1974 Springsteen had written a song.
'Born to Run'.
The East Street Band were a potent force live but Bruce was aware that his imagining of that song
was well beyond their immediate capabilities.
"Live the limitations of a seven piece band were never going to provide me with the range of sounds that I needed to realize the song's potential. It was the first piece of music I wrote and conceived as a studio production." 
Most of the songs were written on the piano to preclude lazy playing, to ensure open ended arrangements, the encourage the possibilities of sound.
It was during the initial recordings that Springsteen began his friendship with writer Jon Landau who was to become a massive influence on him.

"When I ran into trouble recording the rest of the album he stepped in and helped me to get the job done. We moved to the Record Plant in New York City and hired Jimmy Iovine to engineer. We stripped down the songs and streamlined the arrangements. We developed a more direct sound with cleaner lines." 
Springsteen knew that the album would make or break him and took an age to craft it: 14 months in total, 6 months on the title track alone. It was well worth the wait. The album is an epic Wall of Sound. As overblown as it is ambitious; it unfolds like a film. I always think HudThe Last Picture Show and finally West Side Story. Whilst the soundtrack is stellar, the wide screen narrative is familiar B movie fare; we follow hopeful, hopeless heroes whose dreams are inevitably dashed.

Springsteen talks about this album's 'spiritual hopefulness' and this is pretty much summed up in the album's first song, the magnificent 'Thunder Road'. 
'Do you want take a chance on us?' our hero asks.
There's a specific sense of place in his storytelling: 

The screen door slams, Mary's dress waves. 
Like a vision she dances across the porch as the radio plays.

Mary is part of his scheme, intrinsic to the idea of escape. 
He needs her company because 
I just can't face myself alone again...
And then comes the line could be the banner for the album:
Show a little faith, there's magic in the night...
Bruce wants something better. 
It's out there somewhere, and he's got a plan.
He's got a car...

All the redemption I can offer is beneath this dirty hood...
We've got one last chance to make it real... 
We're riding out tonight to case the promise land...
It's a town full of losers, I'm pulling out of here to win.

As the album unfolds we're introduced to a band of brothers and a myriad of supporting characters. We follow the betrayals and lost friendships. The cast proceed to act out the album's compelling dramas on thrilling but dangerous backstreets. You cannot deny the potency of the rough poetry:

Endless juke joints and Valentine drag
Where dancers scrape the tears 
Up off the street dressed down in rags...
Some hurt bad, some really dying
And night sometimes it seemed 
You could hear the whole damn city crying...

The narrative unravels like a modern day 'West Side Story, working its way to the epic conclusion on the 'spiritual battleground' of 'Jungleland'.

Man there's an opera out on the turnpike 
There's a ballet being fought out in the alley
Until the local cops, cherry tops 
Rip this holy night...

Here's where the 'Barefoot Girl' and 'The Rat' "take a stab at romance and disappear down Flamingo Lane'. 
After the frantic, euphoric operatics, there's a resolution of sorts.
Clarence's sublime sax solo quietens things.

If you have never heard the solo please take the time.
It's worth a lifetime of 'jazz'. 
There are three rounds.
Each increases in intensity.
The energy of the playing is scintillating.
The phrasing of the 3rd round W I L L  B R E A K  Y O U R  H E A R T.
Unless you've a heart of stone.
Calm, then a pause...
Becalmed we refocus on the fate of the two protagonists, maybe the characters that we first met in 'Thunder Road'.

Beneath the city two hearts beat
Souls engines running through a night so tender
In a bedroom locked
In whispers of soft refusal
And then surrender...

As in all quality noir, things end badly:

In the tunnels uptown
The Rat's own dream guns him down...
No one watches as the ambulance pulls away
Or as the girl shuts off the bedroom light...

The city is  'a real death waltz' and devours the hopes of two more dreamers, rendering them anonymous.
Were they even real? 
Flesh or fantasy?
Still, their familiar story has been told.
Inevitably the dreamers become the victims. 
They tried to 'reach for their moment'.
They tried to 'make an honest stand.
But they still 'wind up wounded, not even dead'.
Springsteen would continue to follow the lives of these characters in his future writing.

His previous album 'The Wild the Innocent and the East Street Shuffle' was populated by local eccentrics. The follow up 'Darkness on the Edge of Town' would place its broken, bitter characters in leaner, tougher times; in communities under siege, where people had to account for the damage done by dashed ambition. These folk had to meet their defeats head on rather than eyeing the horizon for escape and redemption.
On 'Born to Run' the characters were wide eyed, there was still the possibility of escape, of transcendence.
'Thunder Road' and 'Born to Run' spoke of those possibilities.
'Backstreets' and 'Jungleland' toted the defeats.
All romantic life is here.
Life's cliches abound and resonate keenly here because the platitudes are steeped in wisdom and truth.
Inevitably, all youthful hopes are dashed.
As we are diminished by the years, so do we surrender to compromise.
But not before that joyful, wide eyed, passionate, breathless ride...

It was 1975.
I was 15.
This music came from a different world.
A world that wasn't mine; but I was transported there nonetheless.
I was besotted, bowled over by Bruce and his romantic vision.
He might not have been The Future of Rock and Roll, but he was the future of my rock and roll.
I knew then, as I know now, that this was a landmark recording.
I knew then, as I know now, that this music was mine.
My Album for Life.


  1. Perfect summation, Trevor. I was way more than 15 but certainly living in a dead end town!I was familiar with all of the musical elements that influenced the album but the alchemy that combined them was peerless.I own fouur or five copies of this album and nearly 40 years on it remains a 'go to' record when I need affirmation, hope or 'escape'.
    And the November '75 Hammersmith show . . . well!!

    1. Thanks DB.
      That Hammersmith show is on a DVD that comes with the restored deluxe version.
      You can tell that Bruce was unhappy with the 'future of rock and roll' tag.
      Starts of grumpy and intense; ends up joyful.
      A high point is when the band shuffle on in their pimp suits... the point when the all kick in on the snare is brilliant. One of THE GREAT concerts...

    2. Just watched the first two songs of the DVD; will definitely be watching the rest tonight.
      The opener is 'Thunder Road', just piano and one of Springsteen's greatest vocals ever! He had that youthful yelp that was just brilliant. Then the band enter and the kick into '10th Avenue Freeze Out' is stupendous (as remembered). The Big Man looks beautiful too.

  2. another great piece and does the job in that it makes me want to listen to a an lp I've never given any time to in the past.... although I still prefer the Frankie version of born to run!!

    1. Sacrilege.
      There is only one version...

  3. okay so not a convert ... but in Thunder road and Jungleland I can see what all the fuss is about and so bought them both

    1. Surely not two downloads?
      BUY THE ALBUM David...

  4. It's an absolute classic. My favourite album of all time too. Great minds think alike. Music is my first love and it will be my last (haven't I heard that somewhere before :) - but movies come a close second (with art, books, science, sport etc) - but one line I would use to describe this album is A Movie In Sound. Just an astonishing achievement. By the way Trev, every 'nervous youth' gets into music to get girls, whether they admit it or not so your're talking bollocks if you deny it :)

  5. This one caught me out, thought you'd already had Bruce but it was just, I guess, references to him. A great album that I don't have. Will have to make good on that.
    Going to miss these posts.

  6. Me too. It's been a revelation and a great way to revisit the collection.
    Amazed how fresh some of the old stuff is. Odd what's aged badly...

  7. Have this album on vinyl but have never purchased it on CD - guess that means I haven't heard it in about 25 years!

  8. Get the Remaster NOW Bazza.
    It includes the 1975 Hammersmith Odeon gig on DVD.

  9. beautiful.............

  10. I too remember exactly the time/place that I first heard this. Being blown away by the explosive power of the title track. 'BTR' was in constant rotation on my glowing green Alpine car stereo in my beloved '67 Mustang GT, and a couple of years later naturally 'Darkness' was the cruising music for my brand new '78 Camaro Z28. I have to wonder how folk like yourself would ever identify with the very specific American landscapes painted by Bruce. Myself, it was easy to identify with the exhilarating world of muscle cars, "racing in the streets" & the netherworld of "work, the working, just the working life." I can only imagine that for you it must have been the things which I lacked... guitars & girls? Of course, the gritty street-life of Bruce's backdrop was miles away from my sheltered white-bread existence. But there was was something seductive about that dangerous universe, wasn't there? I guess that's where the illusory "transport" you speak of kicks in. I'd like to think that my desire to break away from the humdrum portrayed in the songs was what got me to plot my own escape, to ride out and case the promised land. Well actually backpack out! 3 years & 42 countries... Pyramids, Taj Mahal, Great Wall, Everest, Great Barrier Reef, every corner of Europe, blah, blah, blah. Skydiving, swimming with sharks, rock-climbing, so many so-called "thrills" that now ring kinda vain & hollow. It's more the people I befriended and shared fairly trivial experiences with that I cherish and haunt the memory. No regrets, it was fun, and it's how I met my sweetheart!

    I have to say that some of my biggest "thrills" relate to music. I've mentioned a few in my '125'. Certainly, witnessing the Boss live in '78 & '80 is still seared into my memory, as is the moment when I heard "Every day we sweat it out in the streets..." thunder through the speakers of my $39 Concerto stereo in my baby-blue bedroom... breath-taking.

    However, 30-something years later, I had the pleasure to recapture that same sublime experience, when I dropped 'Alaska' into the CD tray & pushed "Play"...

    I'm rather envious of how you've pursued your own dreams and visions towards something tangible & abiding. I don't know how you do it mate, but you have achieved your goal... "to tell tales that please, connect, engage and endure; something worth hearing."

    PS: Great pick, but at #10 for me, not quite as relevant as it once was. Too bad you couldn't vote for yourself. Do you think Obama voted for Romney!!!

  11. I think that a part of my intoxication with this (besides the sheer bravado of the music) was that it spoke to me about that intangible 'Elsewhere'. Even though Bruce wanted to escape it there was something exotic about America. Westerns, cop shows etc had sharpened my appetite. And I was kind of trapped myself. The confines of boarding school were pretty shackling, both physically and emotionally.
    Humbled and a little embarrassed to be held in the Boss's company with 'Alaska', indeed to keep many good folk off the top spot. An honor indeed TT...

  12. Just reread this to reaffirm my faith after hearing a couple more songs on High Hopes. (Let's just say it's not shaping up to be a classic). Now the disc needs to come out again and go onto the car stereo today. Perhaps it'll sound even better with the beating rain as a backdrop. And we haven't had a Chicken Skin moment for a while, have we?