This week marks the 38th anniversary of the release of Born to Run — the album that, arguably, saved Bruce Springsteen’s fledgeling career and propelled him toward one of the most durable and impressive careers in rock history. To mark the occasion, this extended excerpt from Glory Days: Springsteen’s Greatest Albums attempts to explain some of the album’s lasting mystique.
So does Born to Run, recorded when Springsteen was just 24, deserve to be thought of as his greatest album? Listen to the first track, “Thunder Road,” and it’s hard to argue against it.
With its cinematic imagery and sonic energy – kicking off with Springsteen’s mournful harmonica set against Roy Bittan’s plaintive piano, and building spectacularly through Clarence Clemons’ towering closing saxophone solo – it was and remains one of the most perfectly recorded tracks of the rock era. There may be more iconic images than Mary dancing across her porch with her dress swaying, but I can’t think of a more evocative one.
But one song doesn’t a career or even a greatest album make, or else this book might be about the collected works of Norman Greenbaum. The rest of Born to Run is almost equally as impressive, anchored in particular by two ambitious efforts with a depth that belied Springsteen’s young age: “Backstreets” and “Jungleland.”
“Backstreets” at 6 ½ minutes and “Jungleland” at 9 ½ are impressive in length, certainly, but anybody can record a long song – just ask Iron Butterfly. In this case, it’s their scope that makes them such crucial centerpieces of Born To Run.
“Backstreets,” which again owes much to Bittan’s theatrical piano parts, is practically suffused with the sweat and promise of a “soft infested summer.” Its heroes (friends? more than friends?) are allies against an oppressive world, until they’re not – and all the pain, hatred and betrayal that youth can hold is captured in Springsteen’s howling groan and frantic guitar. It’s telling of Springsteen’s outlook at the time that the worst possible fate the narrator can imagine is to find out you’re “just like all the rest.”
And with “Jungleland,” Springsteen magnifies the sprawling nature of “Backstreets” even further, producing a cross between a tragic epic poem and a sad, astonishing aria. In doing so, he unleashes some of the most striking tableaus concocted by Springsteen or any rock artist: The image of a “barefoot girl sitting on the hood of a Dodge, drinking warm beer in the soft summer rain,” a line that’s more literary than lyrical, is beautiful in its simplicity and succinctness – it’s practically an entire novel in 17 words.
“Jungleland” is full of those moments, with its poets who don’t write and doomed rats who can’t even manage to die, and all the while the song bucks and rolls among mournful violins, Springsteen’s rock-operatic guitar and Clemons’ meticulous, tender 2 ½-minute sax solo. That Springsteen even attempted it all seems audacious, even today. That he succeeded is actually kind of miraculous.
Some of the other songs, though slighter, lay the groundwork for important future themes in Springsteen’s work, among them attempts to escape the numbing effect of oppressive labor (the explosive, rollicking “Night”) and the salvation to be found in the bonds of friendship (“Tenth Avenue Freeze Out”). The soul-infused horns and vocal delivery of the latter song speak as much as anything to Springsteen’s influences, and his desire to transcend the limitations of what defined rock music in the mid-’70s.
Elsewhere on the album, “Meeting Across the River,” the moody tale of a would-be low-level criminal, stands out for its melancholy quiet among the boisterousness of the rest of the record, and could be a blueprint for much of what would later become Nebraska. And “She’s The One,” with its Bo Diddley beat, is pure and simple rock and roll.
But in the end, it’s the driving title track – No. 21 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 greatest all-time songs – that most continues to stun and soar, despite its near-constant airplay over the last 35 years. There’s a reason it’s still one of the only songs you’ll hear at almost every Springsteen show – it’s simply explosive, both its music and lyrics encompassing the joy and fear of escaping the familiar and embracing whatever it is that comes next.
Taken as a whole – and despite its individual glories, Born To Run is most definitely designed to be heard beginning to end – the album stands alone in its era for its grand theatricality, its anthemic melodies, its tough yet tender lyrics and universal themes. In fact, many still associate this album with the “Springsteen sound,” even though he abandoned much of it almost immediately afterward: its combination of power and beauty proved stunningly, remarkably resonant.
Ultimately, unlike so much “classic rock,” Born to Run still sounds fresh; in reaching into the past for his inspiration, Springsteen actually crafted an album equipped to engage audiences well into the future.
You can download Glory Days: Springsteen’s Greatest Albums at Amazon or Amazon UK. And if you don’t have a Kindle, don’t worry: You can download free Kindle software here.