BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN: BORN TO RUN (1975)
1) Thunder Road; 2) 10th Avenue Freeze Out; 3) Night; 4) Backstreets; 5) Born To Run; 6) She's The One; 7) Meeting Across The River; 8) Jungleland.
After all these years, my favorite song on this album is still ʽ10th Avenue Freeze Outʼ. You know why? Because it is the only song on this album that inherits and develops the style of its predecessor — with that tight, cocky, vivacious, and not in the least simplistic jazz-pop sound. The guitar is sly and boppy rather than bombastic, Roy Bittan's honky-tonk piano and Clemmons' saxophone parts are deliciously New Orleanian, and as the verses merrily lead to the "10th avenue freeze out, 10th avenue freeze out!" chorus, defiantly shot out word by word, the track, to me, offers more sincere «rebellion» than a thousand ʽThunder Roadsʼ could ever hope to.
But the song is an anomaly here, on an album that is not about having defiant fun on the street corner. Born To Run is all about size — everything bigger than everything else, including life itself. Now that Jon Landau had seen rock'n'roll's future, and now that the man had properly cut his teeth with two uneven, but ultimately successful records, in Bruce's own words, he wanted to make «Roy Orbison singing Bob Dylan and produced by Phil Spector», yes indeed.
We could just leave it at that, stating the obvious fact that Bruce Springsteen does not possess the voice of a Roy Orbison, the verbal talents of Bob Dylan, and the studio experience of Phil Spector. But that would not be honest, because in reality, he never tries to sing like Roy Orbison, write lyrics like Bob Dylan, or rip off Spector's wall-of-sound techniques. The statement has to be understood allegorically — all of these guys were the smashing-est in their class, and Born To Run tries to be smashing in all these respects, too: big tales of passion, hope, and despair sung with a big voice and played in a big sort of way. Melody? Groove? Yeah it's nice if we can have some of that, too, but it ain't what matters here.
I mean, ʽThunder Roadʼ has a riff alright (the piano-sax duo), but it only really appears in the coda section, once the tale is over — before that, all that matters is the crescendo, as the Boss gradually revs himself into action. The intrigue is — where does it all lead? Instruments enter one after the other, the voice rises higher and higher, and once it becomes clear that the protagonist is gonna grab his guitar, get Mary (another appearance by the Queen of Arkansas?), hop in the car, and skedaddle out of here, there's just no way we wouldn't be having that mighty coda. Melody-wise, I still have no idea what goes on there: I only know it started out small and inconspicuous and ended up bigger than a brontosaur's ass, and that's probably the only thing that matters in the grand scheme of things. Very grand scheme of things.
The question is — are you ready to get caught up in these windy blasts that the Boss is huffin' and puffin' at you, or have you got second thoughts about it? All of these «classics» — ʽThunder Roadʼ, ʽBackstreetsʼ, ʽBorn To Runʼ, ʽJunglelandʼ — all of them have always left me with mixed feelings. The skill, the craft, the energy are undeniable, and there has hardly been any «working class poet» in the pop music business (certainly not in 1975) who could beat the man in this department. The sincerity of it could be doubted, of course, but why? It's not as if Bruce wrote and recorded ʽBorn To Runʼ out of some cynical «yeah, the boys back home will really dig this one and finally make me a superstar» motive — and it wouldn't really be until the Eighties, anyway, that «commercially oriented music-making» would become a big part of the man's life.
The key to this dissatisfaction is, I believe, in the songs' combination of simplicity, monotonousness, and predictability. The «Springsteen formula» gets established here as a viable critical and commercial proposition, but hardly as a gift for those who do not cherish pathos and bombast on their own, even if they are done really convincingly. The six-note riff of ʽBorn To Runʼ (which, if you pin it down, sounds like somebody trying to master the style of Duane Eddy) is okay, but it just serves as the backbone for a lot of instrumental bombast, and come on now, you're not here for the guitar or even for the crazy sax break, you're really supposed to be here to sing along with Bruce, also wanting to know if love is wild, or if love is real. "Tramps like us, baby, we were born to run" — that "us" does not mean me and my lady friend, it really means me and you, my devoted soon-to-be-stadium-rock-fan. But this sort of emotionalism is just too crude and too stereotypical. And, yes, too populist, of course — even if no cynical intention is suspected.
Other than that, few people talk about the non-classics, and for good reason — ʽNightʼ is really like a lesser quality preview of ʽBorn To Runʼ, rather pleonastic in light of the latter; ʽShe's The Oneʼ wastes a good Bo Diddley beat on an unsuitably pompous arrangement; and ʽMeeting Across The Riverʼ, dominated by Randy Brecker's midnight trumpet, meanders and sinatras its way across the brief filler space that leads us to the much more prominent ʽJunglelandʼ. A skeptic like me could have tried to build up a stronger case for these lesser known songs, but no, they have every reason to be lesser known — two out of three at least following the album's general logic, but failing to deliver quite as well in the energy and bombast department.
If there is one indisputable hero on Born To Run, it is The Big Man — sax guy Clarence Clemons. I am pretty sure that without his contributions the album might have flopped as badly as its predecessors, because nothing here hits as hard as his blasts: not even Bruce at his brawniest, when he is roaring out "hiding on the backstreets, hiding on the backstreets!", can really compare with the totally focused, totally magnetic short solo on the title track — and the best instrumental passage by far on the entire album is the famous sax solo on ʽJunglelandʼ, well worth waiting for even if you happen to find the rest of the urban tale somewhat of a drag. Unfortunately, there's only so much you can do with a saxophone, and all of Clarence's breaks set the same mood — perfectly compatible with Bruce's lonesome-heroic approach and more nimble and awe-inspiring than any other voice or instrument here, but the guy is really used as much as he should be used, no more, no less.
I think he's also pretty much absent on ʽBackstreetsʼ, where Roy Bittan is instead the hero — and he plays it loyal and regal, but six minutes of his keyboards are boring, because... well, could he play something else for just a moment? Oh no, he could not, because the Boss really just needs him to accompany his power Lied about Terry (and, by the way, we still do not know if Terry was a man, a woman, a dog, or Ziggy in disguise). Do not get me wrong — the basic punch of ʽBackstreetsʼ punches heavy and hard, but when the major hook in your song is the sound of your own voice screaming, it's... well, imagine ʽWon't Get Fooled Againʼ getting along solely on the strength of Daltrey's final roar. Would we want to spend those nine minutes so we could all just live up to it? And in ʽBackstreetsʼ, there's just too much pathos and not enough resolution.
Ultimately, Born To Run sealed the man's fate. Before that one, his creative trajectory was still somewhat unpredictable — but the success of this «future of rock'n'roll» project established him as Working Class Rock Hero №1, and since a working class hero is something to be, this leaves less space to experiment with music and piles up many more obligations to conform to the image. But that would be later: on Born To Run, he still has that image to construct, before he can begin to conform to much of anything, and so the album is not so much «calculated» and «manipulative» as it is simply «mono-focused». We just want everything to be big, huge, voluminous beyond measure. Whoever said it was in bad taste to be young, wild, and ambitious circa 1975? Even Billy Joel was young, wild, and ambitious circa 1975.
So there's really no reason to insist upon «hating» the record or viciously thumbing it down. It was unquestionably an event, it went on to become a classic that still attracts young listeners even today, it's got its share of unforgettable songs and its undeniably brilliant musical moments. It is probably responsible, at least in part, for the subsequent careers of Bob Seger, John Mellencamp, Bryan Adams, and God knows who else, but we are not going to hold that against it, either. It introduced the «big bearded muscular man with Telecaster» image, too, which is not accidental because of all guitars in the world, nothing resembles a mighty sledgehammer as much as a good old Fender Telecaster — cue Working Class Rock Hero №1 image yet again — but why should we suppose anything other than just a personal preference for this particular model? Let's just say this: Born To Run is sort of a fascinating record, torn between genius and mediocrity, richness and cheapness, rampant imagination and clichéd formula. A formula which, by the way, Bruce would go on to easily tear down on his next album — only to have it rebuilt from scratch for the next one — and tear it down again — and build it up — and tear it down — and then we lost count, and it wasn't so fun anymore anyway.