Talking about music is like talking about sex”, said Bruce recently. “Can you describe it, are you supposed to?” Well if we aren’t meant to describe music, people who write about it would be asking the immortal questions “Do you want to super size your fries?” at a well known fast food outlet for a living. At no point will anyone writing about this particular album do it anywhere near the justice it deserves, but we must all try. That’s where I come in; it is also why I have held off writing this instalment of my Bruce reviews for this long. I don’t know about you but I am really intrigued as to what I will write about this.
This was make or break for Mr Springsteen, rumoured to be on the verge of being dropped by his record label he had to deliver the goods. His previous offering was acclaimed by many but this did not translate into popular success for the artist. ‘Born To Run’ would go on to provide the wheels on which Springsteen’s career would be driven for a long time but at the point of recording the mood was of something less than joyous, pressure, uncertainty and tension all in the pursuit of the musical perfection that Bruce heard in his head. We all know now that he achieved it, but the journey is a story to tell.
‘Thunder Road’ opens the album, sounding like a slow rising morning. The picture is created quickly with screen doors slamming and Roy Orbison singing. All the while Roy Bittan’s piano cascades in the background and already we know we are in for a different ride from those previously taken. The rambling madness is gone; here Bruce achieves lyrical perfection in a more succinct fashion. “I just can’t face myself alone again” Bruce pleads. This is not an album for isolation, those would come later. This is a two person ride, “show a little faith, there’s magic in the night.” You’d better believe there is and if you don’t you will by the end of the record. Then comes a line that sounds very romantic in a fumbled yet honest way, “You ain’t a beauty but hey, you’re alright and that’s alright with me!” This pick up line should not be attempted by everybody as it may result in slap, if your intended target smiles I would grab her and marry her quickly because she obviously gets Bruce. It saves you many discussions about why that line is romantic! The guy stresses that he is normal, but craving escape from the ‘dirty hood’. They have a chance, however small, to “make it good somehow”, again it mixes certainty with the uncertain. We can make it good…somehow. “What else can we do now?” The band comes in, you jump in your car and take the ride of your life. The possibilities are endless, two lanes…destination unknown. The guitars roar, maybe like the roar of an engine, or maybe that’s my creative side running away with me. “I got this guitar and I learned how to make it talk!” There lies the root of this song for me, the frenzied instrumentation is gone. It is very much, look what I can do! Bruce may not like this line too much but it’s a classic. He did learn to make it talk, he is learning to craft perfect songs and he is introducing them to you here. There is a reference to “words that I ain’t spoken”, presumably about love. Those too would come later, he makes no apologies for that. This is the first flush of romance, not love but more important things…cars, girls, freedom, summer, all there. He doesn’t want to be bogged down with “I love you”, get in the car and come with me. Although we know “the ride ain’t free” so the idea is there. This seems to be Bruce’s coming of age story, graduation gowns in rags, growing up, leaving home. Climb on board, “I’m pullin outta here to win”- Adios, payasos! Then, when the singing’s done and we’re all in the car burning down the road, the electrifying melody takes over, Max’s drums lead us in to the tumbling piano and Clarence’s saxophone. We’re most definitely off in a motor car!
The deliberate nature of this album goes even as far as the sequencing. Bruce wanted the two side openers to be introductions – ‘Thunder Road’ and ‘Born To Run’. Nothing is on there by accident.
“Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out”: think for a minute that the person you’ve taken with you on this road trip is not your woman; instead you’ve filled your car with your best mates and enough music to serenade you across the Sahara. Here’s one most definitely for friendship, brotherhood, band mates. “Everybody better move over that’s all!.” Get out of the way if you’re not coming with us. The exact definition of what a freeze out is, is unknown, possibly even to Bruce. This is irrelevant, it may well mean nothing but that is not important. It is exactly the same as the track ‘Wonderwall’, are we supposed to know? Do we care? No. Friendship, freedom, comradeship on the open road that is all that matters. “The night is dark but the sidewalk’s bright and lined with the light of the living”, notably the night once again, unknown but alive with the music blasting. The horns add a pleasant little ditty underneath a dark and lonely lyric of being all alone and not being able to go home. Maybe, having run away leaving home far behind him the character has a minute moment of regret, “I can’t go home”, soon he wont need to because he is saved by ‘the big man’. The big man’s in the band and he saw that it was good! All that remains is for ‘Scooter’ and ‘the big man’ to bust the city in half. The horns are almost comical and the piano is almost saloon like. I mean that in the best possible way, like when the stranger walks into a bar in a western movie and the piano player is playing a jaunty tune. Let’s all “sit back right easy and laugh”, “little pretties” and big uglies would be raising their hands to this one from coastline to cities everywhere for years to come.
‘Night’ appears to be the first of the ‘work all day, rock and roll all night’ type songs that Bruce would go on to write more on ‘Darkness On The Edge Of Town’. It is more immediate than the two before it because of a lack of a long introduction. If you want to look that deeply into it, the instant saxophone could either be the ‘sound of the bell’ waking you up for work, or the sound of the bell at the end of your shift. Or both. “You get to work late and the boss man’s giving you hell!” It’s hell for the character because he wants to be in a car roaring through the night. “You’re just a prisoner of your dreams!” I’m sure we have all felt like that at some point, I want to be anywhere but here. Bruce’s fascination with cars would not end here. All to briefly the song is over, but that is the whole point of it. Quick.
‘Backstreets’ is the ultimate slow burning build up like dawn’s sunlight breaking through the curtains, gentle piano and droplets of guitar and then the roll and eventual crash of mighty guitars and drum beats. The constant drum beat gives way to the anguished and painful chorus “Hidin’ on the backstreets”, ‘running for our lives’ once again with a partner who thought “we’d live forever”. The strength of youth is that you do feel like that and Bruce captures it in a few lines, but v ery quickly manages to snatch it away with the breakdown of the friendship and the realisation that life is sometimes harsh. “When the breakdown hit at midnight there was nothing left to say…I hated you when you went away!”. The words are Springsteen classics now, watching movies “to learn how to walk like the heroes we thought we had to be.” Once again the imagery is cut down by the next time “After all this time we find we’re just like all the rest, stranded…and forced to confess to hiding on the backstreets”. The ‘forever friends’ is a promise that Springsteen would go back to with the track ‘No Surrender’. The irresistible pound of the drums and the scream of our singer sends us perfectly into the next mini drama. ‘Backstreets’ importantly closes side one, going back to the four cornered approach where Thunder Road and Born To Run were introductions, the two closers, ‘Backstreets’ and ‘Jungleland’ are lamentations, songs of loss and realisation.
The story of recording the title track ‘Born To Run’ is itself a 2,000 word essay. David Sancious and Ernest Carter were in the band at this point, this was already in the can by the time the rest of the album was created. Bruce has since told us that he wanted the track to “explode” on people’s radios and in their homes. He manages the explosion and then some. The crash of drums straight into the opening chords runs against the rest of the album where long and beautiful introductions have been created, this is straight to the point rock and roll with once again the construction of opposites…in the day….at night. The feeling of release evoked is so clear you can taste it, the character has been “sprung from cages”, the place is a “death trap” and the characters have to escape. We are there with them, opening the door for them to roar through the door. “Will you walk with me on the wire…I wanna know if love is real?” That is the classic question when you are young. In his last album the ‘beyond the palace’ part of the song would have included twice as many references and many more wild words but now it is short, clear and just as well defined. The girls and their hair, the boys looking cool and the search for an ‘everlasting kiss’, don’t we all want that. Then, boom! The band is back on a furious section involving some of the best drumming ever captured on record and the ultimate “one two three four!” It’s good to be alive. The feeling of love we get from this song and elsewhere throughout the album is one where it may be true love, but its more the experience that the guys and girls are after. The guy promises to love her but reminds her there’s madness in his soul and then the ultimate promise…. “someday we’ll walk in the sun but ‘til then…tramps like us…” and just hidden in the middle of all this, the arguably overshadowed but very important line, “Come on with me!”. This is a ride for two people. Sometimes it’s a best friend, brother type, sometimes it’s a girl. Either way there ends four plus minutes of the finest rock and roll music ever created. No wonder the rest of the album gave him a head ache. Listen to this song on headphones; you hear much more instrumentation layered in there that just adds to the beauty and power of this song.
To me, ‘She’s The One’ is the confirmation of the main character that the girl he wants is right for him. You can take it to be the same guy that wanted to run away in ‘Thunder Road’ and that finally began the journey in ‘Born To Run’. In a moment of quiet isolation perhaps this is him asking himself. He seems to make his mind up fairly quickly,
“With her soft french cream
Standing in that doorway like a dream
I wish she’d just leave me alone
Because French cream won’t soften them boots
And French kisses will not break that heart of stone”
But he knows that she’s the one. Even though for the rest of the song we get that mix of ‘she’s perfect for me BUT’. There’s an inner determination to not be broken down by this woman but however hard he tries to deny it, she is the one for him. There is a rock background to this and the usual pounding but over the top of this lies a piano melody almost like that type of tune that you hear on a ballerina type jewelry box.
Now to the closing sections of the album. We’ve had the guy that wants to run away with his buddy, his girlfriend, by himself…now to the ones that choose the other way. ‘Meeting Across The River’ begins with the haunting trumpet and piano, Eddie is threatened “You gotta promise you wont say anything…this is our last chance.” We are left in no doubt that the ‘meeting’ is somewhat shady, “If we blow this one, they ain’t gonna be looking for just me this time” It is late night jazz, mixed with the danger of the lyric even though “two grand’s practically sitting here in my pocket!” He has major plans, to finally be the big man and we don’t know if he makes it but in what serves as a continuation of that theme we have ‘Jungleland’ and the strings opening leading to THAT piano piece. This could be the guy from ‘Meeting’, after his late night deals, it could be the guy that was offered ‘easy money’ on ‘Incident On 57th Street’. The picture is set; it is one of danger, friendship and romance. Once again, importantly, however, the romance is never too beautiful. “Together they take a stab at romance and disappear down Flamingo Lane”, it conjures up more clumsy fumbles in the moonlight than night time romance. The idea being almost, “Let’s have a bit of fun and if we feel romanced, fine.” It’s both seedy and exciting all in one feeling. The gangs are there, opera’s and ballets, fights and attempted romance all rolled into one before the law come and ruin it all. Youngsters aren’t interested in romance, they are just horny!
“The hungry and the hunted, explode into rock and roll bands that face off against each other out in the street.” It could almost be Westside Story, but better coz of the guitars. Music, man, thank God we have the music! Then in a blast of Clarence’s saxophone – we do. It’s all there, in every single note that the Big Man plays in the BEST solo ever recorded EVER by ANYONE EVER. Everyone reading this knows the power of that solo, how you want it to keep going and how you almost know each note of it in your head and you might catch yourself humming it if you drifted too much. Strings and piano bring us back to the scene. Rock n Roll, Romance, Gangs, Music all equal and wiped out in a blast of sweet saxophone solo. The rat loses himself to his dream, a beautiful death and a girl shuts out the scene down on the street. Down in the street we watch the ‘death waltz’ of characters reaching for their moment, all in one brilliant nine minute plus orchestral street tapestry. Just like that, it fades.
If you are not ready for the realism that counters ‘Born To Run’, listen to this album again and come up with your own ideas of what’s going on. A lot of it is there, much of it is down to you. Bruce says he never really wrote about men and women relationships until ‘Tunnel Of Love’ but it could be argued that he did. It could be argued that the men and woman spectacularly messing up their relationships and second guessing each other in ‘Brilliant Disguise’ or wondering where the fairytale went in ‘Tunnel Of Love’, are the very people who, here in their younger days took a ‘stab at romance’. The young star crossed lovers who are born to run are possibly the same couple that talk to us as adults in ‘Tunnel Of Love’. Forget the physicality of the years between the albums; the parallel is there if you want it to be.
This would be Bruce Springsteen’s last album for some time and when he returned the landscape would not be the same. It would not be about running away, but returning, staying, fighting.
It is a shame such writing like this had to end, but let’s thank the God of music that it was able to be produced in the first place.
© Simon A. Moult / Moultymedia 2006.
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