Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Bruce Springsteen Retrospective Part III: Born to Run (1975)

"The screen door slams, Mary's dress waves
Like a vision she dances across the porch as the radio plays
Roy Orbison's singing for the lonely
Hey that's me, and I want you only
Don't turn me home again, I just can't face myself alone again
Don't run back inside darling, you know just what I'm here for
So you're scared and you're thinking
That maybe we ain't that young anymore
Show a little faith, there's magic in the night
You ain't a beauty, but hey, you're alright
And that's alright with me"


If there's a more perfect opening stanza to any song ever, I'm sure I haven't heard it. "Thunder Road", the opening track from Bruce's 1975 magnum opus Born to Run might just be the greatest song ever written. It certainly was a new beginning for Springsteen, and as fate would have it, it was pretty much the beginning for me too. I spent two posts talking about records that I love, but that I only began to fully appreciate months after I had become a Springsteen fan. This record, that song, is what set all of that in motion, and it would be impossible for me to describe my monumental love for this album without telling the whole story, so this might be a long one.

My love of Bruce Springsteen has an interesting story, to say the least. Three years ago, I couldn’t have sung you a verse of a single song off Born to Run other than the title track. Today, it’s my favorite album of all time. That’s a testament to how quickly music tastes can change, but it also shows how the right music, the right artist at the right time can change your life in the blink of an eye: Springsteen hit me like that. I can only say that about one or two other artists in my entire vast library, so its nothing to laugh about. That kind of musical connection only comes along a few times in a lifetime. My love of the music of Bruce Springsteen was like lightning striking, completely by chance and by accident.

The story started a bit before Christmas 2008, when my family and I were in Chicago for my Uncle’s 50th birthday party. Due to some stroke of luck, we managed to miss the worst of some horrible winter weather that was hitting that part of the country at the time, and as we sat down at our assigned tables at the restaurant we'd rented for the occasion, I knew it would be a great night. I was sitting near my brother and my sister, as well as next to Ryan, one of my favorite cousins. Halfway song through dinner, the conversation turned towards music. Andrew was curious which I was thinking of performing at Rendezvous, the annual end-of-the-year pop showcase concert at my high school. I hadn't selected a song yet, so Andrew began throwing out recommendations of songs from some of our favorite acts: Butch Walker, Jimmy Eat World, Jack's Mannequin, even Billy Joel. For whatever reason, the one song that really stuck out to me was the only one I hadn't really considered myself: "Thunder Road", by Mr. Bruce Springsteen. "One of the best songs EVER," Andrew said.

I must admit, I wasn’t too familiar with Born to Run's opening track at the time. Of course I knew that next to "Born to Run", it was argued to be Springsteen’s best song, but beyond that, I could hardly recall the melody or anything about it other than a noteworthy piano and harmonica intro. However, my cousin Ryan, a huge Springsteen fan himself, backed it right up. Later that night, at my uncle’s house, a few of us sat around a table and Ryan told us about his experiences going to Springsteen shows. Suddenly my “musically knowledgeable” self felt completely unaware. I made a note to self that I would check out a bunch of Springsteen's records as soon as possible, and since it was Christmas break, that left a lot of time open to do so. In many ways that I would never have predicted, that night really did change my life.

The next day, the weather caught up with us: the temperatures were the coldest I'd ever experienced, and it was pretty much a white-out outside. The drive home was hell: it took us several hours longer than it should have and consisted of road closings (due to car pile-ups, of all things) and practically blind driving. But I was just about as oblivious as I could be to all that, because I was busy educating myself about Springsteen for pretty much the entire journey home. A number of Springsteen's albums had made their way from my parent's CD collection onto my iPod, among them Born to Run, so I put my headphones on, and finally gave it the full and undistracted listen it deserved. And as I listened to "Thunder Road", really listened, something just clicked: the piano, the harmonica, the soaring vocals and the gorgeous lyrics all hit me at the same time, and when it ended, I had the distinct feeling that I'd just made my biggest musical discovery since 2005 had brought me Butch Walker. I'd found my Rendezvous song: I'd also found my favorite song of all time, though I didn't know it yet.

When it comes to Born to Run, the story is almost as well known as the songs. Springsteen was coming off two records that hadn't reached the level of mainstream success the record label had hoped for, and he was in danger of being dropped. Record #3 was his last chance, and the recording sessions were a classic all-in, make-or-break, nothing left to lose affair. The songs were ambitious, the recording ridiculously meticulous, and the studio bills quickly became astronomical. It could have been one of the biggest disasters in the history of recorded music. In actuality, it was the greatest record since the inception of rock and roll.

On Born to Run, Springsteen threw away everything that defined the first two records: gone was the muddy production, gone, for the most part, were the huge cinematic songs, and gone was the Dylan worship. Born to Run is big and anthemic, concise and flawlessly sequenced. The jazz and folk influences that filled the first two records are replaced here by classic rock and pop music references. Dylan is replaced by Roy Orbison, the jazz elements by classic pop production in the vein of Phil Spector's Wall of Sound. And while these songs are still life changing when heard live (and I'm happy to say that I've heard them all live, in context, but that's another story entirely), there is no doubt that Born to Run is a massive studio triumph, full of moments that could never sound as good as they do right here, on this record.

In his book Runaway Dream, Louis P. Masur sets out to "tell the thematic story of Springsteen's American vision that begins on Born to Run with a piercing harmonica and a screen door slamming." That opening is "Thunder Road", which to date stands as Springsteen's greatest lyrical triumph. It's a tour-de-force of a song, and Springsteen sounds reborn, singing with such power and range that less experienced fans might not even recognize him as the guy who made those first two records. I won't waste space quoting more lines, but rest assured that almost every line in the song is quotable, filled with the kind of poetic beauty that only really Dylan was writing with at the time (and which virtually no one seems to be writing with today). And when the song finally crashes into its outro, a massive Sax solo by Clarence Clemons, it's hard not to just hit repeat. Anyone who'd ever written Bruce off before this record, anyone who'd ever doubted his potential, was silenced over the course of five flawless minutes of rock and roll. It was an instant classic back then; it's still one of the five greatest songs in history. That song alone would probably have saved Springsteen from all his record label woes, but it's only the beginning.

"Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out," the next track, is the point of many Springsteen concerts where the band is introduced, and it's easy to see why: the song is a feature, a perfect opportunity to show off the massive talent in the E-Street band. The song essentially tells the story of how the band came to form, and suggests that "when a change was made up town and the Big Man joined the band," it was the dividing line, the moment where the band gained the secret weapon that would be able to rocket it into superstardom. Clemons, who dominates this record as much as Bruce does (as evidenced by his appearance on the cover, where the Boss leans on him with a brotherly affection and dependence) has another shining moment here, and it's unlikely, in light of his recent death, that the song will ever appear in another setlist, even if the E-Street band does tour again, and even if they bring on a new saxophonist to carry some of Clarence's weight; this song belongs to him, and always will. Steve Van Zandt, who'd become a full time member of the E-Street band after this record (on guitar), delivers his biggest contribution to the record with a celebratory horn arrangement. 

"Night" opens with an atomic surge (again, courtesy of Clemons) and builds into an anthemic song where Bruce essentially becomes "the Boss." "Night" is a song about escaping the oppressive monotony of the 9-5 workday, and making the most of the night that follows, going out and living life to its fullest before it all starts over again in the morning. The lyrical style, written from the point of view of a working everyman, would become a Springsteen cornerstone, and would earn him his famous nickname.

"Backstreets," which closes the first side, is the record's second masterpiece. Opening with a sweeping virtuoso piano solo from Roy Bittan, the song goes on for over two minutes before Springsteen delivers the first line: "one soft-infested summer, me and Terry became friends/Tryin' in vain to breathe the fire we was born in." The song tells the tale of their friendship, recalling the good times ("Remember all the movies, Terry, we'd go see?/Trying to learn how to walk like the heroes we thought we had to"), before revealing that the whole thing came crashing down in one of Springsteen's most emotional vocal moments ever.

"Blame it on the lies that killed us
Blame it on the truth that ran us down
You can blame it all on me, Terry, It don't matter to me now 
When the breakdown hit at midnight, there was nothing left to say 
But I hated him and I hated you when you went away..."

The entire song builds to this massive, emotionally cathartic moment, and when it finally hits, it's one of the most breathtaking moments of a perfect album. "Backstreets" wasn't one of my favorites at first, but it grew on me every time I heard it, until it finally hit home. It's the album's most heartbreaking track, from the mournful piano opening, to Springsteen's yearning and nostalgic lyrics, and finally, to this climactic moment. "We swore forever friends," Springsteen sings at the end, sounding tired and regretful. "On the backstreets, until the end."

The legendary title track kicks off the second side, and what a triumphant opening it is. If there's a bigger anthem in anyone's discography, I surely haven't heard it. The iconic guitar riff heralds the arrival of the track, while Ernest "boom" Carter, on his last appearance with the E-Street band, delivers a massive flurry of drums that current E-Street drummer Max Weinberg has said he's never been quite able to duplicate. The guitar line was reportedly overdubbed dozens of times, and the oft told story of this song's recording sessions, of how many tracks they used to record the whole thing, and of the mammoth amount of studio time it ate up (recording engineer Jimmy Iovine apparently had to hide the studio bills from the record company), has become almost mythical since this album's release. 

Bruce and his band poured everything they had into this track, and the result, though not the best (or second best) track on this masterpiece of a record, is the grandest rock and roll anthem of all time. The themes, of love, escape and of the American dream, mirror those that already appeared on "Thunder Road," and the iconic lyrics here nearly match those on that poetic masterpiece. "I wanna die with you, Wendy, on the streets tonight in an everlasting kiss," he sings halfway through, with such conviction that it's hard to think of a more romantic lyric in the history of rock and roll. Clarence's sax solo weaves and dodges through the song's melodic motif, establishing him again as a virtuoso player, and when the song finally explodes into it's bridge, it hits with such sublime, honest emotional force that any first time listener will be made a believer, instantly. Even before I was a big Springsteen fan, this song spoke to me, and it continues to do so, seven or eight years later. I'm not sure a frontman has ever sounded so immortal. And the song's definitive lyric, "I wanna know if love is real," is a question that has gone on to permeate through much of Springsteen's work.

"Shes the One" opens with an instantly memorable and somehow familiar piano line, before ushering in Bruce's mysterious vocal.  The song builds into a bombastic arrangement, with a thunderous rhythm section and Roy Bittan's piano line continuing to dominate the sound while Springsteen sings lyrics about an almost mythical woman who seems just out of his reach. The song feels almost like a surreal dream of sorts in it's crescendo, eventually building to another Clarence solo and a full band breakdown. 

"Meeting Across the River" follows seamlessly, opening with a distant trumpet line that eventually gives way to a gorgeous piano and Springsteen's subdued, yet forceful vocals. The song's lyrics represent one side of a conversation between Bruce's character and a guy named Eddie, who he's trying to convince to help him pull off a robbery. He's down on his luck, and he hangs all his hopes on this one chance: that the job will go off without a hitch, and that the cash he's going to steal will save his relationship and set his life on the right track. As the song fades into the album's closer, it's pretty clear that things aren't going to go as planned. "Meeting Across the River" is often dubbed the album's weakest track, and is most certainly the least discussed (and the least performed live), but as a piece of storyline, a subdued penultimate moment, and a lead-in to one of the most epic tracks in all of rock and roll, it functions wonderfully, and is merely one of eight perfect tracks on display here.

The aforementioned closing epic, "Jungleland," is so indescribably grand that the only way to truly understand it is so sit down, close your eyes, and listen to it at full volume. There's so much to experience here: the scenic violin opening; Roy Bittan's shimmering piano lead; Bruce's fantastically evocative lyrics; the organ that barges in after the first singing of the line "down in Jungleland"; the rousing guitar solo halfway through;  Clemons most iconic sax solo in the catalog--maybe the greatest and most moving two minutes in the history of recorded media; the comedown after the solo, and the way Bruce's vocal delivery shifts from the grand opening sections to fit the emotionally broken closing ones; and then the build-up over the final minutes, as Bruce wails wordlessly over Bittan's furious piano playing. "Jungleland" has so many defining and visceral moments that I could easily wax poetic about it for a dozen pages. 

In his sax solo, Clemons is able to communicate more than any words ever could, everything from love to triumph to overwhelming tragedy, and that's why it still gives me chills, even to this day. I've heard people say it saved their lives; it certainly changed mine. This song, and that moment in particular, has given me an anchor to cling to so many times, from the day I graduated from high school, to the day my first dog died, to inspiring me in moments where I felt like I'd lost sight of why music was so important to me. And on the night that Clarence Clemons passed away, I listened to the song on repeat for an hour and a half, and that sax solo, Clarence's most shining moment in a career full of shining moments, brought tears to my eyes. This year, we lost one of the greatest forces in the history of rock and roll. At the U2 concert I went to this past summer, Bono described Clarence's playing as a "force of nature," and never is that force more papable than it is on this indescribably flawless song; never have ten minutes felt shorter.

Over the course of my senior year, Born to Run came to define me more than any other album ever had, and probably more than any ever will. Its themes of growing up and escape, of the optimism and triumph of the American dream (with a bit of fear thrown in for good measure), fit so well with everything I was feeling as I approached my high school graduation. "Thunder Road" was my Rendezvous song and I wanted "Born to Run" as my class song. I wanted to share the way I felt about this record with everyone: it was in constant rotation in my car, where I belted the songs at the top of my lungs and played the crashing finale of "Jungleland" at full volume, for every other car on the road to hear and be jealous of. Throughout that spring, every song, every lyric, every guitar or piano line and every sax solo came to mean something huge to me. 

As the years have gone by, Born to Run has continued to grow and change with me, and every single time I put it on, I still feel the same way about it. It still feels like that first morning, on that snowblind car ride where I listened to "Thunder Road" on Andrew's recommendation and it finally clicked: like every single door in my mind is being blown off its hinges. This is an album I'll listen to forever, but I think it will always bring me back to my senior year, the time period that it came to define, and one I'm so glad it did. The fact that I was performing "Thunder Road" at my final concert of high school was only part of it. On my drive to graduation, it was this album that provided soundtrack, while moments of the past four years, good and bad, flashed before my eyes, brought on by a lyric or a melody. I was about to close the book on a huge chapter of my life, and Springsteen's vision of the American dream got the honor of being the coda. It's hard to explain, but listening to this record that morning made me feel more alive than I ever had before. It still does.

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