Saturday, March 26, 2016
Bruce Springsteen - Born to Run (40-Year Retrospective)
The thing is, before I really dove into Born to Run and the rest of Springsteen's catalog, I can't recall ever having a favorite album. Butch Walker's Letters would probably have been the obvious candidate, but I genuinely don't remember ever even thinking about all-time favorites—let alone trying to rank them in any official capacity. I would make year-end lists of the albums I loved, sure, but I think my perspective on music was still so narrow at the time that any "favorites" list I made would have been almost completely comprised of 2000s albums, with a few old '90s favorites thrown in for good measure.
Born to Run changed everything. To paraphrase a quote Springsteen once used to describe Bob Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone," the day it clicked was like somebody kicking open the door to my mind. There had been important musical moments for me before then—the moments with The Wallflowers and Counting Crows and Jimmy Eat World and Green Day and Butch Walker that had really made me love music in the first place. But this, that first listen where I really got "Thunder Road," that moment informed just about everything I've done since—and not just in relation to music, either.
It was a weird genesis moment, too. It was the morning of December 21st, 2008, and I was lying on the pullout couch of a hotel room in Naperville, Illinois. I was a senior in high school, and two days before had marked the final day of school before Christmas break. My family had traveled from Michigan to Illinois for my uncle's 50th birthday party, and the weather had subsequently turned fierce. Outside, it was something ridiculous like -30 with wind chill, plus some pleasant whiteout conditions. (I'd learn this the hard way later, when I walked outside with damp hair and was quickly rewarded with a frozen block on my head that inflated into an afro after it thawed out.) The previous night had been the party, and in a few hours, my family would brave the elements and head back home for most insanely punishing road trip I have ever experienced. For now, though, I didn't have to get out of bed or go anywhere, so I pulled out my iPod, cycled to "Thunder Road," and pushed play.
There was a reason for this sudden urge to revisit an album that had been sitting on my mp3 player for four years. The previous night had brought one, but not two mentions of Springsteen. First, my brother, after over-imbibing just a bit, made the loud proclamation that "Thunder Road" was "One of the best songs EVER." Second—and much later on in the night—one of my cousins regaled the family with stories of his half dozen experiences seeing Springsteen live, describing it as a religious experience, and talking fondly about the crazy things he'd done (or, more often, the crazy amounts of money he'd spent) just to be in the audience at different E Street shows. It all sounded so mythic and romantic to me, and I suddenly wanted nothing more than to be a part of it.
After those five minutes in that Naperville hotel room, I was.
It's not uncommon to see albums and songs described as "growers," records that open up and increase the hold they have on you as you continue to spend more time with them. I myself have probably used the term "grower" in a few of the reviews I've written for this site over the years. But when it comes to my all-time favorite albums, there's never been anything gradual about the way I feel about them. Butch Walker's Letters, Jimmy Eat World's Futures, Jack's Mannequin's Everything in Transit, Green Day's American Idiot, Noah Gundersen's Ledges: these are all albums that were favorites from the first time I heard them. There's an electricity that I feel throughout my whole body on those kinds of first listens that's hard to describe, but that also lets me know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that I've just found something that will be a part of my life forever.
Born to Run was unique, in that I'd already heard it many, many times before that date in late 2008. But listening to "Thunder Road" that morning, I felt the electricity, perhaps greater than I'd ever felt it before. Over the course of those five minutes, "Thunder Road" jumped from "song I respected" to "favorite song, period," and it hasn't left that spot since.
In the next few months, Born to Run would become my go-to answer to the "favorite album of all time" question. Based on the Springsteen fans I've encountered since, that quick infatuation wasn't unusual: the songs on Born to Run have meant many things to many people of the years, and they continue to evolve to fit new situations. Just one example is the way that "Tenth Avenue Freeze Out" became the eulogy and celebration of life for Clarence "Big Man" Clemons after the legendary sax man passed away in 2011. For me, Born to Run became the soundtrack to my final five months in high school. I performed "Thunder Road" at my choir's year-ending pop concert; I played "Born to Run" at maximum volume as I drove to graduation; I can't tell you how many times I sat up late into the night listening to "Jungleland," forgetting the idea of a "bedtime" as I felt the first hints of summer on the evening breeze.
A lot of people my age have difficulty connecting with older music, just because they don't relate to the themes or the subject matter in the lyrics. But on Born to Run, Springsteen seemed to tap into something so fitting for the end of my time in high school, with the group of friends I'd been with for years. Songs like "Thunder Road" and the title track communicated the excitement of it all: the yearning for escape, the promise of unbroken dreams, the unbridled ecstasy of youth. But then there was the anguish and regret coursing through "Backstreets," the guy who talks big but gets cut down to size in "Meeting Across the River," the cast-off heroes left broken and defeated at the end of "Jungleland." The "Jungleland" sax solo by itself even seemed to convey the entire experience of life, capturing euphoria and disappointment and heartbreak and resilience, all in the space of two and a half minutes. Born to Run was just the album I needed at that moment in time, the only album that seemed to speak to the complex mix of emotions I was feeling as the clock ran out on my high school years.
Even after I left home and went to school, the lessons hidden in these eight songs weren't done with me. Nine years after he finished working himself and his band to exhaustion in order to make this record, Bruce would write a breezy pop-rock song that proclaimed, "We learned more from a three minute record, baby, than we ever learned in school." Little did I know, whilst I was off spending my parents' money on a college education—as a classical voice major of all things, because that was going to be lucrative—that I really would learn more from the dusty old copy of Born to Run I'd pilfered from my step dad than I did in the first two and a half years of college combined. The album, it turned out, had this hidden map of life tucked away in its songs, and it was meant to prepare me for all of the experiences that were coming down the pipeline. "Born to Run" taught me that love and a fast car could conquer anything—a lesson that got me through three years of a long distance relationship without ever losing sight of the endgame. "Backstreets" prepared me for the sad but inescapable fact that I was going to lose friends on the journey from boyhood to adulthood. And "Thunder Road" taught me that, some days, the best course of action for dealing with all of the bullshit in the world really is to get in a car, break the speed limit, roll down the window, and let the wind blow back your hair.
When I said Born to Run changed everything for me, I meant it. Musically, discovering my love for this record was like discovering a whole new world. It unlocked the rest of Springsteen's catalog, which in turn shed new light on a ton of my favorite artists who had borrowed and learned from him extensively—from Butch Walker to Counting Crows to Jack's Mannequin. It sent me digging into older music and gave me appreciation for records and artists I would likely never have given much of a chance otherwise. It spun me down a path toward Americana, folk, and country music—genres that, while seemingly far from this album's big "Wall of Sound" rock 'n' roll—often embraced similar themes and explorations of character. And it made me want to always keep pushing to have music be a part of my life—even after a shitty experience as a music major in college would have made it so, so easy to just give up on that part of my life entirely.
Born to Run also just has this tendency to be a part of big moments in my life. My final high school concert; my high school graduation; all the road trips I took in college with this album in the CD player—many of them as part of that aforementioned long-distance relationship; seeing Springsteen and the E Street Band play the album in full in 2009, feeling tears sting my eyes at the first harmonica burst of "Thunder Road," or getting chills down my spine as I watched Clarence Clemons play that "Jungleland" solo in concert for literally the fourth-to-last time ever; getting up and karaoke-ing the shit out of "Born to Run" somewhere around the 10-beer mark during my bachelor party night; using "Thunder Road" as the mother-son dance at my wedding, and seeing it evolve into this huge celebratory sing-along with all of my family and friends on the dance floor; my brother closing out his Best Man speech, fittingly with the words "On the backstreets, we'll take it together"; having my wife know me so well that her gift to me on our first wedding anniversary was a clock carved out of a vinyl Born to Run record. Heck, if it hadn't been for this album, I never would have gotten into The Gaslight Anthem, which means that I never would have blogged the review of Handwritten that got me a job writing for this very website.
I know that there are people who have loved this album for far longer than I have: people who bought this record in the days, weeks, or months after it was released, people who have been learning its lessons and reaping its rewards for 40 years. But when I listen to Born to Run, it doesn't feel like a universally known work from one of the biggest stars in the history of music, and it doesn't feel like I missed out on it's first three and a half decades of existence. Instead, it feels personal, like the Boss wrote this album with me in mind. No one was ever better at tapping into the psyches and situations of his listeners than Springsteen was, and on this album, he perfected the art. From the slamming screen door of "Thunder Road," to the anguished wails of "Jungleland," Springsteen not only realized the depths of his characters—of his narrators, of Mary and Wendy and Cherry, of Eddie and Terry, of the Big Man, of Barefoot Girl and the Magic Rat, and of all those gang members out beneath that giant Exxon sign, flashing guitars like switchblades—but he also realized the depth of the American Dream, and of the different things it can mean for so many different people. The result may or may not be the greatest album in the history of rock and roll, but it's certainly the most important album in my history.