Bruce Springsteen: Born to Rock

By Phillip Martin

March 26, 2012


Bruce Springsteen in concert (AP Photo)

BOSTON — From the opening drum roll, to the closing moments of the seminal song "Born to Run," Bruce Springsteen takes us along for the ride in a fist pumping adventure in irony.

In the day we sweat it out in the streets of a runaway American dream
At night we ride through mansions of glory in suicide machines
Sprung from cages out on Highway 9...

In August 1975, President Gerald Ford barely escaped assassination, Viking 1 was launched to Mars, Jimmy Hoffa went missing, and Born to Run, Springsteen’s third album, was released to critical acclaim. It was Springsteen’s first commercial success, reaching number 3 on the Billboards 200 chart. Today it still sits high atop dozens of best-ever lists of American songs and has sold more than six million copies in the USA. But what was so special about the single and the album? And why are we talking about Born to Run now?

Marc Dolan, the author of the upcoming book, Bruce Springsteen and the Promise of Rock and Roll, points out the significance of the album's timing. "It’s important, I think, for reason of popular music and it’s important for American history. There was an article in the New York Times when the album first debuted that said if Bruce Springsteen had not existed, Rock critics would have had to invent him, and to a certain extent it was true," he said.

Born to run debuted at a time when going out of business signs dotted the American landscape…from Dalton, Massachusetts to Detroit, Michigan. The song is about trapped teenagers trying to escape social and emotional despair that surround them. Dolan says like Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, Born to Run captured the angst of the period that many still consider relevant today.

"Springsteen, more than any other artist of the 1970’s, really caught the decline of American industrialism," Dolan said. "He writes from that album forward about a world in which the factories that have been the livelihood of the working class are leaving town, and what’s left behind is absence, what’s left behind is decay. And he writes as someone who is young and the world in which a man could be successful is leaving. And the question is how do you become a success in world of that much loss?"

Chrome wheeled, fuel injected and steppin' out over the line
Baby this town rips the bones from your back
Its a death trap, it's a suicide rap
We gotta get out while were young
`Cause tramps like us, baby we were born to run

Like a lot of young people at the time, award-winning broadcast journalist Bill Lichtenstein was drawn to Springsteen’s gritty working class persona, and the lyrics spoke to him.

"I was in my car listening to WBCN and the legendary Maxann Satori, who discovered many bands, had Brice Springsteen on the air. It was his first radio interview…..ever. It was one of those moments that you never forget," he said.

Born to Run, Lichtenstein reminds us, was not a labor of love for Bruce Springsteen. There was pressure from his record company for a commercial success or else; and it took more than six months to write the single and 14 months to produce the album. Lichtenstein, who is currently working on a full-length documentary about WBCN FM, says Born to Run was previewed on progressive radio stations up and down the Northeast.

"Stations like WBCN in Boston, WBRU, WHCN, certainly in New York WNEW, a small group of stations who received a copy of Born to Run before the final mix and before the final album was out. It soon spread nationally, and within weeks after the album came out, Bruce Springsteen was on the cover of Time and Newsweek.

Wendy let me in I wanna be your friend
I want to guard your dreams and visions
Just wrap your legs round these velvet rims
And strap your hands across my engines
Together we could break this trap
Well run till we drop, baby well never go back
Will you walk with me out on the wire
`cause baby Im just a scared and lonely rider
But I gotta find out how it feels

"Who among us has not been driving at 2 or 3 in the morning, trying to wrap their brain around some love affair that’s gone bad, or some girl that’s turned us down. That whole reality of American life at that point, he captured it, he nailed it," Lichtenstein said.

I want to know if love is wild, girl I want to know if love is real....

Album Cover, Sesame Street Records (Muppet Wiki)
Born to Run has spawned many imitators, from the theme to Frankie Goes to Hollywood to the Muppet’s play on words, Born to Add, but not every musician is sold on what many consider to be Bruce Springsteen’s most—dare I use the term—iconic song.

In between sets at the Lizard Lounge in Cambridge, Dennis Brennon, a respected figure on the Boston music scene, takes a moment to explain why.

"Listen, I have the greatest respect for Bruce Springsteen, I think he’s a tremendous artist, but I don’t like everything and that’s one of the things I don’t like," Brennon said, "It seems like it is overwrought with too much stuff going on, and like, he put everything into it and at that time he had too, because he had to have a huge single in order to survive as an artist. It worked for him. It just doesn’t work in my head."

So you will not hear Brennon’s band play Born to Run, ever. But Brennon says what Born to Run lacks musically, Springsteen’s populist influences more than makes up for a single song; influences that go to the heart of Springsteen’s working class persona.

"To a certain extent, I think we are both populist. He’s really influenced by Woodie Guthrie. He gave a speech the other day at the South by Southwest conference and he picked up his guitar and played “We Gotta Get Out of this Place” by the Animals and said that every song that he’s ever written has come from that," Brennon said.

In his speech at the South by Southwest Tech-Music Conference in Austin, Texas, Springsteen told the crowd, "To me the Animals, they were a revelation. It was the first records I had ever heard with full blown class –consciousness that I had ever heard."

Springsteen connected the dots between We Gotta Get Out of This Place and Born to Run.

"Girl there’s a better life for me and you. That’s all of em’. I’m not kidding. That’s Born to Run. Born in the USA," he said.

For more than 40 years, Bruce Springsteen –from the boardwalks and streets of Jersey—has articulated the concerns, trials and triumphs of everyday folk.

"That struck me so deep," the Boss said. "It was the first time I felt something, I heard, that came across the radio, that mirrored my home life, my childhood."

Springsteen’s vision of the working class hero is as much the vision of Walt Whitman and Eugene Debs as Woodie Guthrie and John Lennon. And these politicized messages of triumph and despair manifest often in subtle ways in Born to Run , says Marc Dolan, who also teaches English at the City University of New York.

"That idea that there are forces larger than us keeping us down has been a powerful idea for at least two or three generations of American culture," Dolan said. "For 35 years now, [Springsteen's] been mixing his new songs with his old songs. So you are going to hear "Born to Run" and you are going to hear "Thunder Road," but "Thunder Road" is going to come right after "We Are Alive" and he calls it a conversation, but I would sometimes say it’s an education, that he’s trying to get them to see the world his way."

Or at least to sing along, as documentarian Bill Liechtenstein says he’s apt to do whenever he hears "Born to Run".

Springsteen's SXSW Speech on NPR
Sing "Born to Run" for WGBH News
Phillip Martin after the Boston show
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