A dusty sense of wonder mixed with the very beginnings of making peace with where you are or where you came from, there is a rise and fall to Bruce Springsteen's most notable album. Born To Run is one of the most carefully calibrated albums out there, and one of the most perfect representations of album-as-art - each four song set (“Thunder Road” to “Backstreets,” then “Born To Run” to “Jungleland”) moving in a particular arc, tracing a spectrum from hope to desperation to refusing to settle. And each of those arcs, and the songs within them, play off each other.
The open. That harmonica peal. It is one of the all-time great opening moments of any album ever, akin to the snare hit at the beginning of “Like A Rolling Stone” on Highway 61 Revisited. Springsteen himself commenting on that snare hit when inducting Bob Dylan into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, describing it as “somebody’d kicked open the door to your mind.” The harmonica and piano intro in “Thunder Road” does something similar. It’s the sound of the curtain being pulled back, the opening credits, the world opening up before you. Who knows how many different ways it’s been described in the four decades we’ve been living Born To Run… coincidentally, the same four decades I’ve been on this earth.
About the Author
Jennifer Pricci, a Jersey Shore music enthusiast, has been a contributing writer covering area musicians for many Jersey-based music and entertainment publications; including Night & Day, Chorus & Verse and New Jersey Stage. Her work has also appeared in the Asbury Park Press and New York Daily News. A self-admitted name-dropper, Jennifer’s articles tend to cover those she holds in high esteem -- with a goal of paying homage to local talent in addition to enticing and educating readers. For this reason you’ll rarely find a negative review written by Jennifer; constructive criticism at best.
On the performance side, Jennifer has appeared as part of a barbershop quartet at Carnegie Hall, The Alamodome in San Antonio, the Superdome in New Orleans. The Times Union Center (formerly Pepsi Arena) in Albany and more.
Jennifer Pricci is a Marketing Professional with 15 years of broad-based experience combining both brand and agency side successes; perhaps most notably driving the campaign that secured sponsorship for ClearChannel’s iHeartRadio Theater Presented By P.C. Richard & Son in New York City. In 1999 Jennifer founded her own marketing agency; PHANTOM POWER, a fully integrated marketing firm serving the needs of local musicians and small and mid-sized businesses throughout the Tri-State.
#SharpNotes is a PHANTOM POWER Marketing online publication.
For more information about Jennifer Pricci and PHANTOM POWER Marketing visit www.phantompowermarketing.com.
The Concept Album: An American Myth Worth Believing In
The Rise and Fall in Springsteen’s Born To Run
By Jennifer Pricci July 20, 2015
The intro lasts less than 20 seconds before Springsteen starts singing, and you can almost get the whole thematic scope of his career right there. There’s wonder and suggestion in it, but it’s already depleted. There is already wistfulness, melancholy. Born To Run was where Springsteen began to grow up, where real life started to encroach on the myths of his childhood.
You could over-simplify “Thunder Road,” like much of the rest of the record - it’s triumphant, celebratory, in search of wild open roads and the new lives waiting at the other end of them.
But there's more to the story.
Born To Run became one of the archetypes, one of the great works in an American tradition that bloomed in a very specific way in the 20th century; the call of escape and reinvention, the endless promises you could chase across a network of highways.
Forty years later - after the American Century, after 9/11, after the Great Recession, after the fragmentation of the music world as we know it once we’d reached an increasingly mediated and digitized existence - does that harmonica peal, does any of Born To Run, mean the same thing? Did the promises - broken or unbroken, complicated or simple - work out?
Last month, Bleachers’ Jack Antanoff announced he was starting a New Jersey-centric festival called Shadow Of The City. The name was straightforward enough: an acknowledgement that if you grew up in New Jersey, you grew up in the shadow of what Antanoff called “the greatest city in the world.”
He went on to describe what that does to a person, the feeling of being the “constant younger brother,” the fact that if you grow up in a place like that where you have to prove yourself, you make underdog music, desperate music, “larger than life” music. He, naturally, directly cited Springsteen. Most crucially, he referred to New Jersey as “one of those places where you spend your life trying to get out.”
Ironically, I’ve found it “one of those places” I’m trying to get in… just call me “Rosalita,” that - while prior to Born To Run - is one of Springsteen’s more transcendent escapes.
The idea of getting out ran through so much of his mid-’70s to mid-’80s peak. I can’t speak for those who grew up in a small American town, but what I will say is I know the feeling Antanoff’s talking about. I am familiar with the feeling of wanting to get out, which is why Born To Run – despite its release just prior to my birth – resonates.
If there’s one thing that hasn’t changed in the 40 years since Born To Run, it’s that if you live in a place from where you want to escape, that reality stays with you. And when compared to the ever-growing backlog of media telling you it doesn’t work; Born To Run’s last-ditch hopes to still find something else at the other end of the road – well it can feel like gospel.
When I listen to “Born To Run” I hear a Wall Of Sound style he may have been chasing; even its comparatively quiet moments boast those iconic melodic embellishments and piano flourishes, little twists and turns that, for a four and a half minute song, became an artist’s signature track. There are simpler things here, too - the groove-focused of “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out,” the short charge of “Night,” the super-sized take on a Bo Diddley rhythm in “She’s The One.” But they’re situated amongst mini-epics, amongst the ultimate scene-setter “Thunder Road”. And that’s before you even get to “Jungeleland,” the nearly 10-minute monolith that closes Born To Run in a multi-part epic, with various passages and shifts and violins and saxophone solos - in literature; "the reversal." Where inevitable and probable consequences are recognized. Where stories unfold as life unfolds; relentlessly, implacably, and plausibly.
Without explicitly being so, Born To Run is a concept album detailing the wanderings of the various characters in his story songs. There isn’t a literal narrative through-line from “Thunder Road” to “Backstreets” from “Born To Run” to “Jungeland,” but there might as well be. Springsteen uses every classic 8-point plot pass to create his intended theme. The rise and fall to Born To Run, offers no overt callbacks or motifs, but there’s this sense that something like “She’s The One” is not just the transition between “Born To Run” and the beginning of the final act in “Meeting Across The River,” but also ties you back to the semi-beleaguered shot at romance in “Thunder Road”. It all flows in and out of “Born To Run” – a musical mission statement.
It’s inspired sound and universe just too hard to replicate - and harder to single out in the sound of younger bands today. But its spirit element may give it a reach broader than anything Springsteen has ever done.
The core issues and themes - increasingly distant but still poeticized remembrances of youth mingling with the final passage of that youth, where you came from vs. where you’re going - are integral to so much popular music in America, and it says it in a way that cements it in a different league. This is an album that’s so massive in sound that it makes you believe again, even when you realize the dreams of escape might not work out in reality, but in the music, yes… you can escape down that highway.
Specifically, the line; “Tramps like us, baby we were born to run.” It might be Springsteen’s most definitive lyric; it’s easy to take it as a kind of mission statement. A line that alludes to small-town disenchantment and the drive to escape it, to find a different life for yourself.
But how do you translate that to a 21st century disposition? Springsteen’s already adapted himself to the America that now surrounds him and it still sounds cool when I hop in my convertible cruising down Highway 9 toward an unknown... unknown. But there’s still something that - within the context of Springsteen’s career as well as in a larger cultural context - plays to my own naivety, my own grasp at romanticism.
It is that particular quality that makes Born To Run connect with a young person in the 21st century. For people like me - or Jack Antanoff - the circumstances that lead to a Born To Run are still very real. Yeah, we might be savvier these days, to the point that we don’t trust the reverie the album’s chasing as much as Springsteen seemed to 40 years ago - or had to as his label held him in balance - but it still feels worth it to have something to chase. My battered, torn and heavily-pencil-marked copy is a testament to how worthy I've found it.
The arcs of the album and their tie to - perhaps - a tired American Dream of escapism, are tales of people searching for something, fleeing the circumstances of their normal lives or upbringings to craft new identities in the dreamscapes of a far reaching land, perhaps in New York City or – in the case of The Eagles – Southern California, or - in the case of Millennials – social media. Basically, anyplace that isn’t where you started.
But getting beyond that horizon requires a thinking or believing that where you’re coming from is a place of disenchantment with where or who you are. You’re starting from a place of suffering or paralysis or dissatisfaction, so it’s the dreams down the highway that sustain you. Even though you still do have to deal with yourself when you get to wherever you’re going.
So I’m giving you permission – giving myself permission – to suspend reality for a bit and take in Born to Run – the concept. Open the road out of whereever you are. Let it be a blueprint; as it acknowledges the world around it, but still places value in trying to find wonder in that world... even if it seems as though everything has been thoroughly demystified.
Springsteen has called “Thunder Road” more than a song but “an invitation to a bigger life.” That beyond the horizon – like the concept album - is an American myth worth believing in.
Born To Run [Complete Album]
Release Date: 8/25/75
All Tracks written and composed by Bruce Springsteen.
1. Thunder Road
2. Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out
1. Born to Run
2. She's the One
3. Meeting Across the River