Saturday, November 19, 2005

Bruce Springsteen: Born to Run at 30

A new article for Paste Magazine ...

Bruce Springsteen’s album Born to Run changed my life. I know. It’s the kind of claim that hyperventilating music journalists make all too frequently, and Born to Run may have been the object of more fawning critical adulation than any other rock album. But it’s true. I can’t help it if all the ‘70s hipsters at Rolling Stone got it right too.

I was twenty years old when Born to Run was released in November of 1975, pondering what to do with my impending, useless Creative Writing degree, utterly clueless about what to do with my life, but full of passion and energy and general piss and malaise. Nixon was a crook and Ford wasn't much better, progressive rockers and sixties hippie dinosaurs were ruining everything I cared about in music. I was scared shitless about the future, my girlfriend had dumped me, and the radio sucked.

Into that swirling vortex strode Bruce Springsteen, a scruffy kid from the Jersey Shore who sang about chrome-wheeled, fuel-injected hotrods and gang warfare and redemption beneath a dirty hood. I was a middle-class Midwestern kid from the suburbs with a rusting ’68 Ford Fairlane, but it still made perfect sense to me. I knew nothing about the mean streets of Jersey, but I already knew more than I wanted to know about towns that rip the bones from your back and life as a death trap and a suicide rap, and I understood all too well that longing to be somebody, to make my mark, to push through the mediocrity and the spoken and unspoken expectations and live life to the fullest, like I was born to run, ready to head off down Thunder Road at a moment’s notice and never look back. Mary would have to wait. Hell, I was ready to climb into the front seat of that car myself if Bruce would settle for me. Springsteen’s music connected in ways that went deep down, made me feel desperate and more alive than I’d ever felt, and I wanted to tell him about it.

Amazingly, I got my opportunity. And in the annals of Great Celebrity Encounters it was a certified bust. In the spring of 1976 Bruce Springsteen came to Athens, Ohio and played an impossibly great, sweaty, three-hour concert at Ohio University that just about convinced me that I was not alone in the universe, and that if rock 'n roll was no substitute for divine revelation, then it was at least damn close. After the concert, my ears still ringing and my heart still pounding, I wandered to the bagel buggy, a popular late night haunt in Athens. Somebody jostled me from behind. I turned around, saw Bruce Springsteen, and knew that my shining moment was at hand.

“Great show, Bruce,” I said.

“Thanks, man,” he said. And then he was gone. So much for fawning adulation.

And now thirty years have passed. I’ve hung with Bruce for the duration, heard his music change, watched his metamorphosis into folkie troubadour, witnessed the breakup and re-formation of the E Street Band, that marvelously well-oiled musical machine that propelled his greatest songs. The songs a man sings in his twenties can sound ridiculous when sung by a man in his fifties, and Bruce seems to know this intuitively, tinkering under the hood with “Thunder Road” and “Born to Run” and transforming them from full-bore, passionate rockers into pensive, haunting memories. When a man hits his fifties he’s seen a lot of ghosts, and some of them are bound to be named Mary and Wendy and Terry.

The lavish, 30th Anniversary re-packaging of Born to Run is the Holy Grail for longtime Springsteen fans – a cleaned-up, remastered album that still retains that marvelous wall of sound, a DVD full of reminiscences and behind-the-scenes footage, and, best of all, a complete concert circa 1975, a scruffy Bruce playing the wondrous songs of his youth as if his very life was hanging in the balance, looking just like he did in Athens, Ohio.

I wanted it, wanted it badly, but it turned out I had to wait for it, just as I’ve had to wait for every good thing in my life, and couldn’t find it by simply getting in the car and driving to a new destination. I went to two music stores the day the Anniversary edition was released, only to find that both stores had already sold out by the time I arrived. Apparently there are other Bruce fans out there, and some of them appear to care intensely too. And so I went the complacent middle-aged route and ordered it online. But it arrived, and it reminded me again of desperation and faith and the youthful passion that still smolders. I returned from my search empty-handed. But on my way back to work, returning to the jungleland of corporate cubicles, I rolled down the window of my decidedly suburban minivan and let the wind blow back my thinning hair, for old time's sake.


e said...

Your commentary is so good (and brings back the first time I heard the album in 81--when I was told it was devil's music) that I went the low-on-cash 30-something route and put it on my amazon wishlist for christmas.

PRH said...

Actually is was April 1, 1976, if I recall little 5' 7" Bruce must have sweat down to 125 lbs after his 3 hour concert at OU....I went to Swanky's after and had a beer with him.

Oodb said...

I was at that concert. I was one of the first in line, but the tickets were all general admission, so there was a mad rush at the door, when they heard the band warming up inside...does anyone remember? They tore the doors off the front of mem-aud in the panic to get in. I got pushed up against the corner of one of the doors (center ones) and practically had my arm pulled out of it's socket as my boyfriend was holding one arm trying to drag me in, and others behind me were trying to push and pull others out of the way. When we finally got inside and ran down the aisles to try and get seats, we got no closer than 10th I remember, right in direct line with a huge pile of speakers. The concert was a blur, so LOUD...I couldn't hear properly for the rest of the evening! But I loved it, I would not trade this memory for anything.

Anonymous said...

I was also at the concert. Simply unbelievable. I remember waiting outside for my boyfriend to meet me, and then getting taken in the front doors by the push of the crowd. I was so naive, and lucky that nothing serious happened to me. I remember when the concert was first advertised, just a short time before April 1, everyone thought it was an April Fool's joke.Was probably the best concert I ever attended. The saying, "youth is wasted on the young" sure applies - Leslie (Harris) Harmon

jonnycarbon said...

I was there also, I remember when the band was having a technical problem midway through the show. When Clarence Clemons announced the issue to the audience, we all cheered, we were so entralled!

jonnycarbon said...

And then when they played Born To Run the crowd screamed so loud I couldn't hear the music

Jan said...

I too was at the show in Athens that night.
i believe it was a last moment fill in since Bruce was playing Columbus either before or after the Athens show.
I was squeezed at the door and remember the doors coming off their hinges, literally ripped off the walls at MemAud.
i first saw Bruce the previous summer in NYC, first in Central Park as the warm up for Anne Murray and then again in early August at the Bottom Line. Bruce and the E Street band has been apart of me, my life and my family ever since. Today Clarence died and the band will never be the same.
Thank you Clarence for all the great moments memories and good vibe.
My condolences to your family and the band.
Big man, your soul and your smile will always be apart of me.