Growing up, I wasn’t the type to show up at a sweetheart’s house and ask them to break out of town with me. The highways around Watertown weren’t “jammed with broken heroes on last-chance power drives.” I didn’t live the working life in a factory, carve a living out of skid-marked backstreets, or duel with gangs beneath the glow of neon signs. I was just a middle-class schoolboy, born into comfort with a bright future ahead – far from being the protagonist of a Bruce Springsteen drama.
Yet, few records have ever resonated with me quite like Bruce Springsteen’s 1975 epic Born to Run. The heroes of “Thunder Road” and “Backstreets” aren’t the enraged psychos of Guns ‘n’ Roses’ Appetite for Destruction or the sex and booze-fueled romps of every AC/DC song ever written (the places where my relationship with music first took root). Instead, they’re everyday people whose victories are in love and life; survival and reclamation.
It was an album born for survival and reclamation; a real-life last-chance power drive for Springsteen. Two albums passed – the youthful Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. and the soul-power of the Wild, the Innocent & the E-Street Shuffle. Both are unforgettable pieces of American music; yet they weren’t breakout records. Greetings and the E-Street Shuffle, while relishing in critical acclaim, undersold. Columbia pumped a lot of money into what it saw as Springsteen’s last chance at the sun; the legendary three-hour concerts that had become famous on the East Coast weren’t going to be enough to make Springsteen the rock and roll champion everyone was hoping he’d become.
After a grueling fourteen months in the studio (six alone of which were spent on the title track), Born to Run was released. Though Springsteen found himself at odds with Columbia’s hype train, Born to Run was the national success that saved Springsteen’s career. People everywhere connected with the album’s down-and-out, everyday heroes and the “wall-of-sound” that came through their stereos. The nights spent on factory floors with the rest of the E Street Band were no more; Springsteen had taken the reigns and set himself on track towards the ultimate dream of joining Dylan and Orbison as a rock and roll hero.
My relationship with Born to Run began long after those days. Michael’s time as a teenager was a stressful one (just like everyone else’s). Personal relationships were questioned. Social standing suddenly mattered. A career and life outside of school joined the day-to-day frustrations. College or work? Military? Everything I thought I knew about the world suddenly became challenged, and the biggest philosophical questions I thought I had answered returned to the front of my mind.
Everyday I woke up with that on my mind, feeling trapped under the weight of some conversation with myself or the wider world. I was at the mercy of whatever grand question (or not-so-grand question, as so many of these thoughts seem so trivial now) filled my head.
Then came Born to Run. I can’t really remember when I had first heard songs from Born to Run, but I know the first time I really listened to it was after I heard Clarence Clemons’s climactic saxophone solo on Born to Run‘s finale “Jungleland.” There was something liberating in the Big Man’s one-man horn section; the way each note rolled out and punched the air with an emotional resolve that few guitar solos had (I was born a guitar rocker then, still am, and will probably die with a six-string). Ironically, this was about the time that Big Man passed on.
I could spend hours talking about “Jungeland” alone. The subtle string intros, that guitar solo that just bleeds pure rock and roll, and Springsteen’s haunting coda that ends what might be his greatest album are well worth talking about. And then there’s the Springsteen’s story of “Rat,” a Jersey-born outlaw who flees to New York for a second chance. The gang life takes him, and the Rat tragically falls, another victim of the city who’ll be forgotten the moment “the ambulance pulls away.”
But, that’s not what connected with me about this album. Nor was it “She’s the One” and its perfect recollection of Buddy Holly rock and roll that wound up on repeat every night. It wasn’t the broken-brotherhood of the alley-way heroes on “Backstreets,” either. “Meeting Across the River’s” all-or-nothing last chance tale of two friends in over their head (interestingly enough, the perfect set up for the following “Jungleland”) gripped this young writer well enough, but it wasn’t even that.
As cliché as it might be for Springsteen fans, it was in “Thunder Road” and “Born to Run” where I found myself revisiting how I looked at the world. Springsteen’s characters here don’t exactly take their challenges head on, but they escape it. They defy what holds them down, preferring to reclaim their lives on the open roads, in guitar-slinging rock and roll, and in love.
If I had a book where I stashed all the philosophies and lessons of life – from fallen friendships and failed relationships to snippets of parental wisdom and Stephen Colbert quotes – Born to Run filled in the blanks. Life was going to be cruel; that was something I learned early on through struggles with social anxieties and depression. But it didn’t have to be that way – at least not entirely. I set time aside for midnight drives, rolled down windows and “let the wind blow back [my] hair” (I’ve had long hair for a while). I fully embraced my guitars, learning how to “make them talk” my blues away. The relationship-game wasn’t exactly kind to me, but the friends I loved were more than enough. I began seeing what these things were, and the weight was lifted as I found my personal victories in the friends I had and in the places I could escape to.
It took one man’s final shot at the light for me to be able to take my shot. I can honestly say I’d be a different person today without the piano-volleyed redemption of “Thunder Road” or the dramatic thunder of “Born to Run.” Born to Run taught me how to handle the weight of the world, of the value in things like music and friendship. It was within its gatefold that I learned how these passions held the key to surviving the realities of the world.
I was beat down; stuck with the “death traps and suicide raps” and kept from that place where I “could go out and walk in the sun.” With Born to Run, I found my way out. You see, while others submit to those traps, some of us are tramps; baby, we were born to run.