As a determinedly permanent resident of the West Coast, the furor Bruce Springsteen’s live performances have kicked up in the East over the last couple of years left me feeling somewhat culturally deprived, not to mention a little suspicious. The legendary three-hour sets Springsteen and his E Street Band apparently rip out night after night in New York, Province-town, Boston and even Austin have generated a great tumult and shouting; but, short of flying 3000 miles to catch a show, there was no way for an outlander to discover what the fuss was all about.
Certainly, I couldn’t find the reasons on Springsteen’s first two albums, despite Columbia’s “New Dylan” promotional campaign for the debut disc and the equally thoughtful “Street Poet” cover of the second. Both radiated self-consciousness, whereas the ballyhoo led one to hope for the grand egotism of historic rock & roll stars; both seemed at once flat and more than a little hysterical, full of sound and fury, and signifying, if not nothing, not much.
A bit guiltily, I found anything by Roxy Music far more satisfying. They could at least hit what they aimed for; while it was clear Springsteen was after bigger game, the records made me wonder if he knew what it was. Whether he did or not, with two “you gotta see him live” albums behind him, the question of whether Springsteen would ever make his mark on rock & roll — or hang onto the chance to do so — rested on that third LP, which was somehow “long awaited” before the ink was dry on the second. Very soon, he would have to come across, put up or shut up. It is the rock & roller’s great shoot-out with himself: The kid with promise hits the dirt and the hero turns slowly, blows the smoke from his pistol, and goes on his way.
Or else, the kid and the hero go down together, twitching in the dust while the onlookers turn their heads and talk safely of what might have been. The end. Fade-out.
Springsteen’s answer is Born to Run. It is a magnificent album that pays off on every bet ever placed on him — a ’57 Chevy running on melted down Crystals records that shuts down every claim that has been made. And it should crack his future wide open.
The song titles by themselves — “Thunder Road,” “Night,” “Backstreets,” “Born to Run,” “Jungleland” — suggest the extraordinary dramatic authority that is at the heart of Springsteen’s new music. It is the drama that counts; the stories Springsteen is telling are nothing new, though no one has ever told them better or made them matter more. Their familiar romance is half their power: The promise and the threat of the night; the lure of the road; the quest for a chance worth taking and the lust to pay its price; girls glimpsed once at 80 miles an hour and never forgotten; the city streets as the last, permanent American frontier. We know the story: one thousand and one American nights, one long night of fear and love.
What is new is the majesty Springsteen and his band have brought to this story. Springsteen’s singing, his words and the band’s music have turned the dreams and failures two generations have dropped along the road into an epic — an epic that began when that car went over the cliff in Rebel Without a Cause. One feels that all it ever meant, all it ever had to say, is on this album, brought forth with a determination one would have thought was burnt out years ago. One feels that the music Springsteen has made from this long story has outstripped the story; that it is, in all its fire, a demand for something new.
In one sense, all this talk of epic comes down to sound. Rolling Stone contributing editor Jon Landau, Mike Appel and Springsteen produced Born to Run in a style as close to mono as anyone can get these days; the result is a sound full of grandeur. For all it owes to Phil Spector, it can be compared only to the music of Bob Dylan & the Hawks made onstage in 1965 and ’66. With that sound, Springsteen has achieved something very special. He has touched his world with glory, without glorifying anything: not the romance of escape, not the unbearable pathos of the street fight in “Jungleland,” not the scared young lovers of “Backstreets” and not himself.
“Born to Run” is the motto that speaks for the album’s tales, just as the guitar figure that runs through the title song — the finest compression of the rock & roll thrill since the opening riffs of “Layla” — speaks for its music. But “Born to Run” is uncomfortably close to another talisman of the lost kids that careen across this record, a slogan Springsteen’s motto inevitably suggests. It is an old tattoo: “Born to Lose.” Springsteen’s songs — filled with recurring images of people stranded, huddled, scared, crying, dying — take place in the space between “Born to Run” and “Born to Lose,” as if to say, the only run worth making is the one that forces you to risk losing everything you have. Only by taking that risk can you hold on to the faith that you have something left to lose. Springsteen’s heroes and heroines face terror and survive it, face delight and die by its hand, and then watch as the process is reversed, understanding finally that they are paying the price of romanticizing their own fear.
One soft infested summer/Me and Terry became friends/Trying in vain to breathe/The fire we was born in…/Remember all the movies, Terry/We’d go see/Trying to learn to walk like the heroes/We thought we had to be/Well after all this time/To find we’re just like all the rest/Stranded in the park/And forced to confess/To/Hiding on the backstreets/Hiding on the backstreets/Where we swore forever friends….
Those are a few lines from “Backstreets,” a song that begins with music so stately, so heartbreaking, that it might be the prelude to a rock & roll version of The Iliad. Once the piano and organ have established the theme the entire band comes and plays the theme again. There is an overwhelming sense of recognition: No, you’ve never heard anything like this before, but you understand it instantly, because this music — or Springsteen crying, singing wordlessly, moaning over the last guitar lines of “Born to Run,” or the astonishing chords that follow each verse of “Jungleland,” or the opening of “Thunder Road” — is what rock & roll is supposed to sound like.
The songs, the best of them, are adventures in the dark, incidents of wasted fury. Tales of kids born to run who lose anyway, the songs can, as with “Backstreets,” hit so hard and fast that it is almost impossible to sit through them without weeping. And yet the music is exhilarating. You may find yourself shaking your head in wonder, smiling through tears at the beauty of it all. I’m not talking about lyrics; they’re buried, as they should be, hard to hear for the first dozen playings or so, coming out in bits and pieces. To hear Springsteen sing the line “Hiding on the backstreets” is to be captured by an image; the details can come later. Who needed to figure out all the words to “Like a Rolling Stone” to understand it?
It is a measure of Springsteen’s ability to make his music bleed that “Backstreets,” which is about friendship and betrayal between a boy and a girl, is far more deathly than “Jungleland,” which is about a gang war. The music isn’t “better,” nor is the singing — but it is more passionate, more deathly and, necessarily, more alive. That, if anything, might be the key to this music: As a ride through terror, it resolves itself finally as a ride into delight.
“Oh-o, come on, take my hand,” Springsteen sings, “Riding out to case the promised land.” And there, in a line, is Born to Run. You take what you find, but you never give up your demand for something better because you know, in your heart, that you deserve it. That contradiction is what keeps Springsteen’s story, and the promised land’s, alive. Springsteen took what he found and made something better himself. This album is it.