Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Bruce Springsteen -- "Born to Run" (1975)

Just wrap your legs 'round these velvet rims 
And strap your hands across my engines 

Bruce Springsteen's first two albums got very good reviews, but they didn't sell.  When "The Boss" went into the studio to record his third album, he knew it was do or die -- another flop and it was back to being just another Jersey bar band.

The Born to Run album hit the ground running when it hit the stores in August 1975, thanks in large part to the release of an early version of the title track to progressive radio stations around the country.  Those stations included WBCN in Boston, and that's where I first heard "Born to Run."  (I was a first-year law student at the time.)

Bruce swung for the fences with "Born to Run."  It's a frenzied, almost maniacal song, completely out of control both musically and lyrically.  I think it's his best song ever.

Many of you have wondered how it could have taken 2 or 3 lines this long to feature a Springsteen song.  After all, I've written about well over 500 songs.  Given that millions of people place Springsteen right up there with Jesus Christ, that may seem like a shocking oversight on the part of 2 or 3 lines.

(If you think the Bruce-Jesus comparison is an exaggeration, consider this: in 2010 an Episcopal church in Portland, Oregon -- it figures it would have been in Portland, doesn't it? -- conducted an evening Lenten communion service featuring Bruce's music, which was billed as "A Bruce Springsteen Eucharist."  The same church previously held a "U2charist.")

Springsteen fans in Milan, Italy
I'm sorry to be the bearer of bad news, boys and girls, but Bruce Springsteen is EASILY the most overrated rock musician of all time.  (This revelation will sound like blasphemy to many of you, but will come as a relief to those of you who never quite got Bruce -- especially you younger folks who had to listen to your dads and other aging gasbags blather on and on about Monsieur le Patron.)

"Born to Run" was a very distinctive and original song in 1975, and I think it is still a very powerful piece of pop music.  Unfortunately, way too many of the Springsteen songs that followed "Born to Run" are just watered-down versions of it.  

Springsteen's put out a lot of music over the last 30 years, and most of it is very forgettable stuff.  (The rest of it is too douche-chill inducing to be easily forgotten.)  Bruce is like a football coach who won a couple of championships when he was young , but whose reputation has been called into question by a l-o-n-g stretch of losing seasons.

"The Boss" in high school
You could say the same thing about the Rolling Stones, I suppose, but the Stones put out a lot more championship albums than Springsteen did back in the day, and they've been smart enough to slow their output of new albums way down -- they've released only one album in the last 15 years, while Bruce has released six yawners since 2002.

Speaking of football coaches, I'm sure you've heard one or more of them talk about wanting his players to give 110%.  "Born to Run" gives 110% -- maybe even 120%.  Choose your favorite cliché: Springsteen holds nothing back . . . pulls out all the stops . . . swings for the fences . . . they're all true.

"Born to Run" is the best example I know of a song whose lyrics sound brilliant when you hear the record, but those lyrics don't look so great on the printed page.  

Springsteen's lyrics swing back and forth between the concrete and the abstract.  

On the one hand, you have "chrome-wheeled" and "Hemi-powered" street rods speeding up Highway 9 the girls in the passenger seats "comb their hair in rearview mirrors."

US Highway 9 in Freehold Township, NJ
(Bruce Springsteen's hometown)
On the other hand, you have the protagonist desperate to get himself and his girl Wendy out of a hometown that "rips the bones from your back," promising to "live with the sadness" and still love her "with all the madness in [his] soul," hoping to get to a place where they can "walk in the sun," but prepared to die with Wendy on the streets that very night "in an everlasting kiss." 

My oh my, Bruce -- that's a lot of melodrama for one little song!  (I'm guessing "The Boss" read a lot of Beat poetry when he was young.)

But that's quite all right, Mr. S.  Rock 'n' roll should be melodramatic, and in your face, and over the top.  It should be a chrome-wheeled, Hemi-powered hot rod going 80 in a 35 zone, with a Stanley Kowalski look-alike in a white T-shirt holding a can of Ballantine ale in one hand and a cigarette in the other as he drove, and a slutty girl with dyed hair and too much makeup sitting as close as possible, squeezing his thigh and tonguing his ear.

One final note.  A lot of people apparently think that Bruce is singing about motorcycles, not cars.  The reference to "suicide machines" is certainly consistent with that theory.  But motorcyclists are a distinct and relatively small subculture -- most of the New Jersey teenagers that Springsteen hung around with drove cars.  

And the lyrics describe those "suicide machines" as "fuel-injected" and "Hemi-powered."  The first widely-available motorcycle with a fuel-injected engine was the Honda CX500 Turbo, which wasn't introduced to the marketplace until 1982 -- years after this song was written.

'68 Plymouth Road Runner with 426 "Hemi"
Generally speaking, a "hemi" engine is any internal combustion engine with hemispherical combustion chamber roofs.  For all I know, there might have been motorcycles with hemispherical engines back in the day.  But that term is universally used to describe the hemispherical engines Chrysler has made over the years.  Chrysler trademarked the name "Hemi," which was first applied to the monstrous 426-cubic inch V8 engine that was introduced in 1964 strictly as a NASCAR racing engine, but which was made available to the general public in 1966.

Before we listen to the song, will all you Bruce Springsteen fans out there stop crying if I apologize for calling your hero overrated?  (Baby want a bottle?)  

Here's "Born to Run":

Click here to buy the song from Amazon.      

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