Born to Run: 30th Anniversary Edition
he last time Bruce Springsteen came through town was the anti-climactic The Rising Tour. Ten thousand chiming crystal telecasters with only a few brief moments of the brilliance not hoped for but expected. For 15 years you wished he’d bring back the E Street Band and when the dream baby dream finally came true it wasn’t really what you hoped for, was it? Too much, too big. He grabbed the shadow, missed the substance, and in the end it just wasn’t 1984 and I just wasn’t two.
But one night at Madison Square Garden he played “Into the Fire,” his 9/11-invoking tribute to New York’s Finest, followed immediately by “41 Shots: American Skin,” his gigantic “fuck you” to New York’s Finest, with this cop sitting next to me going absolutely pandashit insane, screaming at the stage from our crappy seats on the opposite side of the arena until he was forcibly restrained and removed by security. Only then did I think, “Man, this is freaking awesome.” In one subtle set list sequence, Springsteen proved still capable of provocation and power and it meant a hell of a lot more than 20 straight minutes of “Mary’s Place.”
Moments like these are only fleeting now, so it’s easy to forget that Born to Run—his definitive if not best album celebrating its 30th anniversary with a tremendous and satisfyingly complete reissue—is almost overwhelmingly saturated with them. The reissue is as much an opportunity to revisit why the album is so jaw-droppingly amazing as it is a chance to see how it has aged; how Springsteen himself as an artist has aged. Truth be told he’s hit some bumps (Human Touch) along (Ghost of Tom Joad) the way (The Rising), to make no mention of that fact that from the second Born to Run was pressed to vinyl, Springsteen never again even attempted to write songs as musically and lyrically ambitious in scope. Granted, he’s written some truly great songs since (“Racing in the Street,” “No Surrender,” “Highway Patrolman,” “Two Faces”), but to hear the epic mini-suites of Born to Run with their wall-of-sound production and extravagant tales of just-shy-of-unreasonable romanticism against, say, “Hungry Heart,” and you’re liable to get your wig pushed back.
Time has proven Born to Run was one of those rare instances where art actually met its ambition. Stories of souls in danger, souls at risk, faces lit by the light of an Exxon sign, stories of boardwalk dreamers taken to their natural conclusion: get out, take Highway 9 to the end of the line. Born to Run’s essence was the moment where a defining choice is made: resignation or risk, surrender or transcendence. It’s irritating to write about Born to Run: it invites these rather expensive and mind-numbingly earnest words, words we’d rather not use as they edge perilously close to the melodramatic. But the reason for this is simple: Born to Run is completely and utterly devoid of irony or any aspirations to it: It is dead fucking serious. Its unwavering idealism in the face of uncertainty is its gift, its curse, and ultimately the reason why it (still) matters.
The reissue’s accompanying documentary Wings for Wheels shows the making of the album, replete with incidental music culled from the sessions’ outtakes and surprisingly insightful segments in which Springsteen, seated with guitar or at the piano, rips the essentials out of each of his songs, revealing unnoticed profundities when reduced to their seeds. In a particularly illuminating segment, Springsteen discusses “Backstreets,” the album’s loudest, most anthemic song, and with a piano by his side, he gently fumbles through its simple melody, singing in rushed falsetto, dissecting it line by line.
“Backstreets,” it turns out, is just as perfect naked as it is fully clothed. Revisiting the album after having been privy to its secrets, it becomes clear Born to Run for all its ambition is at its heart a series of absolutely gorgeous simple melodies explored and pushed to their most grand rock ‘n’ roll extremes. “Thunder Road,” the greatest pop song of all time that doesn’t even really have a chorus opens with the distinct piano line Springsteen so aptly describes as an “invitation.” “Jungleland”‘s extended saxophone solo (R.I.P. extended saxophone solos) manages to create as much profound emotional resonance as anything from Springsteen’s lyric sheets.
And then there’s the title track: the album’s centerpiece. If ever a song desperately needed a second chance after decades of baby boomers beating it into submission from their weak car stereos, it’s “Born to Run.” Four minutes that manage to encapsulate everything Springsteen represents. “Someday girl I don’t know when we’re gonna get to that place / Where we really want to go and we’ll walk in the sun.”
Born to Run has no enigmatic reclusive mystery, no desire to hide behind cryptic and indecipherable ambiguities. No detachment. No distance. It endures because of its honesty in the face of cynicism, its commitment to hope in the face of inevitable misfortune. All this should have made Born to Run the most uncool record of all time. Instead it was one of the greatest. Still is.