This week 40 years ago, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band’s Born to Run dropped. It was the first big album with small intentions and remains a reminder of a moment when commerce and art committed to one another fully.
The closest thing to a big rock album this century, the Foo FIghters’ Sonic Highways, was a vanity project and a night out for singer/guitarist Dave Grohl. He charged his band and producer Butch Vig with traveling and recording in eight cities around the US. Each city’s contribution summarized in its own track. An accompanying documentary series was aired on HBO in the lead-up to the record’s November, 2014 release.
Highways got mixed reviews. Rolling Stone’s Patrick Doyle wrote some of the songs were the band’s “most ambitious moments yet” but Stuart Berman from Pitchfork panned the album as more of a “glorified homework assignment.” The sameness of each track didn’t necessarily reflect the backstory of the places they were written and recorded, though the documentary component remains a compelling showcase of Grohl’s exquisite penmanship. Some 480,000 copies have sold to date—about 11.5 million shy of the band’s 1995 self-titled debut album.
Gone is the anticipation of a big release. Gone is the concept album. Gone are the A&R guys lurking in the shadows of Sunset Boulevard holding splashy contracts for unproven bad boys. As The New York Times Magazine pointed out Sunday, the egalitarian redefinition of the industry is working out just fine—if not for the Foo Fighters then for nearly everyone else who keeps putting stuff on YouTube and iTunes. Big records had their time like big cars and big hair did. And when I realize I have more than 30 million songs at my fingertips and nothing really sounds good at the moment, I understand people are fickle, no matter what.
Bruce Springsteen addressed this notion when he spoke to Rolling Stone in 2005 on the eve of the 30th anniversary of Born to Run. The story of the album had evolved over three decades to go like this: Born to Run was the band’s “last chance” with the label and they put everything into it. Then it wasn’t good enough so they scrapped it and started over. The eponymous first single came out well before (about six months) the album was finished and started to take hold on AM. Even so, Springsteen, then 25, was unsure about the project as a whole and questioned his viability as a commercial artist.
It finally came down to that sepia moment where the band, for reasons unexplained, crowded into the back of a Richmond, Virginia stereo store to listen to the master. Springsteen: “We just put it on a record player that was on the shelf. Then we stood there in the middle of the store listening to the whole thing, attempting to judge what we thought of it. It was just really me not wanting to let it go and not wanting to admit that it was the best that I could do and that I was finished. To accept that our fortunes were going to rest on whatever this was, for better or for worse. That was a big responsibility at the time.”
Born to Run remains an important record, a complete record. But it’s not necessarily a big record. In fact, it’s a small record full of small moments. It was antithetical for the time and that’s probably why it has aged well. Good albums evolve. Great albums evolve with you.
In high school and college, I preferred to wear out the tracks Thunder Road and Born to Run because they represented getting out and the freedom and the promise of onset adulthood. Justifiable optimism. As a young man, working, those songs symbolized some kind of Kerouac spirit that flowed through me and spilled out onto the highway. In the moment, I thought it was real. But looking back the notion was purely aspirational. Now, in onset middle-age, the songs feel limiting, constricting. They carry the same wrapped-in-gauze lament that most Springsteen tracks do. A portrait of a man who’s looking in the rearview as much as he’s trying to keep his eyes on the road, however short, ahead. There’s an element of maybe I could’ve done it better—or at least faster and for longer—to those songs, and that’s what gets me now: a sadness and lament that’s implicit if not earned.
Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out is CliffsNotes to the E. Street Band, often played as the first song of the band’s set or toward the end of a concert when Bruce introduces each member and they oblige with a solo. This track was always about beginnings for me—but more the kind that come from something being over. I think I finally “got it” listening in the U-Haul on the way back home from college. It’s also a break-up song in the way that it signals the end, the finality of something that was once great—while secretly knowing maybe there’s a better fit out there. I’ve played it with a small crate full of personal belongings driving home after the last day on the job—just me and an accidentally stolen roll of tape. More recently, especially since the passing of Clarence Clemons, it has come to mean we don’t always get to finish what we start.
Night is the track I used to skip during my formative years. I thought it messed with what was otherwise a punk-length album. I had a tough time identifying with the song’s protagonist: a guy who works a shitty job and goes out on nights and weekends and gets hammered and chases women and races his car. It seemed like Springsteen was talking about one of those guys who never makes it out of town. I didn’t have any such acquaintances, so it seemed more like forced nostalgia. Later, I figured the song’s about how sometimes those younger nights, whoever you are, just go by too fast. There’s this feeling I get now, even when I’m out with the people I love most, that day is coming soon. And that means money is a thing. Being on time is a thing. Not being hungover is a thing. Being a father and (attempting to be) a role model is a thing. There are only so many years where you get to have that long rope of nothing to do the next day but wallow in it. Only so many hours in the night before to spend earning that morning-after repose.
Backstreets: Early on, I’d skip the instrumental intro and get to the lyrics which I just thought were about friendships that last and then one day are gone—no notice. There’s a feeling now at my 40-year mark that some friendships can last but not grow…and what should be done about those? You’re still the same person and so are they but circumstance and choices and even economics have probably separated both of you. I don’t have the luxury of time to be able to dwell on these notions much and that’s why I can only listen to the instrumental part now.
She’s the One, like Night and Tenth Avenue Freeze-out, is a story dredged from the past that in hindsight seems different then how it played out originally. For my tastes now, this is the most marginal track on the album. Consequently, it was my favorite side-two cut growing up. I think when you’re a young man, there’s a promise of that one woman out there who’s a little out of your league and you’re just kind of a lucky guy to be there till she leaves one day without saying much. It doesn’t go like that, ever. There’s always sadness and fallout and scrambling for another try or regret that you didn’t.
To me, Meeting Across the River is the lead-in to the epic Jungleland. The two songs combined is similar to the story of the journey Tony Manero takes from Brooklyn to New York in Saturday Night Fever. I always like to pause and re-read Roger Ebert’s homage to his across-the-row companion Gene Siskel, which is about how much Gene loved Saturday Night Fever. “The movie’s plot involves his choice between Annette (Donna Pescow), the girl who loves him, and Stephanie (Karen Lynn Gorney), the girl who works in Manhattan and represents his dream of class.” Jungleland, a tale of organized crime and gang violence and coming up to legitimacy, embodies the ambitions of every young man, Springsteen included. Men’s dreams can be dangerous, especially if poorly executed. It’s also about how we don’t really know what we’re doing or how we did until it’s pretty much over and there’s no room for tweaking. I listened to Jungleland most in a moment where I got fired, dumped, lost my apartment and my grandpa died within a couple days. How would I recover? Whose decisions led to this? Surely they weren’t mine. It was that final notion before adult accountability started to set in that somehow forces were conspiring against me. I’ve since learned—maybe too late—that the span of a bridge from where you’re at to where you want to go is only as tough to cross as you make it.