Now as I stated in the last edition of this series, my look at The Wild, the Innocent, and the E-Street Shuffle, there is a change that comes over Springsteen and his work with Born to Run. There is an obvious, and important, alteration in the focus and direction from this album forward. It's clear that he's become more confident about his vision for albums. as a whole, and more meticulous about putting them together. He's also far more confident with his work as allegory and symbolic statements.
There is a story at work with Born to Run, and it's a narrative that presents us with far more than the Jersey shore freewheeling that personified the first two albums. I'd ALMOST argue that Born to Run is a concept record, with an actual storyline you can follow through the songs.
"Thunder Road," as Springsteen has often said, is an invitation. A statement of purpose that encompasses the ultimate goal of the entire record. Mary is called off the porch because she and our narrator have to get out. Ultimately admitting that the town's full of losers and they're pulling out to win. I find it incredibly interesting to call the song an invitation, because, to me, it functions as a first paragraph of a lecture..."tell them what you're going to tell them, then tell them."
Ultimately, the arc of the characters of the album is defined and follows the track laid out in "Thunder Road."
The two tracks that follow "Thunder Road" are "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out" and "Night." Of the entire record, these are the two tracks that call back to the first two records. Shore nightlife, bopping about, having fun. Then, with "Backstreets," something takes a turn. The narrator speaks to and about Terry, who's obviously male, and the friendship they had, now gone. There's a sense of the things of things of childhood being not so important anymore.
Laying here in the dark you're like an angel on my chestThis is how Springsteen ends the first side. After the call to change that began the record, we find ourselves in a rather dissolute place, filled with loss. (In all the times I've seen this song performed live, I've never failed to shed a tear.) What Bruce had come to see was that change, moving forward, meant letting go of the past.
Just another tramp of hearts crying tears of faithlessness
Remember all the movies, Terry, we'd go see
Trying to learn how to walk like heroes we thought we had to be
And after all this time to find we're just like all the rest
Stranded in the park and forced to confess
Which is why side 2 starts with perhaps the greatest song about change and desire, ever. "Born to Run" rumbles to life with it's huge guitar riff, and propels us into a sense of running, not to escape, but to push forward. And Bruce gives us a big hint of what is down that road.
Will you walk with me out on the wireOur narrator is looking for love. I also think it's no coincidence that the next song is where he finds it, "She's The One." A fairly simple ode to "that" girl, but with a rocking Bo Diddley beat and a girl who isn't any sort of damsel in distress, but a true equal and foil for our narrator.
'Cause baby I'm just a scared and lonely rider
But I gotta find out how it feels
I want to know if love is wild
girl I want to know if love is real
With her killer graces and her secret placesSo, he finds his girl, but with "Meeting Across the River" we see that making that commitment to move forward, and keeping it are very different things. He's out with a buddy to make a deal across the river, Cherry's mad because he's hocked her radio, but this deal could net them two grand. It's dangerous, though, and they're "carrying a friend." There's a slow, dirge-like quality on display, a sense that this is not a great move.
That no boy can fill with her hands on her hips
Oh and that smile on her lips
Because she knows that it kills me
With her soft french cream
Standing in that doorway like a dream
I wish she'd just leave me alone
Because french cream won't soften them boots
And french kisses will not break that heart of stone
Which leads us into the great, last act of Born to Run, "Jungleland," which, I'm just saying, is one of the greatest songs of all time. Like "Thunder Road" at the top of the record, "Jungleland" sums up for us all that has gone on. The steps that were taken and the risks that were made. This is another emotional song for me, and I always have the experience of feeling like it's being sung by someone who's already passed beyond this world. The Magic Rat is clearly the one in that Ambulance that pulls away, leaving the girl alone to shut out the bedroom light.
And the heartbreaking final verse:
Outside the street's on fire in a real death waltzWhat do I take out of all that...Well, the Rat didn't really take the message of "Born to Run" to heart, did he? He didn't pull away from the things holding him back. He didn't find that real love and live inside it. He still lived in the clutches of the life he had, and it destroyed him.
Between flesh and what's fantasy and the poets down here
Don't write nothing at all, they just stand back and let it all be
And in the quick of the night they reach for their moment
And try to make an honest stand but they wind up wounded, not even dead
Tonight in Jungleland
Now, admittedly, this is me imposing a lot on this record, but I do feel like the arc is fantastic, and hold together quite well. I also know that, as he has gotten older, Springsteen has been more and more upfront about how meticulously he puts together these albums, and Born to Run was the start of that mindset.
The behind-the-scenes situation with this album was long and arduous, but perhaps the most important event in Springsteen's development occurred here, with Jon Landau joining his team as co-producer with Mike Appel and Springsteen himself. Landau became a close confidant, and pushed Springsteen to extend his grasp, eventually becoming his manager, a position he occupies to this day.
The ejection of Mike Appel would not be easy, but that's another story...
Vinnie "Mad Dog" Lopez had left the E-Street Band as drummer before sessions started. Ernest "Boom" Carter was brought in, but he and pianist David Sancious would, ultimately, only play on the "Born to Run" track. They were replaced with Max Weinberg and Roy Bittan, respectively. "Little" Steven Van Zandt also officially joined the E-Streeters with this record, and the "classic" E-Street Band would be complete.
There's a true sense of everything coming together with this record, from the songwriting direction, to management, to the band itself. This is where Springsteen found the tools and the people to support him, and none too soon. When Born to Run was released, Springsteen was in imminent danger of being dropped by his label. He needed a hit, and fate conspired to bring him the team to make it happen.
"Bruce Springsteen" was now defined.