Thirty-five years ago the day I write this, on Wednesday, a rising artist released the greatest rock-n-roll album of all time. It was not a political album by any means, and the lead musician was and is anything but a conservative, yet conservatives should nonetheless celebrate almost every chord and lyric of the entire album known as Born to Run.
Please, readers, don’t have a conniption fit. Yes, I know that the album’s impresario Bruce Springsteen can spout off liberal tomfoolery in an obnoxious, self-important manner. We all know he sometimes fancies himself a protest troubadour, and that a few of his songs — such as the anti-police “American Skin (41 Shots)” — are absolutely insufferable. Forget all that. This is about the majesty, pathos and profoundly expressed yearning, backed by absolutely anthem-like, soul-stirring music, of a particular album in the summer of 1975 that really did “rock” the world.
This is an album of a striver, of somebody who won’t accept a lesser destiny defined by his socio-economic class or by the lower expectations of others. These are the songs of a quintessentially American character (or, rather, characters, plural), of people who know the proverbial American Dream isn’t a pie-in-the sky fantasy or an inherited birthright but a matter of grit, imagination, pluck, and the rawest of raw energy unleashed in the right direction.
It starts with “Thunder Road.”
With a chance to make it good somehow
Hey what else can we do now?
Except roll down the window
And let the wind blow
Back your hair
Well the nights busting open
These two lanes will take us anywhere
We got one last chance to make it real
To trade in these wings on some wheels….
It’s a town full of losers
And I’m pulling out of here to win.
This is the more than just the restless longing of youth; it’s the insistence on taking advantage of a freedom that is both taken for granted and deeply cherished at the same time.
“Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” follows, effectively celebrating the successful launch of the E Street Band, starting with the desperation of “Tear drops on the city” but ending in the triumph of Scooter (Springsteen) and the Big Man (saxophonist Clarence Clemons) “bust(ing) this city in half” (which in the youth lingo of the time was a rollicking good thing!). The song “Night” follows, again full of striving against humdrum existence and constricted dreams:
And the world is busting at its seams
And you’re just a prisoner of your dreams
Holding on for your life ’cause you work all day
To blow ’em away in the night
“Backstreets” is a haunting song of lost love, far more memorable for its musicianship than for its lyrics. Then, as side two begins, the unforgettable, eponymous “Born to Run” takes flight. The restlessness is palpable and powerful:
Baby this town rips the bones from your back
It’s a death trap, it’s a suicide rap
We gotta get out while we’re young
’cause tramps like us, baby we were born to run….
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
But till then tramps like us baby we were born to run
Behind the lyrics, the chords drive you forward, the backbeat won’t let you quit, the melody is as catchy as anything you’ll ever hear, and the piano, guitar, and sax riffs are, well, born to run into collective memory.
But “Born to Run” isn’t even the best song on the album. Springsteen saved that for last. In the interim comes another desperate love song, “She’s the One,” and then the film-noir-ish tale of a small-time hood, “Meeting Across the River.” Then comes the most superlative, operatic, poetic song that rock-n-roll can produce. It’s called “Jungleland,” and it’s 9 minutes and 34 second of ot;> perfection. It’s not upbeat at all, and its intensity and metaphorical ambiguity certainly can’t be easily explained in an essay like this. But there’s an energy to it, combined with a certain sort of chivalry (even if somewhat inverted from the norm), that is representative of an essential trait of the American character. What American man can’t understand the sentiments behind the closing lines?
In the quick of the night they reach for their moment
And try to make an honest stand
but they wind up wounded, and not even dead —
tonight in jungleland
Look at that again. Wounded, but not dead — and, in this context, that’s the worst outcome. Why? Because there is the old romance of dying for a cause. Think of the glorious death charges of both sides in the Civil War. Think of the heroes who scaled the cliffs at Pointe du Hoc but who failed to come back alive. Think of the glory they gained, and of the honor. Think of the words of Matthew Arnold (yeah, yeah, he’s English rather than American, but let that ride) in “The Last Word”: “Charge once more, then, and be dumb!/ Let the victors, when they come/ When the forts of folly fall/ Find thy body by the wall.”
This is the ideal of do-or-die. This is the mean-streets version of lives, fortune, and sacred honor. And though it will drive liberals crazy to hear this said, this is the sort of attitude that conservatives are far, far more likely to embrace.
Meanwhile, the music just flat-out carries the listeners aloft. The notes have a way of searing themselves into one’s soul. The tunes absolutely, yes, rock.
In my own mind, also, I cheat a little. I take the album Born to Run and, in my deliberate memory, I add to it its thematic cousin, the song “Badlands,” released exactly three years later.
Now I believe in the love that you gave me
I believe in the faith that could save me
I believe in the hope and I pray that some day
It will raise me above these Badlands…
Love, faith, hope, prayer… and a better future. If that isn’t something “middle Americans” can hold on to, aspire to, celebrate, and claim consonance and resonance with, then middle America somehow left me behind.
No single American album had so defined a music the way Born to Run defined traditional rock-n-roll since the release of the first of Louis Armstrong’s “Hot Five” recordings forever defined traditional jazz. Thirty-five years ago was an awfully long time. But Bruce Springsteen keeps it eternally fresh, eternally born to run. Running not only undead, but unwounded, determined to pull out a win.
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