By In Bruce

Born to Run

Born to Run was the first rock and roll song I ever heard, but it’s important to define our terms, particularly the phrase “rock and roll” and the word “heard.” Rock and roll is a big beautiful mess of a thing, a Chuck Berry guitar, a Janis Joplin screech, a Bono cry, a Ronnettes groove, Buddy Holly’s glasses, Joan Jett’s leather, Abbey Road, Clapton is God, grapevines, stairways, rings of fire, pinball wizards, mosquitos and libidos, rolling stones both upper and lower case, an Elvis swivel, a Beach Boys fog, a Jerry Lee Lewis piano, white albums, yellow submarines, purple hazes, a Bob Dylan stream of consciousness, a Smokey Robinson miracle, an Eddie Vedder rumble, a Keith Moon solo,  a James Brown walk, Aretha spelling and Jimi Hendrix kissing the sky.

But the rock and roll I’m talking about isn’t that big and overwhelming thing but, instead, an individual feeling that washes over you when you hear your rock and roll song. How do you know it’s your rock and roll song? Well, it doesn’t make you want to dance, not exactly, that’s something different. Instead, your rock and roll song, I don’t know, it makes you want to, well, it’s hard to put into words …

“I want to die with you Wendy on the street tonight, in an everlasting kiss. Hgugh!”

Yes, that’s it. That’s what it makes you want to do. Die on the street tonight in an everlasting kiss. A great rock and roll song is a white hot magnifying glass, illuminating, amplifying, intensifying, burning holes through you. Bigger. Bolder. Wilder. It makes you feel impossible highs, excruciating lows, it makes art out of desperation and a party out of Saturday night and a whirlwind out of heartbreak.

The thing about it is, I was obviously the least rock and roll kid in the world, with my thick glasses and my nerdy love of sports and my TJ Maxx clothes. I was utterly invisible in high school, utterly invisible in college, everybody else seemed to know things I didn’t know. The boys would walk around with their Rush T-shirts, their Molly Hatchett T-shirts, their Def Leppard T-shirts, and they seemed filled with this brooding sense of wonder and this dark understanding of the world that completely eluded me. And the girls … they could look right through me if they ever looked at me.

And this is what I mean by “heard.” I’d listened to many rock and roll songs before Born to Run, so many, but I did not hear them. And then, suddenly, runaway American dreams and suicide machines and death traps and suicide raps, hemi powered drones, broken heroes and someday girl, I don’t know when, we’ll walk in to sun. And, in my room, with the broken-frame bed, the torn Al Oliver poster on a wall, the Nerf hoop, the boxes of baseball cards in the corner, the broken down stereo and Chris Evert calendar stapled to the door, I could feel my heart blast through my chest and my mind go supersonic and all that teenage lunacy.

You don’t choose the first rock and roll song that grips you and moves you and takes your breath away. It chooses you.

* * *

I’m pretty sure it was Robert Wuhl who used to do a comedy bit about “Born to Run” becoming the state song of New Jersey, as some were hoping. I don’t remember the whole bit, but I remember him talking about how state songs probably shouldn’t have the word “suicide” in them and that the line, “We’ve got to get out while we’re young,” might not be the best tourism slogan in the world.

If you could come up with categories for rock and roll songs, I suppose you would have the love songs, the drug songs, the “isn’t it great to be alive” songs, the “isn’t the world a terrible place” songs, the protest songs, the angry songs, the naughty songs, the haughty songs, the party songs, the broken heart songs, the broken soul songs, the I’m Still Standing songs (yeah, yeah, yeah!), the womp-bop-a-loo-bop-a lop-bam-bom songs, the he-will-regret-it songs, the danger songs, the sex songs, the I wanna be young forever songs, the rock and roll is here to stay songs, the war songs, the peace songs, the fear songs and “Kung Fu Fightin’.”

“Born to Run” has little pieces of many of these, maybe all of them — after all, the young Bruce Springsteen was going all out to write the greatest rock and roll song ever written — but, in the end, it is an escape song. And I must admit those are my favorite kinds of songs, my favorite kinds of movies, my favorite kinds of books. When I first heard “Born to Run,” I also first read “Catcher in the Rye,” and I also first began to think about writing for a living. It is so hard for me to recapture for people how implausible — even impossible — the writing path seemed. Writing? Where did that come from? It’s not like I was the star English student. It’s not like my teachers made a fuss over my words. Heck, I was barely getting by in English. My essays were messes. And we didn’t know any writers. We were a  family living in an apartment (townhouse, we used to say, to make it sound a little grander). My father worked in a factory. My mother had gone back to community college. Writer? Heck, astronaut would made more sense.

I worked in a grocery store as a bagger. I was terrible at it. Milk on top of the eggs. Honeydews on top of the Wonderbread. What difference did it make anyway? The manager said I wasn’t cut out for customer service. I worked at a mortgage company. I would call delinquent customers to set up payment schedules. Some threatened me. Most never answered the phone. I couldn’t last. I worked in the photo department of store in the mall. “Hi I’m calling from the photo department. You signed up for a free 3×5 photograph, and I was just hoping to schedule a time for you come in to get your free picture.” Some threatened me. Most never answered the phone. I kept writing “CB” on the customers cards. That meant, “Call back.”

What difference did any of it make? I mowed lawns. I moved boxes. I sold furniture on the side of the road. Childhood is so much about big dreams. I was going to be a major league baseball player. I was going to be professional tennis player. I was going to be a famous musician and ride around the country in a double decker bus — and the basic fact that I played no instrument and could not carry a tune did not seem a particularly troublesome hurdle. That’s a great thing about being a child. To dream you only need dreams. Reality is a distant storm cloud; it barely registers.

Then, suddenly, the storm cloud is overhead, lightning and thundering, and it’s hard to concentrate on dreams — they spark and flicker and go out like trick candles. It’s a death trap. It’s a suicide rap.

Escape. That’s what Holden Caufield wanted: “I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around — nobody big I mean — except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff — I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out of somewhere and catch them. That’s all I do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all.”

Escape. That’s what Bruce wanted:

“Together we could break this trap
We’ll run till we drop, baby we’ll never go back
Huh-Oh! Will you walk with me out on the wire?
`Cause baby I’m just a scared and lonely rider.”

Escape. There’s such a powerful longing when you’re young … to escape from your parents, to escape from your town, to escape from your chains, to escape from yourself. All I heard in Born to Run was the last of those, a chance to escape from the awkwardness and the ugliness and the sheer boredom of who I was. The crazy thing about Born to Run is that you can tell there’s something Bruce knows: They ain’t gonna make it. The kid. Wendy. They’re not going to make it. But making it isn’t the point. Endeavoring is the point. Trying is the point. Running is the point. They weren’t born to just accept the awkwardness and ugliness and boredom. No. They were born to run.

* * *

Every time I see Bruce in concert, I wait for Born to Run. I’ve heard him do it so many times now that I know every move, every pause, every note. I know that on ‘Baby we were born to run,” he now goes a little higher on “Baby” and emphases “Born” a little more. I know that he will keep the music going for a long time before counting down into “The highway’s jammed …”  I know how he will lift his arm, and how the fans will lift their arms, and how I will lift my arm. It is all as familiar as Thanksgiving dinner.

Born to Run was a dangerous song when I first heard it. Dangerous in the emotions it inspired. Dangerous in the innuendo of Wendy strapping her hands across his engines. Dangerous in the way it made me long for something more, something crazy. I can’t tell you that I became a writer because of “Born to Run,” but I can tell you I would listen to Born to Run again and again in those moments I sought courage. How many times have I heard it in my lifetime? Ten thousand? Twenty-five thousand? Some days, when I was trying to write those first stories, I would listen to it on a loop, 20 or 30 times it must have played.

The song doesn’t sound dangerous now. It sounds like an old friend. I wait for it at every Bruce concert and I look to see if Bruce — now in his 60s, no longer a tramp, no longer seeking Wendy, no longer — can bring it one more time. He always does. I wonder sometimes his inspiration. I suppose it’s partly showmanship and it’s partly his love of the stage. But to play that same song, night after night, town after town, 40 years and counting, I suspect he hears something still that keeps him running, keeps him dreaming, keeps him howling.

And that’s what I hear in Born to Run now. The kid I was, against odds and everyone’s better judgment, did try to become a writer. I know how scared he was. I know how defeated he felt. I remember how sure he was that he would fail miserably and horribly. I can see him — see myself — in that little apartment bedroom, listening to Born to Run, hunching over a spiral notebook and writing page after page of awful poetry and gimmicky short stories and pointless sports columns. Sometimes, I run across one of those old notebooks, and I cringe as I read the words but I’m also proud of that kid. He didn’t know. He was a scared and lonely rider.

I listen to Bruce sing that song now, and we’re all older, and he gets to that part, my favorite part:

“Someday girl, I don’t know when
“We’re gonna get to that place where we really wanna go
And we’ll walk in the sun.”

“I love that part,” I tell my own daughter, Elizabeth, who is 14. She shrugs. That’s the beauty of rock and roll. She will have her own song.

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101 Responses to Born to Run

  1. murr2825 says:

    from a 2005 Rolling Stone interview, just released, Bruce talks about why the song still seems so important to people who obviously aren’t running anymore:

    I think that those emotions and those desires — and it was a record of enormous longing, tremendous longing — that never leaves you. You’re dead when that leaves you. It’s just about, “Hey, you’re gonna take that step into the next day and nobody knows what tomorrow brings.” No one can know that. And so the song continues to speak to that part of you — it transcends your age and continues to speak to that part of you that is both exhilarated and frightened about what tomorrow brings. It’ll always do that, that’s how it was built.

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  2. Owen says:

    Beautiful as always, Joe. I teared up a little because I identified so much with your angle. I’m someone who’s had a dream of writing for a long time, only I’m older than you were, and much less brave than you were. I guess, in Bruce’s words: “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.” This piece really spoke to me. I write in a notebook still, when I want it to be as private as possible. I write on Coach of All Trades when I’m okay with people seeing my words. But even if “Born To Run” isn’t my song, this column really spoke to me.

  3. HC says:

    Literally in tears.

    One of the best pieces of writing I’ve ever read.


    Thank you, Joe.

    Thank you, Bruce/

  4. arlenschumer says:

    The first rock & roll song I can remember hearing was The Four Season’s “Big Girls Don’t Cry” in summer camp in 1963, when I was 5 years old (but I thought the lyrics were “Big girl, small fry”). My next seminal rock & roll childhood event was The Beatles’ first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show in February of ’64; my older female cousins introduced me to the album Meet The Beatles, and I was hooked by its infectious sounds, so upbeat, so positive, so joyous on songs like “I Saw Her Standing There” and “Hold Me Tight.”

    The Beatles opened up the world of AM/top 40 mid-’60s radio, and from those transistors came the wonderful pot pourri of sounds and voices and rhythms that we have come to look back upon as the Golden Age of AM Radio: the one-hit wonders of garage rock (like The Music Explosion’s ’67 hit, “Little Bit o’ Soul”) to the more established Motown acts, to Phil Spector’s various Wall of Sound groups, to the Beach Boys to the Stones (and the rest of the British Invasion) to Dylan (“Like a Rolling Stone,” the first Dylan hit I can remember, because it was on AM radio).

    But by ’69 or ’70, AM radio had given way to the album-oriented world of FM “rock” (as opposed to “rock & roll”) music, as exemplified by the rush of all the huge, “heavier” bands like Cream, Led Zeppelin, The Allman Brothers, etc. (unfortunately—or fortunately?—this whole shift in taste passed me by, as I didn’t get a real stereo system ’til I was 15, in ’73; up ‘til then, I had to rely on my mom’s AM car radio and a 45-rpm turntable for my musical education.) By that time, I was already nostalgic for the sounds of my childhood, the early Beatles compared to the later, druggier White album-era Beatles.

    By the early ’70s, AM radio was truly a musical wasteland, as most of the great one-hit garage songs were gone, replaced by crappy bubblegum pop hits like “Precious and Few” or “The Night Chicago Died.” The mellower sounds of Carole King, James Taylor, Cat Stevens, and the whole LA-based singer-songwriter, country-rock establishment effectively killed what I remembered as real rock & roll.

    Every now and then, though, a song would cut through the AM-pablum and remind me in some way of the sound and style of music I used to love; I can recall being electrified by the classic opening guitar riff of the Raspberries’ debut hit in ’72, “Go All The Way;” Don McLean’s concurrent hit “American Pie” had the sound and beat of the more old-fashioned-sounding AM radio I remembered (he even used the phrase “rock & roll” in the song, which, by ’72 had become a forgotten sobriquet—the genre had been called “rock,” or “hard rock,” for years). George Lucas’ breakthrough film, American Grafitti, released in late ’72, resuscitated interest in old-time, Fifties rock & roll, but didn’t really do anything for that early ‘60s, pre-British Invasion sound, as represented by Phil Spector or glorious one-shots like “Telstar.”

    At about the same time, Elton John’s “Crocodile Rock” shot to #1, and like Grafitti, reminded us all of that forgotten era in AM radio, with its farfisa organ/Del Shannon “Runaway” sound. For better or worse, I became an Elton John fan, because at least he could rock out on songs like “Saturday Night’s All Right For Fighting,” and album cuts like “Elderberry Wine.” His rollicking, Jerry Lee Lewis- influenced piano style on songs like those was catchy and upbeat (his albums, along with The Four Seasons’ greatest hits, were the first albums I purchased when I got that stereo in ’73). Elton was my only sustenance through the dark days of the early ‘70s, from “Crocodile” up through his last great AM radio single, “Island Girl,” late in the summer of ’75.

    I turned 17 that summer and was finally able to drive my mom’s ’66 Valiant. I was driving that car when a song leapt out of the tinny AM radio and stone-stunned me. It was like nothing I had ever heard before, yet was also strangely familiar. The booming, opening drum fill sounded like Little Eva’s “Locomotion,” but set to thoroughbreds charging out of the starting gate, introducing a guitar riff that simultaneously evoked “Telstar” and, later on in the song, the James Bond guitar theme!

    There was a dense wall of sound like Spector’s, an orchestral grandeur that, in some skewed, pop-cultural connection, also evoked the great soundtrack music of the NFL Films of the ‘60s; bells and keyboards that recalled everything from Motown to the Spencer Davis Group; a banshee-like sax solo that made me feel like I was hearing saxophone for the first time; a bridge to the final verse that sounded like nothing I had ever heard before; and finally, and perhaps most spectacularly, a singer who was singing like he really meant it, like his life depended on it, vocals with a passion, a reckless abandon that was obviously influenced by Dylan’s naturalistic, talking/singing delivery, but, in his thrilling, soulful final wails also seemed to echo those of Frankie Valli’s at the end of all those Four Seasons songs I loved. Those wails rekindled in me the positive, uplifting, joyous spirit my favorite early Beatles music once inspired.

    I was so moved, so absolutely overwhelmed by the totality of this four- minute masterpiece that I had to literally pull over to the curb to collect my thoughts. I was shaking my head in disbelief—I just couldn’t believe what I had just heard. This amazing, unbelievable song seemed to contain bits and pieces of everything I had ever loved about rock & roll. It was almost like a theme song for rock & roll itself. Even the song’s title had an inevitability about it, something that summed up the whole, entire, grand, escapist nature of rock & roll, of youth, of America:

    “Born To Run.”

    In 1995 a panel of distinguished British pop music critics voted “Born To Run” the greatest song of all time; to say I felt vindicated by that result is an understatement—I’d been proclaiming it for twenty years. (And most recently, in 2004, it was one of fifty recordings added to the National Recording registry by the Librarian of Congress).

    A couple of points about “Born To Run” must always be restated so that we never take this magnificent piece of music for granted. Bruce wrote the song in ’74, after his first two albums had sold poorly, and was figuratively threatened with termination of his recording contract unless he came up with a hit single. So Bruce set out to self-consciously, premeditatedly write the hit single to end all hit singles. And with the possible exception of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” all the singles that are traditionally considered the Top Ten Greatest of all time were all written before ‘74: “Like a Rolling Stone,” “Satisfaction,” “You Really Got Me,” “My Generation,” “Good Vibrations,” “Maggie May,” “Stairway to Heaven,” “Layla,” and any number of Elvis, Beatles and Motown tunes (or any of the greats and their signature songs). So, with this panoply of rock & roll history spread before him, Bruce aimed for the moon—and hit the stars.

    One of the hidden keys to “Born To Run’s” greatness is that it is the only song of that august body to have been performed by an evenly balanced, racially- integrated band (with the obvious exception of the Motown bands): Bruce, organist Danny Federici and bassist Garry Tallent white, and drummer Ernest Carter, pianist David Sancious, and saxophonist Clarence Clemons black. Since rock & roll as a genre had, as its genesis, whites adopting black musical idioms like the blues, gospel and jazz, it’s telling that none of those other songs feature a single black musician among them. “Born To Run” is thus an utterly unique realization of a rock & roll promise from the Sixties delivered: that it could unite the races through the communal power of the music itself.

    The music itself: “Born To Run” is, among other things, a creation of the studio, and is a piece de resistance of that art and craft, a masterpiece of layering and overdubbing that took Springsteen & Co. six months to get down in the studio and shows it, the time and sweat spent, in every minute, musical detail. And while “Born To Run” live is a rousing staple of every Springsteen performance, it is nevertheless the studio version that is truer to the song’s essence, and ranks with Brian Wilson’s “Good Vibrations,” and any of the best Spector records, as one of— if not the—greatest studio creations of all time.

    As for the lyrics, they’re at the forefront of American arts and letters; Jim Cullen, in his book Born In The USA: Bruce Springsteen and The American Tradition, so astutely pointed out that one could legitimately call “Born To Run” Springsteen’s take on Walt Whitman‘s “Song of the Open Road.” He compared these lines from Whitman, “Camerado! I give you my hand!/I give you love more precious than money/I give you myself before preaching or law/Will you give me yourself?/Will you come travel with me?/Shall we stick by each other as long as we live?,” to Springsteen’s, “Will you walk with me out on the wire?/’Cause girl I’m just a scared and lonely rider/But I gotta know how it feels/I wanna know if love is wild/Girl I wanna know if love is real/Can you show me?”

    Born To Run also single-handedly saved rock & roll in the mid-’70s from the suffocation hold that the West coast singer-songwriters’ mellow sounds had on it, the rise of ponderous FM-radio art-rock bands like Yes, and the schlock that dominated AM radio at that time (anybody remember nadirs like 1974’s “The Night The Lights Went Out in Georgia” or ‘75’s “It’s Magic”?); Born To Run blasted through all of it, in doing so opening the door for not only the most obvious careers of Bob Seger, Meatloaf, Tom Petty, John Mellencamp, Bon Jovi and Bryan Adams (and today’s bands and musicians, anyone from The Hold Steady to Arcade Fire to Jesse Malin), but also for the similar retro-rock & roll sounds that were so much of what early punk, new wave and power pop were about when they emerged a few years later.

    In his autobiography of Bruce, Born To Run, Dave Marsh said it best: “If the meaning of ‘punk’ has changed drastically since 1975, Born To Run must be counted as the record that set the stage for its reemergence at all.” As influential as critics talk about the Ramones’ ‘76 tour of England inspiring the explosion of the Sex Pistols’ brand of punk the following year, Springsteen’s two visits to London’s Hammersmith Odeon in November of ’75 are overlooked for their influence on the Clash’s rival punk music that also erupted in ’77. In fact, Joe Strummer wrote in his autobiography that he saw one of those shows and exclaimed to his manager at the time that Springsteen was doing exactly what Strummer wanted to be doing on stage. Bruce performed in black leather jacket, ripped white t-shirt and jeans and sneakers, a true proto-punk; if fellow-Jerseyan (though born in Chicago) Patti Smith is considered the Godmother of Punk, surely Bruce should be its Godfather.

    This is what Springsteen’s manager/producer/mentor, Jon Landau, then Rollingstone’s record reviews editor, intuited when he wrote his (in-?)famous review after seeing Bruce one of his first times, “I saw rock & roll future and its name is Bruce Springsteen,” and called Bruce (among other plaudits) “A rock & roll punk.” Maybe not coincidentally, the song Bruce debuted at the Harvard Square Theater the night Landau wrote it, May 9, 1974, was…“Born To Run.”

    • Walt McCarty says:

      Well Written, Arlenschumer!

    • Just Bob says:

      Brilliantly said. One tiny little correction, however. Near the end you state that Dave Marsh wrote Bruce Springsteen’s autobiography. Only Bruce can write Bruce’s autobiography, and Dave can only write Dave’s.

    • Just one comment, getting stuck with the AM dial was pure torture. That’s why the FM “Album Rock” stations started popping up. Pure pop, which is a format that obviously still exists today, is purely picking a handful of vanilla, somewhat catchy tunes and playing them to death. Top songs might be played once an hour. Pete Townshend used to say there was a rule that rock songs had to be two-minutes-fifty. In fact, AM radio used to chop up longer songs to provide a two-minutes-fifty version for their format.

      Anyway, if you were stuck with that, I understand the boredom. I don’t really connect that well with Springsteen songs. They’re fine, but it just wasn’t my thing. I was more of a Stones, Zeppelin, Floyd, Who, Bad Company kinda guy with some guilty pleasures like Cheap Trick thrown in and a stray Mott The Hoople/Ian Hunter, UFO or Rock Pile (and their individual parts) thrown in. Some of the obscure bands that never quite had that #1 hit single just had awesome stuff. Bob Seger was like that until he became an overnight sensation after 15 years. I liked his “before” stuff way better than the “after” stuff. I think “Night Moves” was the dividing line.

      • arlenschumer says:

        Yeah–Seger’s “Night Moves” was his homage to “Jungleland” (just as Billy Joel’s “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” on his ’76 album Turnstiles was, as was EVERY song Jim Steinman ever wrote for Meat Loaf to sing!). But a guy like you who’s never really “gotten” bruce should listen to my own 90-minute radio program, “Bruce Springsteen’s Greatest Hits you’ve Never Heard”:

        • Oh, I’ve heard Springsteen. Lots of him. I had a couple of friends who followed Rolling Stone magazines directions carefully…. so they HAD to love Springsteen. I think that was one of my main objections to Springsteen…. that he and his music were “officially cool” because the rock critics and Rolling Stone said so. So there were a lot of posers who wanted to be cool, so they had to talk about and play Springsteen all the time. His music is fine (I don’t hate it). He puts on epic concerts. I get why he’s popular (of course his fans are not all posers). It’s just not my thing.

          BTW: one of the guys used to tell me that I just don’t “get” the real rock and roll. It was, of course, meant as an insult. But my point was, find stuff YOU like, not the stuff people and “experts” tell you to like. So, I do “get” Springsteen. And I’d bet he wouldn’t be favorable to the rock snobs that just have to place him on their lists & drool over him. I think Springsteen is a really great artist who somehow got stuck with being the darling of the critics and the cool crowd. To me, anything that’s officially cool is really the opposite of cool. I think Springsteen never asked for that, or wanted it. I also think his music is above all of that. But it’s there.

          • arlenschumer says:

            How ironic, because in MY travels over the last 40 years, Bruce was NEVER considered the “cool” thing to like by what you call the “cool” crowd. They were listening to the punk & new wave bands, The Talking Heads, etc. Bruce was PERCEIVED as mainstream, so the “cool” crowd rejected him. But man, Bruce was NEVER truly “mainstream”–you call releasing an album of acoustic demos in 1982 (Nebraska) “mainstream”? Please. Bruce was BEYOND punk, new wave, mainstream, “cool,” whatever label you want to use. He is simply THE KING to many of us, not Elvis.

          • invitro says:

            Springsteen may not have been mainstream when he released Nebraska, but he’s certainly been (part of) the very definition of mainstream since then.

      • mrhonorama says:

        Little unclear why Cheap Trick would ever be considered a guilty pleasure — one of the greatest American rock bands of their era.

    • augustw says:

      Springsteen did not single-handedly save rock and roll from anything. If you want to say BTR was better than much of what was playing on AM radio in the mid-70’s, sure, you’re right. But that’s saying nothing. And to suggest that the AM playlists captured all the music being made at that time is absurd.

      You revere BTR. It’s a good album, but there were many good albums put out in 1975, and many that were more influential than BTR. For example: Patti Smith’s Horses; Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks; Led Zep’s Physical Graffiti; Parliament’s Mothership Connection.

      And no, Springsteen is not the godfather of punk.

      • arlenschumer says:

        Hey august, how can you quantify “more influential”? With your empty, meaningless, tired cliches? At least i BACK MINE UP: “…Born To Run blasted through all of it, in doing so opening the door for not only the most obvious careers of Bob Seger,
        Meatloaf, Tom Petty, John Mellencamp, Bon Jovi and Bryan Adams (and today’s bands and musicians, anyone from The Hold Steady to Arcade Fire to Jesse Malin), but also for the similar retro-rock & roll sounds that were so much of what early punk, new wave and power pop were about when they emerged a few years later.” i DARE you to rebut that INTELLECTUALLY, august, instead of just DENYING it–tell us how all those albums you mentioned were MORE influential than what I just said about BTR. I dare you.

        And Bruce is “not the Godfather of Punk”? Yeah, I stand by every word of mine: “In his biography of Bruce, Born To Run, Dave Marsh said it best: “If the meaning of ‘punk’ has changed drastically since 1975, Born To Run must be counted as the record that set the stage for its reemergence at all.” As influential as critics talk about the Ramones’ ‘76 tour of England inspiring the explosion of the Sex Pistols’ brand of punk the following year, Springsteen’s two visits to London’s Hammersmith Odeon in November of ’75 are overlooked for their influence on the Clash’s rival punk music that also erupted in ’77. In fact, Joe Strummer wrote in his autobiography that he saw one of those shows and exclaimed to his manager at the time that Springsteen was doing exactly what Strummer wanted to be doing on stage. Bruce performed in black leather jacket, ripped white t-shirt and jeans and sneakers, a true proto-punk; if fellow-Jerseyan (though born in Chicago) Patti Smith is considered the Godmother of Punk, surely Bruce should be its Godfather.” DEAL WITH IT, august!

  5. Michael Maskill says:

    Great read. Thank you from all that love rock and roll.

  6. Frank Evans says:

    Dammit Joe. Nailed it.

  7. James says:

    Would this be a bad place to say that I like Thunder Road better? Nice piece though.

    • Prince Humperdinck says:

      funny, i was thinking the same thing as I read this…although, to me, thunder seems a bit more hopeful.

  8. Steve Lutton says:

    Wow. This made my night. Some great comments too.

  9. Hcallcott says:

    Gimme Shelter for me. Didn’t really get Born to Run (Maryland versus Jersey thing) until I saw Bruce live.

  10. NevadaMark says:

    I think Born to Run is a terrific song. But if you praise it too much to big Springsteen fans, they are none too pleased. Weird.

    • arlenschumer says:

      Uh, not to THIS “big Springsteen” fan!

    • chlsmith says:

      Wouldn’t that be like telling a group of punk rockers that you like The Ramones? “But do you know “The “??? Their the best.”

      Every fan thinks they have some special knowledge that makes everyone else just a poser.

      • For Punkers you could never really beat the Sex Pistols. A band that mocked their own label, the Queen and their own fans…. then broke up after releasing their first and only album, which they recorded in one day. How does a punk band beat that? The Clash was very successful, but had to pretty much change genres because putting out lots of popular albums was totally against the punk culture. At some point, you’re too successful to be considered punk! Punk fans liked obscure bands who weren’t really “too” successful. That was the culture. If you were too successful like The Ramones, you suddenly weren’t cool anymore.

        • arlenschumer says:

          I thought that was a pop cultural cliche that’s been ridiculed to death by now, that if you’re “successful” you’ve “sold out” and are no longer “cool.” To tell you the truth, the ONLY “rock star” of his magnitude who NEVER truly sold out was BRUCE!!!

          • Oh boy. Here we go with the Bruce is the only officially cool non sell out artist of all time. I get it. You love the guy. That’s fine, but why insult all other rocks stars and legions of fans to prove your loyalty? This is exactly one of my objections to Springsteen. Not really him or his music, but to some of those that are fans. It’s not enough to like him or even love him. It just has to go so far beyond that.

          • augustw says:

            Many of us who like but do not revere Springsteen consider BTR to be the beginning of his selling out.

      • NevadaMark says:

        Chlsmith, you just nailed what I was trying to say. Well played, sir (or miss).

  11. Jamie says:

    Wake me up when we continue the greatest 100 baseball player list, instead of celebrating an overrated rock star.

    • arlenschumer says:

      Hey Jamie, people like you have been bad-mouthing Bruce since BTR–people like Stephen Stills, for example, so you’re in good company–and Bruce went & made them all EAT THEIR SHITTY WORDS. So put your bib on and EAT UP, sucker!

      • What does this even mean?

      • NevadaMark says:

        Who bad mouth’s Springsteen? At least from the comments on this page one would get the impression he descended to Earth from heaven.

        • arlenschumer says:

          Nevada, I have a file since BTR of all the times other rock stars & musicians have bad-mouthed Bruce–it’s everyone from the aforementioned Stephen Stills to Mick Jagger to Dylan himself! While Bruce has NEVER bad-mouthed ANYONE in his interviews & public utterances. To this day, Springsteen is bad-mouthed–like on this very thread!

    • Carl says:

      I just know that Joe is going to list Barry Bonds #1, and that’s going to kill me. Joe’s high rating for steroid players and Negro Leaguers has already bothered me.

      As huge a baseball fan as I am, I honestly hope we never finish the top 100 baseball players. I’m afraid it will diminish my admiration of one great writer.

  12. John Leavy says:

    As I’ve noted many times, “Born to Run” has a sequel song: Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car.”

    If Wendy WAS dumb enough to listen to the protagonist of “Born to Run,” and ran away with him in his car, he’d have become a shiftless bum in no time, and she’d have ended up supporting his worthless butt.

  13. Gordon Hewetson says:

    Special ‘Born to Run’ exhibit at Cleveland’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Museum

  14. Marc Schneider says:

    I was very moved by this article because I understand Joe’s point about longing and feeling like a failure. When I was a kid, I missed the sixties music because I was only interested in baseball and other sports. I started listening to rock in high school and staying in my room, thinking about girls I longed for and couldn’t hope to have. To me, rock and roll has always meant longing for love and sex. But, you know, after a while, you learn that it’s just music. I still get inspired listening to great music and I understand Joe’s feeling about Born to Run. But, I have a hard time understanding the rock snobs who think that, somehow, the only music that counts is their music, and their deifying of people who are just performing songs. I never understood the deifying of the Beatles; they were a great band that wrote great songs-that’s it. And I don’t understand this mantra about “not selling out.” What does that even mean? It’s like saying that Coca-Cola “sold out” by introducing New Coke. When he was at UCLA, Bill Walton (who was a teenager obviously) once said that he got his political philosophy from Bob Dylan. Really? Obviously, rock has captured a changing dynamic and zeitgeist of an affluent, post-war America. I can understand why people feel strongly about songs from their childhood; it brings back a time of longing and hope that we can never recapture as we get older. I still feel that way, but I don’t pretend that there is some sort of mystical connection between the music and my life. In most cases, I like songs less once I really understand the lyrics because they are often pseudo-intellectual nonsense. Born to Run is a great song, but, really, John Leavey is right; Wendy would be an idiot to actually leave with him. I understand the emotional connection people have with rock and with particular songs and I certainly don’t begrudge people who are seriously into music, but this idea that some music is “real” rock and other isn’t, I find silly and offensive. Even more, I find silly the idea that people will actually get into fights and call each other names over a rock star.

    • arlenschumer says:

      I feel sorry for your jaded, cynical, burned-out self.

      • Dan says:

        Don’t be the example that proves his point, Arlen. You’ve gone from being the guy that posted an insightful and thoughtful dissertation about “Born to Run” to a crank in the space of 3 or 4 posts.

        It’s only rock and roll. Yes, it can have tremendous power to move, inspire, make emotional connection, all of that, and yes many people feel that powerful emotional connection with Bruce’s music. But different people have different tastes, and it’s not worth insulting someone about theirs over the internet.

        When Joe extols the virtues of the song to his own daughter, “She shrugs. That’s the beauty of rock and roll. She will have her own song.”


        • arlenschumer says:

          Oh, I’m a “crank” who Insulted someone about their taste” in music? Sorry, pal, but I think it’s the other way around. I stand by every word of my posts.

          • Marc Schneider says:

            You are 55 years old-as I calculate from your previous post-and you are acting like you are 12. Is this really the way that you argue? Are you so insecure that you need to insult people? The only insult that I was was someone saying Bruce was overrated; that’s an opinion. You seem to be taking that as a personal attack on you. I’m not jaded or cynical; I love music. I am inspired by music. Bruce Springsteen is a hell of a musician. But I don’t consider him-or any other musician-to be some sort of muse. I just don’t understand the need to deify particular musicians and attack others. You appear to be trying desperately to maintain your adolescence.

        • murr2825 says:

          Thank you for this, Dan. Very wise.

          • arlenschumer says:

            Yeah, he’s “so wise.” NOT.

          • arlenschumer says:

            All I did was react to your “overrated” dismissal of Bruce. I stand by every word of my posts. The fact that you can’t intellectually defend your position as I did, and now resort to YOUR whiny crybaby “defense” and attack ME is pathetic on your part. So if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.

          • Paul Zummo says:

            You’re whining about people not replying substantively to a comment in which you called someone else jaded, cynical and burnt out. What exactly is the detailed, substantive reply you were expecting for that kind of ad hominem attack?

          • arlenschumer says:

            I wasn’t looking for a “detailed, substantive reply” to my “jaded, cynical & burnt out” post–that was in response to the previous post, and I stand by every word of my “jaded” comment–I was referring to my ORIGINAL long essay about BTR.

          • Paul Zummo says:

            “I stand by every word of my “jaded” comment–”

            Yes, you have made it rather clear that you do so. The irony is that in this exchange it ain’t Marc who is appearing jaded and burned out.

          • arlenschumer says:


          • Paul Zummo says:

            “I’M “jaded and burned out”? ”


          • arlenschumer says:

            GREAT comeback, Brainiac!

  15. Jay says:

    The best writer waxing poetic about the best musician. Can’t beat this- great job Joe! Every time you write about Bruce you do an amazing job. Your piece on The Promise still stands out as my favorite Bruce piece I’ve read.

  16. CrazyJanie says:

    I thought the point of the article was the everyone has a certain song that speaks to them in a way that no other does. For Joe…and for many of us…it’s BTR.

  17. invitro says:

    I’m not necessarily their fans, but I think the definition of rock ‘n’ roll is probably Guns n’ Roses “Appetite for Destruction.” Rock n’ roll is not all good, and this album has some of the bad parts as well.

  18. The dilemma of the adolescent is that they have the desires and the bodies of adults and they’ve learned enough about the world to know what is and isn’t there for them, but they aren’t adults and cannot be for what seems like forever. And since adolescence really lasts until you’re 30, which is when most of us have established independent lives, that’s a very stiff sentence, for people who have committed no crime except to be young.

    Bruce said all that, and also said we were RIGHT to want to bust out of it. You can say Wendy would be a fool to run off with him — hell, even Bruce knew THAT. He was saying that in spite of it, we had to aspire to it, or accept the grinding pallor that seemed to lay before us. “Rage, rage against the dying of the light” is supposed to be classic poetry. All it’s saying is exactly what BTR says. As children, we were told we were meant to walk in the sun. Now the deal is “twenty years of schooling and they put you on the day shift.” NO, says Bruce. The sun or die trying for it.

  19. mark says:

    In high school I remember so many kids trying and failing to time the “One- Two- Three -Four!” that comes at the end of a long single guitar chord with no bass, drums or other beats to guide you. It eluded almost all of my friends. It was always quite simple to me. It used to drive some of them nuts all the more because while I was a Bruce fan, he was never my favorite, and it seemed just wrong that I could do it and the guys who loved Bruce the way Joe does could not. They would always jump in early or late, and strain to find some clue in that sustained chord for when to yell it out. I never told them how I did it. I’m sure it’s been explained many times in the intervening decades:

    From the last beat before the chord, just count to 4 in your head 3 times and then say, or shout, it out loud the fourth time. Of course it’s very different live. He never times it that way, but the studio version marks out quite well.

    Great piece. This isn’t my one song, but I totally understand why it is for many people. And it definitely was Robert Wuhl who did that comedy bit. As I remember it was back around the same time he appeared in Bull Durham, if you want to tie this into baseball, however indirectly.

  20. BrianE. says:

    Millers Ice Cream Parlor 1975, Ann Arbor. Numerous quarters spent to hear this song, forty years later and I still listen to this album at least once a week.

    I also have my HS libraries Catcher in the Rye copy, I needed it more then they did I thought back then. We all probably need it I now, this I know for sure.

    Joe, you write stuff that makes this stoic Midwest bred boy cry tears of joy, nostalgia and regret.

    Thanks for this, you make me forget work, stress and crap that muddies up my life.

    We need that, just like you needed that song

  21. Great post, Joe, but no stats?

    In 1975, Born to Run peaked at #23 on the Billboard weekly singles charts. The #1 song of 1975 was “Love Will Keep us Together” by Captain and Tennille (Sedaka is back, baby! He even took the #8 spot himself with “Laughter in the Rain”). WAR (the group, not the stat) was 23 for the year (“Why Can’t We Be Friends?”).

  22. EnzoHernandez11 says:

    The 70s music charts were like the 70s baseball stats. The Captain and Tennis let were batting average. Springsteen was Runs Created.

    • EnzoHernandez11 says:

      Tennille, of course. ^#/%%^ auto correct.

      • Dan says:

        70s music charts are crazy. On the radio this morning they played “Smoke from a Distant Fire”. Tongue in cheek, made a big deal of the fact it was from Vol. 20 of “Smash Hits of the 70s” or something like that. (Not a bad song – and the singer had great rock and roll pipes.)

        • NevadaMark says:

          Stanford Townsend Band, right? I saw them open for Heart many years ago. Thanks for jogging my memory!

          • Dan says:

            I couldn’t remember their name from last morning, but you dredged it up from many years ago. My hat is off to you, sir.

  23. pablopdx says:

    I have always loved BTR for its power and defiant hope. But it wasn’t my First Rock Song. For me, that was “Born To Be Wild” by Steppenwolf. I remember exactly where I was standing, on the blue carpet near the big wood console record player/radio in our split-level suburban living room. I had two older sisters so I suppose one of them had tuned the radio to a rock station. And I am sure I had heard rock and roll before, though my older siblings’ tastes leaned more ampersandy as in Simon & Garfunkel and Peter, Paul & Mary. But you know…..I had never HEARD it like I suddenly did that moment. I remember turning toward the radio when those opening chords started and thinking “Wow…what is THAT.” And everything about music changed. It was like waking up or instantly being twice as alive.

    • Dan says:

      I’m not sure I have a “first song” like BTR seems to be for some. My first “rock song” remembrance is listening to Rush’s “2112”, 9 or 10 years old, in a friend’s dark basement and smoking cigarettes, and being euphoric (possibly a nicotine buzz) and terrified of the whole thing at the same time. I was probably too young to have listened to much rock and roll in the first place at the time, so it wasn’t like it totally shifted my thinking about rock – more like it was instrumental in forming my thinking in the first place.

      I still love 2112 but the lyrics don’t have much special meaning for me. Other than the bit where the future kid takes the guitar he’s found to the priests of the Temple of Syrinx, and they.. eh, never mind.

      What’s interesting to me is songs that come along later in life that resonate. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was like that for me – that “wow, what is that” feeling, and later on you don’t just like them, they connect with you and evoke time, place, emotion.

  24. Shagster says:

    Thanks Joe. Why I come. An anthem. About life. My own favorite is different. I’m not sure how BTR is better than Thunder Road. A screen door slammed. Soft cotton sways. Both a poetry. Of life. Burned in. Dylan has a lot to offer, but not this. A shackle unchained.

  25. EnzoHernandez11 says:

    I liked BTR a great deal from the moment I first heard it, but it was definitely someone else’s song. The desire to escape a gritty town that “rips the bones from your back” didn’t resonate with many of us in Southern California. Or at least not with me. While the song is certainly timeless in many ways, it also seems very much located in the East Coast and industrial Midwest of the 1970s, with the rotting cities and dying factories. Youthful longing combined with urban decay. I related to the first; the second, not so much.

    On the other hand, around the same time, a friend played me Dylan’s “Blood on the Tracks”. After years of listening to AM radio, where love was all about romance and first dates and wishing and hoping, “Blood on the Tracks” was a revelation. It was all about mature love, with pain and loss and sacrifice, and even occasional transcendence Overwhelmed me. Scared the hell out of me.

    Different strokes, I guess.

  26. Ed says:

    I never really had a moment like this as a teenager… at least not from any contemporary music. I’m 31 (32 in a month), and in my opinion, my teen years were mostly a wasteland for rock music. I was listening to stuff from the 60s and 70s far more than I was listening to anything being released at that time. I think (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? by Oasis is arguably the best album of the 90s, but I had just turned 12 when it was released and wasn’t really listening to the radio or seeking out new music yet. And their follow-ups were nowhere near as good.

    I’ve never totally understood the absolute adoration people have for Bruce Springsteen. Don’t get me wrong — he’s an excellent artist with a lot of very good songs… it’s not as thought I think he’s BAD. But I don’t think he’d even make my top 20 of favorite rock and roll artists. He’s someone I just don’t really think about very much and who is sort of in the background of rock for me.

    Now, to be fair… I obviously wasn’t around for his heyday, and I’m sure that has an effect. However, ALL of my favorite rock musicians released most of their best stuff before I was born. I love the Beatles, and am a big fan of both Led Zeppelin and the Who. I think Brian Wilson is an absolute genius — That Lucky Old Sun, which was released just a few years ago, is a phenomenal album. It’s not flawless from start to finish like Pet Sounds (it has a few weak moments), but it’s excellent, and made moreso when you think about how many problems he’s had in his life. To be making music at all is an accomplishment, and to still be capable of making something as good as most of That Lucky Old Sun (or the ending suite of songs on That’s Why God Made the Radio) is remarkable. And the rest of the Beach Boys were capable of some quality work even without Brian (Feel Flows being the best example). I could keep naming other people that would show up somewhere on my list (like Bob Dylan), but…

    Van Morrison is my favorite. Astral Weeks blew my mind the first time I listened to it. I don’t know of anyone else even similar to him. His songs run the gamut of emotions, and at their absolute best they are ethereal. If I was forced to only have one person/group’s albums to listen to for the rest of my life, I’d be heartbroken and miserable at all the music I’d never be able to hear again… but Van Morrison would be the choice, and I wouldn’t have to think very long about it. I’m still crushed that I missed the chance to see him here in Atlanta at the Fox Theatre a couple of months ago.

    • arlenschumer says:

      Ed, I think you’d enjoy my 90-minute radio program, “Bruce Springsteen’s Greatest Hits You’ve Never Heard”:

      • Ed says:

        Oh, I’ve listened to basically all of Springsteen’s albums (definitely all of the albums from his “peak” — not sure I’ve listened to everything off his more recent albums). I like him, he’s just not a transcendental rock figure for me. He doesn’t resonate the way Lennon/McCartney, Morrison, Wilson, Dylan, etc. do.

        • arlenschumer says:

          Uh, yeah, you’ve heard his albums; but did you READ the TITLE of my radio program???? “Bruce Springsteen’s Greatest Hits YOU’VE NEVER HEARD”! Try actually LISTENING to it! You might end up saying he IS a “transcendental rock figure.”

          • Ed says:

            I just listened to a handful of them. Didn’t change my opinion at all. People have different tastes. For me, Springsteen is good, but isn’t on the level of the people I mentioned earlier.

            I don’t think Springsteen is even close to Van Morrison, for example, but obviously you feel differently and that’s fine. It’s not an personal attack on you (or on Bruce Springsteen) for someone to think Springsteen isn’t the greatest ever. Just like it’s not a personal attack on Van Morrison for you to disagree with me and think that Springsteen is better, even though my personal opinion is that Morrison’s best output dwarfs Springsteen’s. I’m not saying that’s an indisputable fact. It’s just my opinion.

            It’s okay to disagree.

  27. arlenschumer says:

    ed–can i safely assume you’ve never seen bruce live in concert?

    • Marc Schneider says:

      What is it that makes you require people to agree with you? He doesn’t like Springsteen as much as you go. Get over it. I bet even Springsteen would be embarrassed by your deification of him.

      • arlenschumer says:

        Hey august: “Many of us who like but do not revere Springsteen consider BTR to be the beginning of his selling out.” Oh, do please enlighten us all how Bruce “sold out” with BTR; that is even MORE of cliche than the ORIGINAL cliche that bands “sell out” when they become popular!

      • arlenschumer says:

        Who’s “requiring” that you “agree with me”? If people can dismiss and put Springsteen down on this thread, then I can speak up for him. Don’t like what i have to say? Tough shit. DEAL WITH IT.

      • arlenschumer says:

        Hey Mark–who’s “requiring” that you “agree with me”? If people can dismiss and put Springsteen down on this thread, then I can speak up for him. Don’t like what i have to say? Tough shit. DEAL WITH IT.

        • Marc Schneider says:

          That’s complete sophistry. Everyone that disagrees with you gets insulted at least by implication that they just haven’t seen enough of Bruce. You have no respect whatsoever for anyone else’s opinion and you argue like a teenager rather than a grown man. You are the one that doesn’t like what anyone else has to say. You seem to think that people that don’t like Springsteen-or don’t treat him as God’s gift to music-are attacking you personally. If someone doesn’t like him, they don’t like him. No one is saying you shouldn’t like him or that you are necessarily wrong, but have some respect for other people’s opinions. And stop saying “tough shit.” It only makes you sound more ridiculous and childish. People that say DEAL WITH IT are covering up some kind of deep insecurity.

          • arlenschumer says:

            Cry me a river, Mark. Do I owe you money for your therapy session on my “deep insecurity,” Doctor? You don’t think I’ve been dealing with these types of Bruce putdowns for, oh, like the last 40 years??? I’m laughing here like a puppet master would at how you all take my bait like the suckers you are. A bunch of crybaby, whiny suckers to boot!

  28. Jim says:

    I don’t even like Springsteen, but I like reading Joe writing about him. If I was an old Polish grandmother, I would use my superpowers to make “May Joe Posnanski write your obituary” a traditional blessing.

  29. Gee Tee says:

    Less arlenschumer would be helpful.

  30. Go figure that the Brilliant Readers of this blog could get sucked in, not by a liberal/conservative or yankees/red sox or even a Sabremetric/”gamer” argument but by a Springsteen zealot and, well, reason.

    But the BRs abide. As always.

  31. mrhonorama says:

    I’m not a raving Springsteen fan, but I own all of his albums through Tunnel Of Love. He’s such an essential part of music from his era, and has influenced a lot of artists to this day (as others have noted). But what I love about this post is how it evokes the feeling of finding that song, whatever that song it is, that seals the deal for you as a music lover. My song charted in the U.S. in the same year, although it hit first in Britain in 1973. In fact, it was the first 45 I bought with my own money.

    That 45 was Sweet’s “Ballroom Blitz”. I was 9 years old at the time. I fully realize that it couldn’t hold a candle to “Born to Run” in terms of lyrical depth. What captivated me was just the pure raving excitement of the song. I was an avid Top 40 radio listener from the time I got a clock radio as a gift for my first communion, and I enjoyed many songs, but that was the song that galvanized me, with it’s constant beat, it’s four distinct musical sections, and the frenzied performance. Forty years later, I still haven’t tired of the song.

    While the song didn’t resonate with me at the emotional level “Born to Run” did for Joe, it whetted my appetite for more and more music. I DJ’d in high school and college and now do so at a voluntary community radio station in college. I’ve explored countless genres and styles and developed a broad musical vocabulary. I have found songs that have spoke to me like “Born to Run” did to a young Joe. I’ve found songs that have taught me things (The Clash were a political education class in high school, for example). And one song really sparked my brain and turned me into a music junkie.

    Great piece.

  32. Puckpaul11 says:

    Hey, Arlen, I get you (we have exchanged thoughts on Bruce before) but no need to argue this, especially here on Joe’s blog. I gave up a long time ago trying to convince people of my musical taste, it’s ultimately just a personal decision and individual feeling. Heck, i frequent the lonely graham parker boards, just about 40 of us on those boards for an incredible artist. Most people dont come close to getting him, they even made a movie about it!

    Great piece by Joe. I think Bruce is great and he has done for me with his work what he did for Joe. For me, it wasnt Born to Run itself, but those amazing bootlegs from the 1978 tour that made you believe that nothing can be done any better than what Springsteen did on that tour. I still believe it, and if i ever want to remind myself what is possible, i listen to one of those bootlegs, especially the live version of Prove It All Night.

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