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.