Essay

The Streets Of A Runaway American Dream: Born To Run 40 Years Later

That harmonica peal. It is one of the all-time great opening moments of any album ever, up there with the guitar and deranged growl of “Rocks Off” on Exile On Main St. or the snare hit at the beginning of “Like A Rolling Stone” on Highway 61 Revisited. Springsteen himself once commented on that snare hit when he inducted Bob Dylan into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, saying it “sounded like somebody’d kicked open the door to your mind.” The harmonica and piano intro in “Thunder Road” does something similar. It’s the sound of the curtain being pulled back, the opening credits, the world opening up before you. How many things could you call it? Who knows how many different ways it’s been described in the four decades we’ve been living with Born To Run.

The intro lasts less than 20 seconds before Springsteen starts singing, and you can almost get the whole thematic scope of his career right there. There’s wonder and suggestion in it, but it’s already depleted. There is already wistfulness, melancholy. Born To Run was where Springsteen began to grow up, where real life started to encroach on the myths of his childhood, the myths he’d presented to us on the album’s two predecessors, Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. and The Wild, The Innocent, & The E Street Shuffle. You could over-simplify “Thunder Road,” like much of the rest of the record — it’s triumphant, celebratory, in search of wild open roads and the new lives waiting at the other end of them. There’s more to the story than that. Born To Run became one of the archetypes, one of the great works in an American tradition that bloomed in a very specific way in the 20th century: the call of escape and reinvention, the supposedly endless promises you could chase across a network of highways lacerating an unforgiving continent. Forty years later — after the American Century, after 9/11, after the Great Recession, after the fragmentation of the music world as we and Bruce knew it and of pop culture as a whole, once we’d reached an increasingly mediated and digitized existence — does that harmonica peal, does any of Born To Run, mean the same thing? Did the promises — broken or unbroken, complicated or simple — work out?

Back in June, Bleachers’ Jack Antanoff announced he was starting a New Jersey-centric festival called Shadow Of The City. The name was straightforward enough: an acknowledgement that if you grew up in New Jersey, you grew up in the shadow of what Antanoff called “the greatest city in the world.” He went on to describe what that does to a person, the feeling of being the “constant younger brother,” the fact that if you grow up in a place like that where you have to prove yourself, you make underdog music, desperate music, “larger than life” music. He, naturally, directly cited Springsteen. Most crucially, he referred to New Jersey as “one of those places where you spend your life trying to get out.” As much as Springsteen’s first two albums mythologize his Jersey youth, the idea of getting out ran through so much of his mid-’70s to mid-’80s peak. I can’t speak for everyone who grew up in a small town in America, but what I will say is: I know the feeling Antanoff’s talking about. It’s what has always made Springsteen’s music resonant, and it was a widespread feeling where I grew up — another one of those places where you spend most of your years thinking about how you’re going to get out. Mine was in Pennsylvania, not New Jersey; Philly was enough to cast a shadow, but New York’s shadow is pretty long, so it reached there, too. If there’s one thing that hasn’t changed in the 40 years since Born To Run came out, it’s that if you live in one of these places, you still feel that reality. You have an ever-growing backlog of media telling you it doesn’t work, but something like Born To Run, with its last-ditch hopes to still find something else at the other end of the road, can feel like gospel.

It was a little different than the world Springsteen sketched out, though. I wouldn’t say I grew up in a Springsteen album so much as I grew up in the post-script to one. In the ’90s and ’00s, that looked like skeletons of industry that had crumbled long ago mixed with a white-collar culture with a very low ceiling. It felt entirely dead-end. Like there was nothing for you there if you stayed. Last year, when Born In The U.S.A. turned 30, I wrote about how it might be the Springsteen album that’s wielded the most influence on contemporary rock bands today, and that it might’ve become my favorite over the years. Both are probably still true, the latter only on some days. (Though Born In The U.S.A. has the greatest song ever, the song that says everything a rock or pop song should or could say.) But Born To Run is elemental in a different way. It’s elemental because it’s not only one of the rock albums that defines what that genre’s spirit is and what its ambitions can look like, but also because it’s an installment in a larger body of American work that approaches what some larger idea of an American spirit is.

It’d be harder to crib the sound of Born To Run than that of Born In The U.S.A. — it’s too singular, too over-the-top for most sane people to undertake. The orchestration is so extensive that, in most hands, the music would’ve been rendered inert. Springsteen’s music would remain big after Born To Run, but never quite in the same way. It was like he was trying to rebuild the myth this time around, one more time for himself. I mean, just listen to “Born To Run.” That song is emblematic of the Wall Of Sound style he was chasing; even its comparatively quiet moments boast those iconic glockenspiel melodic embellishments and piano flourishes. It was his shot at a career-saving hit single, and it’s dense, riding an inevitable pulse while also having a ton of musical information, little twists and turns, for a four and a half minute song that became an artist’s signature track. There are simpler things here, too — the groove-focused of “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out,” the short charge of “Night,” the glisteningly super-sized take on a Bo Diddley rhythm in “She’s The One.” But they’re situated amongst mini-epics, amongst the ultimate scene-setter “Thunder Road” or a slowburn-but-always-burning meditation on the past like “Backstreets.” That’s before you even get to “Jungeleland,” the nearly 10-minute monolith that closes Born To Run in a multi-part true epic, with various passages and shifts and violins and saxophone solos. There’s a lot of stuff here that is part of the definitive Springsteen sound, but even if Born To Run is Springsteen’s most revered or best album, this is not a sound he would (or, necessarily, could) replicate again. No doubt Born To Run has inspired many, many artists since, but if you’re trying to write in some kind of Springsteen-esque vein, it’d be easier to take elements of this and look towards the more straightforward ethos of subsequent albums. It’s akin to how you could borrow the Edge’s guitar sound, but if you tried to write like The Joshua Tree, it’d be a little, well, conspicuous.

But even if Born To Run’s specific sound and universe is harder to replicate — and, thus, harder to single out in the sound of younger bands today — it’s that spirit element of it that might give it a broader reach than anything else Springsteen has ever done. The core issues and themes — increasingly distant but still poeticized remembrances of youth mingling with the final passage of that youth, where you came from vs. where you’re going — are integral to so much popular music in America, and it says it in a way that cements it as being in a different league. This is an album that’s so massive in sound that it makes you believe again, even when you realize the dreams of escape might not totally work out in reality, even when you realize Springsteen himself was becoming frustrated and disillusioned, and it was his own last attempt at crafting that other universe, of escaping through music and down the highway.

Without explicitly being so, Born To Run is a concept album of sorts, jettisoning the Beat wanderings of his various characters and jazz affectations of where he’d been before in favor of sticking with story songs, but making them universal and muscular. There isn’t a literal narrative through-line from “Thunder Road” to “Backstreets” to “Born To Run” to “Jungeland,” but there might as well be. There’s a constant rise and fall to Born To Run, a dusty sense of wonder mixed with the very beginnings of making peace with where you are or where you came from (a process Springsteen wouldn’t totally complete until “My Hometown” on Born In The U.S.A., nine years later). It’s one of the most carefully calibrated albums out there, and one of the most perfect representations of album-as-artwork — each four song set (“Thunder Road” to “Backstreets,” then “Born To Run” to “Jungleland”) moves in a particular arc, tracing the spectrum from hope to desperation to settling to refusing to settle. And each of those arcs, and the songs within them, play off each other. Without explicit callbacks or motifs, there’s this sense that something like “She’s The One” is not just the transition between “Born To Run” and the beginning of the final act in “Meeting Across The River,” but also ties you back to the semi-beleaguered shot at romance in “Thunder Road” or, in a different way, to the comparatively grounded “Tenth Avenue Freeze Out” and “Night.” It all flows in and out of, but also swirls around, “Born To Run” — certainly a mission statement for one version of Springsteen, but also largely a mission statement he’d exist in relation to throughout his career even as his concerns and style shifted dramatically away from this.

Specifically, it has that line: “Tramps like us, baby we were born to run.” It might be Springsteen’s most definitive lyric; it’d certainly be easy to take it as a kind of mission statement that overshadows, at least, the trajectory and themes of his peak-era albums. The line that alludes to small-town disenchantment and the drive to escape it, to find a different life for yourself. But how do you translate that to a 21st century disposition? Springsteen’s already adapted himself to the America that now surrounds him, rediscovering a voice and a sense of purpose with the post-9/11 The Rising, and taking on the Great Recession on Wrecking Ball. As for his old music, though, there’s something more relatable today in the stark and haunted Nebraska, or the harder edges of Darkness On The Edge Of Town than there is in Born To Run. Sure, it still sounds pretty cool to hop in your car and chase some new, unknown life, but there’s also something that — within the context of Springsteen’s career as well as in a larger cultural context — seems naïve about Born To Run’s surface level. Still, the desire at the core of Born To Run is one that’s still grasping at romanticism, but is beginning to come to terms with the functionality (or lack thereof) to it.

Something about that particular quality is what makes Born To Run still resonant to a young person in the 21st century. For people like me or Jack Antanoff, the circumstances that lead to a Born To Run are still very real; we might be savvier or more dejected these days, to the point that we don’t trust the dream the album’s chasing as much we might’ve in the past, but it still feels worth it to have something to chase. That certainly seems to be the case on an album like Titus Andronicus’ The Monitor — one example of an artist that is far more indebted to ’70s Bruce than ’80s Bruce, unlike many of their contemporaries. The Monitor is a very specific and idiosyncratic album — a masterpiece that happens to parallel Patrick Stickles’ personal travails with Civil War imagery. It’s one of the true classics in the rock canon from this century, and it might just be my generation’s Born To Run, with the multiple-passage template of “Jungeland” blown up and frayed across a series of intricate punk-laced epics. Most importantly, the album opens with its own “Thunder Road” for another generation of small-town kids: “A More Perfect Union,” which, of course, includes the lines “No, I never wanted to change the world, but I’m looking for a new New Jersey/ Because tramps like us, baby, we were born to die!” The whole thing is pissed off and anxious and more obviously desperate than its counterpart on Born To Run, which has to do with the differences between Springsteen and Titus but also between 1975 and 2010. The charge at the beginning of “A More Perfect Union” is the same kind of cinematic world-building as “Thunder Road,” but we’re dealing with a world that’s a little more fed up, a little more tired, a little more in need of violent upheaval within ourselves to give a damn again. But that’s that spirit that runs through Born To Run that still lingers through so many acts that followed and was there before Springsteen, too. This American sense of seeking, of the vaguely aggrieved search for self-transformation, and perhaps a reliance on the landscape to give it.

There’s another line that, today, sticks out from “Born To Run.” After it’s gate-crashing intro, the first thing Springsteen sings is: “In the day we sweat it out on the streets of a runaway American Dream.” This was the ’70s, after all. There might be something yearning and youthful still existent within Born To Run, but that decade had a whole lot of its own depletion going on. The Dream probably looked pretty broken-down, just as it did in Recession America. But within that larger cultural context, Springsteen’s still asserting something that goes back further and deeper than his career, something inherent to American culture. All of that business about escaping down the highway can seem vague, and there have been countless artists who have wielded the metaphors more clumsily, enough to leave it as one of those signifiers that’s simultaneously overloaded and emptied out. But there’s a reason Springsteen and those countless other musicians (and filmmakers, and writers, etc., etc.) return to this kind of stuff over and over again. Whether you grew up in a small town or not, the American landscape is supposed to be imbued with something special, something intrinsic to this place, some open canvas within which you’re supposed to be allowed to constantly leave, return, reinvent, run.

Escapism is a fundamental American tradition. Or, at the very least, movement. Most of us did not come from anywhere near here. And then when we got here, it was all about pushing further — what was next, where was next. Rebellion and reinvention are hard-wired into the fabric of our national identity. That’s the Dream, right? The idea of a country where you can start anew repeatedly, to re-create yourself in some unknown place. It was there earlier in America’s history, when there were still uncharted corners of what would become the country. But the romance of it is really there in the 20th century or art about that time period, in anything from The Great Gatsby and On The Road to Mad Men and, of course, Born To Run.

These are paradigmatic American works, tales of people searching for something, fleeing the circumstances of their normal lives or upbringings to craft new identities in the dreamscapes of the far reaches of America, in New York or California. Or anyplace that isn’t where you started, basically. The romance here is a fractured one: whatever is beyond the horizon is poetic and ineffable and all that, but to be thinking along those lines you have to be coming from a place of disenchantment with where and who you are right now. You’re starting from a place of suffering or paralysis or dissatisfaction, so it’s the dreams down the highway that sustain you. In any of these stories, it never really works out. You still have to deal with yourself when you get to wherever you’re going. Fitzgerald and Kerouac and Mad Men all dismantle the archetype in their own ways. Born To Run did, too, to some extent. This was the final chapter in Springsteen’s first act, his early- and mid-’70s Romantic. There are still glimmers of the of New Jersey boardwalk fairytales here, the stuff of “Sandy (4th Of July).” But that harmonica peal, the screen door slam, the dress waving — there’s desperation undercutting the cinematic image that opens “Thunder Road.” Born To Run was a pivotal breaking point in his career, with his label about to abandon him after his first two albums failed to make him a star on the level they expected. Music had opened up that road out of where he was, and he was on the precipice of losing it. Born To Run sounds like an alternate universe, but it had its own distinct realities coming to bear. This is the sound of a man giving everything he has because it might be his last chance — not just to make it, but to transcend that original self.

In the 21st century, this might seem as quaint as those wild jazz parties in On The Road. While there’s still a visceral thrill in actual travel, do you really need that anymore when you can live multiple permutations of yourself — or how you’d like to present yourself — out online on a daily basis? Is the premise of rewriting your identity still located in the notion that you have to roll into a new town and give a false name? (Well, leaving aside from the fact that if you have any sort of digital footprint whatsoever, it’s a lot harder to pull off a Don Draper, anyway.) In an era as heavily mediated as ours, there’s an odd way in which travel, that escaping from town, doesn’t take on the same world-rearranging rush. In comparison, in can almost offer zen instead — the idea that you could drive all day across a state and not be checking anything online, the idea that you could find a way to make peace with yourself on the road while no longer possessing the idea that you’re supposed to outrun yourself. That can make something like Born To Run sound like a fable in hindsight.

In its way, that’s exactly what it’s become. It is no longer a glimpse of what youth in small-town America might actually look like — and there’s a chance, like a Jon Hughes movie for the ’80s or a Strokes song for the early ’00s, that it was always a mythologized, hyperreal take on normal contemporary life to begin with. Living in an era where all the stories and all the music overlap and coexist at all times, sometimes a fable like Born To Run is what remains the most relatable. Four decades on, the album’s transcended just a position in pop history — along with the rest of Springsteen’s peak run, it’s a collection of music that could live on comfortably alongside more literary or cinematic works as another foundational piece of American identity myth-making. A piece of myth itself. If you deal with abstractions and the digital free-for-all as daily life, it could lead to myths becoming ineffective, illegible, remnants of an older and simpler time. But the opposite is true, too, at least in the instance of a work like Born To Run, a work that is fully aware it’s chasing something that might be impossible to find, but has to do it one more time anyway. There is something inspiring in that, something that makes me want to use Born To Run as a kind of blueprint: it acknowledges the world around it, but still places value in trying to find wonder in that world, even if it seems as though everything has been thoroughly demystified. On his episode of VH1 Storytellers, Springsteen called “Thunder Road” more than a song, “an invitation to a bigger life.” That, whatever the era’s circumstances or the size of the town, still feels like an American myth worth believing in.