Drew Dougherty was a loveable mischief-maker in my eighth grade English class. He had an older brother who was introducing him to the newest music, so he was hip to us. One day in class he came on in full force, asking the teacher unexpectedly if he could read the lyrics of a Bruce Springsteen song. It was “Jungleland.” Now the teacher was very amenable to this idea, but let me tell you how revolutionary it was. I was already introduced to the idea of rock lyrics as poetry through Pink Floyd’s album Animals, which was a simple political allegory along the lines of Animal Farm. This was something more. Drew took a stand, and in the process he introduced me and the whole class—even the teacher—to a new idea of poetry. I didn’t really know what was going on in the song. Some kind of city street scene with kids at night. That was the power of the song, though. It took you into a fascinating new world that was not entirely comfortable, but because of that it made you think. Somehow we all got the mood and even the whole meaning of the song, even without the music. Now the music itself adds a whole new dimension to the song. As the words can stand without the music, so can the music stand without the words. They interlope each other like parallel universes, adding to and multiplying each other’s meaning.
The music has an eerie perfection throughout. It starts with some bittersweet retro strings, something out of a ‘40s flick. The piano introduces the body of the song, lightly and gently and then Springsteen comes in with a husky voice and a tone wise beyond his years, overlooking the scenes not quite dispassionately, but feeling the pain resignedly and deeply. This is the voice that dominates the song, somehow coaching the spirits of the kids in their romance and street fights in a way that is entirely natural, protective but letting the forces, evil or otherwise, do their thing. Sentimental romanticism clashes with rocking guitars. Themes disappear or dissolve or get rammed into by something hard, but the hard thing gets softer. In the lyrics, “There’s a ballet being fought out in the alley.” Something violent becomes something peaceful. “Kids flash guitars just like switchblades:” something peaceful appears as violent. There is always this shading of one thing into another, in a world where the strong spirit must live as it fights, keeping hearts beating beneath the rubble.
Born to Run will always stay at the center of Springsteen’s work because it is the moment of passionate release. He would go on to produce more advanced work, and it is entirely against the spirit of Springsteen to look at anything in a hierarchy, so it would not do to say it was his best. Rather, it is the work we must look back to as containing the essential elements of joy and rebellion at the heart of all his works, however different the themes he would come to tackle. In many ways it is one long fest of scenery chewing—but with a difference. By shaking up the disturbing dreamlike scenes in his songs, he makes his listeners come to grips with them on their own turns, so they become, in effect, original emotional moments for them. It is we who end up chewing up the scenery, or having the urge to do so, pent up and inspiring us to revolutionary acts of the heart. This is Springsteen: having the courage to burst open the fruits of love, even on the streets with cops and pickpockets. We never know where our wishes will lead us, but we only get to the core of our being by opening them up.
Music isn’t difficult when it’s hard to understand. Music is difficult when it causes pain. Again, in Springsteen’s case this is the pain involved in opening up new pleasures. This is an evangelical procedure, because it is supposed to perpetuate an explosive chain reaction. It operated in Springsteen himself. By stealing the right due to him of securing all manner of youthful joy, he becomes more conscious. His later works show him undoing the locks in the repressed homes of working people, but it is always a call to the people’s hearts, never a prosaic, vain venting against the powers that be.
“Night” is the third track on Born to Run. It was my first Springsteen favorite, not as powerful as “Jungleland,” but pure and simple. It’s a heavy, rock, guitar-powered drive, but’s soft and gentle too. Springsteen speaks to a young guy after a bad day at work with the boss. The Boss himself tells his kid to go out and have a good time at night. The kid is hopelessly in love with the beautiful woman of his dreams. He drives in his car, “in love with all the wonder it brings.” We don’t know whether the woman is really in his sights, and she probably isn’t. The whole point is that he’s opening up a new dream. Contained in it his whole free life. He will keep getting knocked down by bad bosses but he will pull through the traffic.
The dynamics of the album are fascinating. “Born to Run” is the first song on the b-side, but it was the first recorded, as a single in 1974. When asked where he put the best tracks on the album, Springsteen said “the four corners”—the beginning and end of each side. These would also include “Backstreets,” and “Thunder Road,” the opening track. Between, aside from “Night,” are the exquisite curio “Meeting Across the River,” the shake-loose jam-out “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out,” and “She’s the one,” full of swagger that the woman he desires will give into her simply because he thinks she’s so beautiful.
“Born to Run” is Springsteen’s recapitulation of Elvis Presley’s Big Bang. This was the real sound of the ‘70s, and not Johnny Rotten’s “God Save the Queen.” The supreme anthem of rock music—and Jersey’s state song—it moves so fast you think it’s just a song about fun, when in reality it’s about the all-to-real need to run, at full effort and force, as if out of a burning building. But that’s the key: Springsteen is moving as fast as a sports car himself, and showing you that you can do it too. It’s a matter of sharing the joy in the moment, not afraid to bang up against whatever it takes to fulfill it.
Springsteen took Elvis’s ball and ran with it. But he is also a concoction of Bob Dylan and The Beatles, as were many of the best acts leading up to his time since The Byrds. We always think of Springsteen as a grassroots artist who made it big, but he also worked with this top-down approach, of dispensing essences and elements derived from the high rock canon into a mix that somehow leveled the playing field, while at the same time keeping the flame of the rock classics. We have to look at this more abstract dimension of Springsteen, too. He is even a kind of architect, and this is apropos, as he so often delves into the deteriorating architecture of Asbury Park. In the end, Springsteen brings these rock gods down to earth, where they can be the friends and servants of the audience. When he does this we all become gods, but with the self-consciousness that brings responsibility. Aristotle said that the great poet makes the particular the universal. Springsteen does this in “Backstreets.” We’ve all tasted love and nearly had our tongues cut off, all hiding our shared illicit love in backstreets with dilapidated buildings. This track comes in the middle, but it is really the end. Springsteen encounters the endless force of the universe here, the passage through pain to blinding firelight, knowing that keeping warm is inseparable from being burned.
“It ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive,” goes “Badlands” from Darkness at the Edge of Town. Pleasures aren’t sins when we celebrate and are proud of them. It is only when we are ashamed and bury them that they become so. “Adam Raised a Cain” is another key track from “Darkness.” “You inherit the sins, you inherit the flames,” it ends. “Daddy worked his whole life for nothing but the pain,” Springsteen says. Biblical literature has been worked into his canon, but with a twist. It is not his father’s faults that bring a curse down on his head, but the invisible torture and oppression that his working life brings upon him. The biblical significance goes even further. “I believe in a promised land,” Springsteen sings, and “Prove It All Night” may as well be a retelling of the Eden myth, with the lovers behind the dynamo choosing to know “what it means to steal, to cheat, to lie—what it’s like to live and die.” On this land Springsteen explores the deserts and the badlands of the nation, spiritual displacements of his own down-and-out New Jersey, a kind of symbolic ground zero on which to build new dreams.
Like any great artist, Springsteen draws from many sources, and this makes his work open to many interpretations. On the other hand, his work lends itself equally to misinterpretation, or at least taken out of context to serve alternate purposes. Springsteen doesn’t teach, thought. He testifies. The issue of these appropriations is complex. It began originally with the whole perception of Springsteen as a cars-and-girls poet. In the ‘80s Reagan took “Born in the USA” to be an anthem of cockeyed patriotism. And even though Springsteen is a delegate for the working class, there are limits to the militancy some critics would ascribe to him in this field. At the same time the very nature of Springsteen’s art encourages conflicting takes and co-optations. It is the very same quality that gives the work its imaginative appeal in the first place. It provokes a process that encourages heated debate, and this is another thing that makes Springsteen so timely and political. And he always will be so, as his work will continue to serve all, whether friends or foes, who do not see eye to eye.
Springsteen would go on to produce three more great albums: The River, Nebraska, and Born in the USA. These were also concept albums, and in many ways tighter and stronger. They contain a slew of great songs, and show him coming back home to put out the fire he was born in and rescue the folks tied to poverty and dead-end jobs. That said, the exuberant courage of Born to Run is what will always define him. Bruce Springsteen was the Elvis Presley of the 1970s; but, unlike Elvis, he transcended the grips of fame, staying strong and influential. A hero is someone who shows that everyone is equal. Springsteen always pays back his audience with that promise, the one that will turn his fans into heroes too, with true hearts when the time comes and it counts.