Counterbalance No. 18: Bruce Springsteen’s 'Born to Run'
Jason Mendelsohn and Eric Klinger’s rock & roll crossfire Counterbalance returns with a look at Bruce Springsteen’s 1975 epic Born to Run. Strap your hands ’cross their engines!
Klinger: A couple weeks ago, when I was insufficiently ebullient about Ziggy Stardust, I recall you all but threw glittery pixie dust in my eyes and challenged me to a duel. Now that I suspect the shoe is on the other foot, and I’m afraid I must reciprocate.
Mendelsohn, if you refuse to acknowledge the brilliance of Born to Run, I shall hereby slap you with a sweaty bandana and announce my intent to test you on the field of honor. Pistols at dawn, Mendelsohn!
Mendelsohn: Klinger, man, I tried. I really did and after repeated listenings I've come to begrudgingly respect the Boss and his E Street crew, but only for rockers like "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out" and the slow-burner "Backstreets" and even the iconic "Born to Run". But then I hit the back third of the album and all that goodwill disappears.
So I'm thinking that come tomorrow morning, one of us is going to be lying on the ground with a gut shot trying to stop the bleeding with a sweaty bandana. I may have hit you with a dose of Bowie's pixie dust but I think you will find that I'm not so easily blinded by the light.
Klinger: Well, I’m glad to hear that you’re at least offering up grudging appreciation for this album. I’m willing to rescind my challenge, mainly because I hate getting up that early. However, I note one glaring omission—“Thunder Road”, which is quite possibly one of the greatest rock and roll songs ever written and most certainly one of the most perfect Side 1/Track 1s of all time.
To put this song on is to be instantly transported into the world Springsteen has created. It’s been said that there’s an undercurrent of a plot to this album, and “Thunder Road” sets the tone of wistfulness that defuses whatever bombast might lie ahead. Also it’s the most anthemic track ever to not have a chorus (sorry, “All Along the Watchtower”).
Mendelsohn: As much as I'd like to get into a discussion about the best Side 1/Track 1s of all time, I think it might be best if we saved that for the next Counterbalance wilderness retreat. God knows, I'd hate to get off topic—especially when I'm in need of some serious convincing. Why exactly should I want to live in Springsteen's world?
Klinger: Springsteen’s world’s all right if you like saxophones. True, I’m not sure you’d want to live there, but for suburbanites of all ages, it makes for a quality vacation.
Mendelsohn: I'd prefer my world to be saxophone-free, thank you. Clarence Clemons should only be allowed to clap. Clap, Big Man, clap!
Klinger: Even so, I think it's the sense of escapism that’s really what’s at the core of Born to Run’s appeal—and not just the romantic "town full losers, I'm pulling out of here to win"-type escapism. When Born to Run came out in 1975, one of the few negative notices came from Detroit provocateur/weed enthusiast John Sinclair, who attacked it as having more in common with West Side Story than the street-level rock of Sinclair’s protégés the MC5. However, I humbly submit that West Side Story is a) really hard to replicate in rock form (ask Meat Loaf about that) and b) pretty awesome. For all its bravura, Born to Run is a fantasy—a fantasy about teenage escape and the romance of the streets. And it works because Springsteen was so committed to that fantasy. Because his work got a lot more personal with subsequent albums, we may have a tendency to invest more authenticity in the album than it’s meant to carry.
But anyway, you mentioned that Born to Run falls apart in the last third, a statement I find a bit curious. Care to elaborate?
Mendelsohn: I think my problem lies with Springsteen's overt bombast. In a knife-fight, I'd probably side with Sinclair's down and dirty Sharks over the shiny E Street Jets. Not that I don't get the teen escape fantasy. I grew up in suburbia, I understand the appeal of escape fantasies and street romances. But it's that sort of West Side Story melodrama that turns me off of this record. The last three songs on Born to Run exemplify the problems I have with it. "She's the One" is not so bad as far as love songs go, especially since it’s not straight up and down, but it reminds me of warmed-over Meat Loaf. Strike one. Then you hit "Meeting Across the River" and what had been a fairly solid record dissolves into a trite vignette about a down-and-out loser who's either too stupid or too lazy to go to night school and get his GED, so he gets mixed up with the wrong people and by the end I find myself hoping that this character winds up floating face down in the river. Strike two. After that it's a ten-minute jog through "Jungleland", most of which is just a retread of the first six tracks. Strike three.
By the time I'm finished with the record, I'm back where I started—unimpressed, slightly annoyed, and headed back to the dugout.
Klinger: See, I’m inclined to say that “Jungleland” is the walk-off home run and the post-game fireworks and the slow euphoric walk out to the car. This guy can dig it. Sure, its references to the opera out on the turnpike and the ballet being fought out in the alley are bombastic and maybe even a little silly, but every time I listen to it I’m taken back to being a suburban 15-year-old who thought that the idea of “danger” was terribly romantic. Not actual danger, mind you, but the cinematic version that Springsteen presented on his first three albums.
And while “Meeting Across the River” isn’t exactly my favorite track here, I give it credit for being one of the few pop songs that can actually be called Scorsesian. Why Marty never adapted this is beyond me. Keitel as Eddie, De Niro as the main guy and, uh, Ann Margaret as Cherry. I’ll see her in anything.
Mendelsohn: I get the feeling that Born to Run is very near and dear to your heart. I'm going to recuse myself from this argument because I'm not a Springsteen fan and therefore don't care—but do you think this album is deserving of its spot on the great list?
Klinger: Mendelsohn, your opinion is as valid as the next person’s. And you wouldn’t be doing this if you didn’t care. Just come right out and say it, man!
As for me, I’m surprised it’s not ranked higher, given the way critics have fawned over it for the past 35 years. Of course, this is coming from my own American point of view. Born to Run does appear to rank somewhat lower among European critics. Also it’s worth noting that Springsteen’s stock dipped dramatically in the 1990s, when he split up the E Street Band and made a few high-profile flops.
Mendelsohn: Oh, I care. Just not for the Boss. I wonder, too, if my distaste for New Jersey's most famous son might be more of a generational thing. I know great music will easily transcend such barriers but I came of age in the ’90s, when Bruce had hit hard times and the kind of teenage escapist fantasy he so eloquently sang about had transformed into something much different, starting with Kurt Cobain's nihilism and heroin addiction and ending in Marilyn Manson's circus sideshow act and cocaine addiction. We're talking about two very different ends of the spectrum. The color and taste of the escapism, fantasy, and romance had wholly changed. Same basic idea, completely new set of ingredients.
Klinger: You realize that your comparison, however oblique, of Springsteen to Marilyn Manson is nearly enough to make me reslap you with my Sweaty Bandana of Honor. But I’m willing to overlook it, since you seem to at least acknowledge that your indifference to Springsteen is your burden to carry.
I’ll advise you to keep trying—after all, he does appear on The Big List 13 more times. Just close your eyes and think of Craig Finn.
Mendelsohn: I'm not putting Manson in the same league as Springsteen. I may not like the Boss' music but I'm not going to disrespect him like that. See, that's the thing I have a hard time reconciling. I can love Springsteen by proxy. I love romance and escapism, I love wordiness and undercurrents of plots, the tales of suburban boredom and the danger waiting for us on the streets from a band like the Hold Steady, who owe everything to Springsteen, but there is something blocking me from getting on board with the Boss.
Klinger: Is it the “Dancing in the Dark” video? I’ve heard that hypnotherapy can remove that from your memory. Also I think having “the Boss” for a nickname didn’t help. A lot of people think their boss is a jerk.
Mendelsohn: My boss, who I call the Boss and is also a fan of the Boss, is a fairly nice guy, until I remind him that I am not a fan of the Boss. And up until now, I had no idea how weird the word "boss" looks.
Klinger: Now you’ve got me staring and it and it’s freaking me out. Let’s head down to the bar, where a little jukebox Springsteen always hits the spot.