Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen (1975).
Some albums you could put on at a party and the mood will never be broken. This is not one of those albums. In that way, this is an album that was meant to be heard in solitude.
That might seem strange if you think of the title track, which is such a beautiful rock anthem that you’d think a party would light up at any album that contains that song, but the truth is that the rest of this album, without exception, is the antithesis of a party. This album is a confession, and if you’re like me, a party is not the place you go to give or hear a confession.
It helps those of you who never owned vinyl LPs that the title track didn’t appear until the beginning of Side Two. The opening of the album is “Thunder Road,” which has a title that (if you only know the song “Born to Run” and you’re eagerly placing this disc on the hardware) implies straight-ahead rock. But that song is so personal that it’s sometimes embarrassing to hear it. But it’s so good that you don’t regret hearing it. You just don’t know what to do now.
Much of the rest of the album has that quality. It has the genius of a novel. There you are, in solitude, experiencing these things. But at the same time you know that all you’re doing is joining a huge audience, unseen to you, that consists of people who might hear these words and this music and react completely differently. Will other people be offended at the implied criminal transaction in “Meeting Across the River”? Why would they? Why aren’t you offended by it? Would you put something in your pocket “so it will look like you’re carrying a friend” if a buddy asked you to?
Randy Brecker’s trumpet on that song is so perfect that all by itself it lends a romantic tinge to the whole affair that suspends the implicit illicit in the lyrics.
In the end, this is an album about street betrayals. Weak men (“Backstreets”), cruel battles between cops and robbers (“Jungleland”), and women who know the weaknesses in their men (“She’s the One”) populate the album. But since we’re all weak, cruel, and knowing, these characters seem friendly and familiar. The lonely people who open the album on “Thunder Road” set the tone. We know them, and forgive them. But then we’re drawn in, and we may find ourselves knowing and forgiving more than we bargained for.
By now, people in my generation know that Springsteen appeared on the cover of both Time and Newsweek in 1975 as this album climbed the charts. He was hailed as the savior of rock & roll at a time when no one was waving that banner (even the Rolling Stones were wearing glitter and suits with huge lapels). Oddly, it wasn’t as if he wasn’t willing to play that role. It’s only hassles about publishing and copyrights that held up, for three years, his next album.
So much for copyright being an important means by which artists make their work available to an appreciative public.
This album is a great accomplishment. You should listen to it, but you shouldn’t play it at a party. You should listen to it in the same mood and same situation in which you’d read a Raymond Chandler novel or watch a Bogart film.
But that’s another difference between us, as listeners, and Springsteen as the artist. It would be well worth any effort to join a huge crowd and watch Springsteen perform these songs, just as it’s worthwhile joining a crowd in a movie theater to watch The Maltese Falcon. There is a paradox to the intimacy in this popular artwork, in that the performer is not bound to perform only in intimate settings, but in that we will appreciate any performance of this material best in our private selves. So if you have to join a crowd to hear “She’s the One” performed, do it, but try to ignore the others in case you end up blushing.