Sunday, November 06, 2005

Born To Run: Back To The Future of Rock 'N' Roll

Nov 3, 2005
Back To The Future Of Rock 'N' Roll
By Curtis

Columbia Records catalog number PC-33795, released Aug. 25, 1975; an eight-song album clocking in at just less than 40 minutes: the bland particulars of a record “that epitomizes what rock promised us from the beginning.”

That assessment of Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run” is courtesy of Gabe Echazabal, 38, manager of Vinyl Fever in Tampa; but it’s echoed by many other fans, some who have rubbed shoulders with Springsteen, others who know him from his albums and concerts.

A three-disc “Born to Run 30th Anniversay Edition” will be in stores Nov. 15. It features a remasterd version of the album plus two DVDs: one of interviews with musicians and others involved with the album, the other a live concert from 1975.

Springsteen performs solo tonight in Tampa. A mega-star now, Springsteen was, when “Born to Run” was released, a singer-songwriter whose first two albums (“Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J.” and “The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle,” released in January and September of 1973, respectively) had failed to set the world on fire. He was, though, gaining a large following on the East Coast, primarily on the strength of his live show.

“He wanted to make a big record. He wanted to make the greatest rock record ever made,” says Jean Mikle, 44, a reporter for the Asbury Park Press. Something of a Springsteen expert, Mikle runs Rock & Roll Tour of the Jersey Shore. The tour takes Springsteen fans from as far away as Japan and Europe to landmarks in and around Asbury Park, such as The Stone Pony nightclub and the Palace Amusements building, mentioned in the song “Born to Run.”

Springsteen succeeded — the title track was his first Top 40 hit, and introduced the rest of the world to this East Coast cult hero. Remarkably, Time and Newsweek put him on their covers the week of Oct. 27, 1975. If Springsteen wouldn’t become omnipresent until 1984’s “Born in the U.S.A.,” he was finally and truly a rock ’n’ roll star.

The album regularly shows up near the top in surveys of the best rock albums of all time. But as much as “Born to Run” was the beginning of Springsteen’s ascent, it also marks a few endings — for one, the E Street Band’s lineup was changing. Keyboardist David Sancious and drummer Ernest “Boom” Carter, jazz- and funk-schooled musicians who played on the title track, left and were replaced by the solid rocking of pianist Roy Bittan and drummer Max Weinberg. Springsteen’s next album, 1978’s “Darkness on the Edge of Town,” would find him making rough-hewn rock ’n’ roll minus the orchestral and epic scope of “Born to Run.”

Springsteen’s lyrical focus changes as well. “Born to Run” was about youth, energy, passion, the desire to bust out of the small town “death trap” and follow dreams no matter what the cost.

On “Darkness,” the characters populating Springsteen’s songs were those who didn’t make it out, the ones left behind whose only recourse was the desperate, dead-end thrills of “Racing in the Street.” By 1980’s “The River,” they were left to wonder whether “a dream [is] a lie if it don’t come true, or is it something worse.”

“Born to Run” was the last flash of innocence before reality came crashing down — but what a sweet ride it was. Rock ’n’ roll glory, in eight parts:

Side 11. “Thunder Road”: The opening track suggests early Saturday night and the anticipation of sex, romance, rock ’n’ roll and escape, all seemingly promised by the wave of Mary’s dress. It starts slow with harmonica and piano and builds into one of the most passionate rock anthems ever.

Some people can’t be convinced. Audrey Glassman Vernick, 41, a writer from Ocean, N.J., recalls trying to sway her friend Lynne, whose record collection “was littered with unfortunate choices.”

“I remember trying to convince Lynne that Springsteen was worship-worthy, that she should join me on the path to obsessed fan,” Vernick writes by e-mail. “I kept lifting the needle straight up on her stereo and replacing it at the beginning, playing the opening of ‘Thunder Road’ over and over, making a case for the tinkling piano, for the slow build and release. Somehow, Lynne remained unconvinced. (Still, looking back, that album was there. She owned it.)”

2. “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out”: Springsteen mythologizes the E Street Band’s origins. “As far back as 1969, I remember [Springsteen] was still the guy. To all of us musicians he was the man,” says Tony Pallagrosi of Allenhurst, N.J. Pallagrosi is a former trumpet player for Springsteen cohorts Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes. He and the other members of the Jukes’ horn section toured with Springsteen in 1976. He now runs the Starland Ballroom venue in Sayerville, N.J.

“I remember I had just seen the Stones [in 1969],” Pallagrosi recalls. Seeing Springsteen perform, “I remember thinking an almost blasphemous thought. I don’t know why, but this guy, in some way deeper than I can explain, he’s every bit as good as the Stones.

“He wasn’t as good a singer, he didn’t have the presence, he hadn’t written the great songs,” Pallagrosi says. “But there was something essential about him that was rock ’n’ roll. That core was as strong and vibrant and as big as the Stones’.”

Tenth Avenue intersects E Street in Belmar, N.J.

3. “Night”: The slightest track on the album is this prototypical working-class tale of busting loose on the weekend.

“‘Night’ was about the old circuit,” Mikle says. “The way I describe it is, if you’ve ever seen the movie ‘American Graffiti,’ it’s just like that: everyone cruising up and down trying to pick each other up.”

4. “Backstreets”: Teenage love becomes high drama in this epic side-closer. Still not sure what “tying faith between our teeth” means but it sure sounds romantic, as does the notion of a “soft-infested summer.”

“My favorite song was ‘Backstreets,’” Mikle says. “It’s almost like a movie. I can picture the whole scene.

“I saw him in ’78...when he was doing a 20-minute version of ‘Backstreets.’ That was a moment for me,” Mikle says.

“‘Backstreets’ has probably always been my favorite song on the album,” Vernick writes, “especially live, and especially in recordings from 1978. It’s not something you need to explain to another fan: ‘“Backstreets” ’78? Oh yeah!’”

Side 2:1. “Born to Run”: With its twanging guitar, honking sax solo, pounding piano and racing-pulse beat, “Born to Run” sounded like everything that rock ’n’ roll wasn’t anymore in 1975. Its glorious production excess — dig that rockin’ glockenspiel — was miles away from the burgeoning minimalism of punk, but once The Ramones and Sex Pistols appeared, Springsteen was one of the few mainstream rockers who didn’t look like a bloated corpse in comparison. In 1975, it was possible to hear this song sandwiched between Neil Sedaka and Captain & Tennille on AM radio.

Hearing Springsteen count the band back in after the middle section’s breakdown is one of the most thrilling moments ever in rock ’n’ roll.“Every time he would count off a song, you knew you were going down the ski jump, no turning back,” Pallagrosi says of playing with Springsteen. “You were gonna fly. You were gonna be airborne.”

“The greatest rock song ever written,” says Echazabal.

2. “She’s the One”: A sonic marriage of Roy Orbison and Bo Diddley; like very few post-British Invasion artists, Springsteen’s influences primarily were American: Elvis Presley, Gary “U.S.” Bonds, Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound” productions and the R&B of the Stax and Motown labels. Tales of rock ’n’ roll lust rarely are delivered with this much heat and depth of feeling.

3. “Meeting Across the River”: Sancious doesn’t play on this number, but it seems possible this moody, jazz-influenced number was written with him in mind.

“You can’t discount the influence of the people in the band,” Pallagrosi says. “The way David played allowed Bruce to write in a different way. Bruce is an intuitive musician: He got how David played and wrote accordingly. When band members changed...the music changed accordingly.”

Lyrically, the song artfully sticks to details in its depiction of some desperate, illicit activity. Maybe it’s Spanish Johnny from “Incident on 57th Street” trying to make that one big score. Maybe it’s the guy from “Atlantic City,” hoping he doesn’t meet the same fate as the Chicken Man.

4. “Jungleland”: The epic closer names characters that could have been in “Blinded by the Light” or “Spirit in the Night,” only this time they’re in a pitched battle for their lives.

This song “sealed the deal,” Echazabal says. “That was so daunting to write a nine-minute rock song and expect it to rock. It went beyond my wildest expectations.

“Up to that point, nine-minute songs meant boring prog-rock or something,” Echazabal says. “There is no time wasted in that song. That’s the centerpiece. That’s one of my favorite songs of his of all time. That to me is pure Springsteen.”

Coda Springsteen’s popularity scaled even greater heights in the ’80s, but as his music and lyrics became increasingly down to earth, it was apparent he would never again soar as high as he did with “Born to Run.”

Three of his solo albums offer the most stark contrast. On 1982’s “Nebraska,” he writes about people who can’t afford to remember their dreams. On 1995’s “The Ghost of Tom Joad” and this year’s “Devils and Dust,” he writes of people so desperate they would give all they have for a shot at the dead-end lives the “Born to Run” kids wanted to escape.

People grow up. They discover the passions of their youth actually aren’t as all-consuming as they seem.

“I used to be very partial to ‘Thunder Road,’” Vernick writes. “Lately, it’s lost some of its appeal. It can’t always be easy to consistently bring life to a song you wrote 30 years ago.”

Springsteen himself warned about the futility of yearning for the past on 1984’s “Glory Days” — was he cautioning himself as well as us? “Born to Run” could only have been made by a young man. Would it resonate as strongly with someone who first heard it in adulthood instead of their teens or early 20s? It doesn’t seem likely.

But for those with the memories and a copy of “Born to Run,” you can go back, for just under 40 minutes.

Reporter Curtis Ross can be reached at (813) 259-7568.This story can be found at:

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