“In the day we sweat it out on the streets of a runaway American dream. At night we ride through the mansions of glory and suicide machines. Sprung from cages on Highway 9, chrome wheeled, fuel injected and steppin’ out over the line.” – Born To Run
Born in the cracked asphalt of North Jersey’s urban suburbia, music was something inherited. My steady diet of Garth Brooks, Vince Gill and Randy Jackson wasn’t a choice. That’s what played on the stereo of my mom’s Mercury Zephyr as we clunked down Route 80 towards the Poconos.
In the waning glow of the Jersey 80’s, you couldn’t blast down the Parkway or spend a night in Hoboken without hearing the Garden State triumvirate: Sinatra, Bon Jovi and Springsteen. As a cranky teenager, Jovi always sounded cheesy to my angst ridden ears but Springsteen brought a special brand of bile to my throat. To a kid in love with mid nineties grunge, his was the music of the enemy. Both my mom and dad loved the Boss and every time they blasted Born In The USA on the home hi-fi, I cringed. This was too Jersey. Too usual. In the mid-nineties, all I wanted to do was rebel against the old standards with the Nine Inch Nails my parents couldn’t understand. Bruce Springsteen was out of the question.
Until fifteen years later, I gave it a listen.
When I popped the album into my computer to give it my first honest spin, I was already familiar with the commercial loveliness of Born to USA. Once and for all, I needed to know if Springsteen was still my musical nemesis. Based on reputation, I set it up right. Turned off the lights, lit some candles and cranked it up on my more than decent apartment system.
The record opens with the tinkling piano, mournful harmonica and plaintive wanting of Thunder Road. Springsteen’s raspy voice cries to Mary, “Don’t’ run back inside, you know what I’m here for. So you’re scared and you’re thinking we’re not that young anymore.” I was shocked. This wasn’t the go-go bravado of Surrender or I’m On Fire’s sexual smolder. This was pent up aggression, the voice of someone trapped by a place they love. Begging to be free but scared of the outcome. It became clear this wasn’t the Bruce of my youth’s perception. This is why my parents loved him.
From the breezy bop of Tenth Avenue Freeze Out to the wrong side of town danger of Backstreets to the pure bombast of the title track, Born To Run isn’t just a collection of great songs. It’s a throaty tribute to the endless possibilities presented by miles of blacktop and a glove box full of mix tapes. Dangerous, passionate and emotionally bare, the album is the work of someone desperate to succeed past his upbringing. Shout and be heard amongst the din of his rock and roll contemporaries.
As the album’s bookend began to play, I saw the teenage me in my mind’s eye. Bruce wasn’t my Jersey enemy. He was my emotional equal. In the record’s final track, I saw exactly who that smarmy brat really was: a young kid full of un-displaced energy begging for a chance to flee, terrified by the consequences of freedom. Jungleland’s soaring saxophone finally connected two long separated fragments of my psyche. Born to Run’s Bruce Springsteen wasn’t just a local hero. He’s was wordsmith, a working class Jersey boy who created an album dedicated to guiding kids like me through the emotional tumult of being trapped, kicking and screaming until they broke through to daylight. A forty minute piece of perfect that took me 32 years to finally discover.
Not a moment too soon.