by Joyce Millman & r & Born To Run is the frozen moment in time for many Bruce Springsteen fans. It's the soundtrack to that first post-high-school plunge into freedom, independence and higher-stakes love and sex. In Wings for Wheels, a revealing documentary included with Columbia's new 30th-anniversary reissue of Born To Run, Springsteen describes the album as the sound of "one endless summer night." Indeed, every song on Born To Run has the word "night," but the dark is not a bleak presence or a symbol of inescapable sin and elusive salvation -- that would all begin with Springsteen's next album, 1978's Darkness on the Edge of Town. Instead, Born To Run's radiant lead track, "Thunder Road," invites us to "show a little faith/There's magic in the night." For the restless protagonists of these songs, the nighttime is aglow with promise, passion, deliverance.
In an essay accompanying the anniversary set, Springsteen says that Born To Run introduced the characters he would write about for the rest of his career. "They could have been anybody and everybody... You could be anywhere in America. Slowly, the dread that I managed to keep out of 'Rosalita' squeezed its way into the lives of the people on Born To Run." As a long-time Springsteen listener, I respectfully disagree. (Hey, you don't live with someone for 30-plus years without the occasional bickering.) I've never heard much dread on Born To Run. The characters aren't as desperate as those on the albums that followed. Their hopes are not yet battered; you can hear it in the triumphant piano-and-sax duet that ends "Thunder Road," when the narrator and Mary pull out of their town full of losers, and you can hear it in the full-throttle euphoria of the title track and "Night." And though the characters of "Backstreets" and "Jungleland" suffer betrayals, the operatic emotion of Springsteen's singing and the grandeur of the arrangements signal that, even in pain, these are people who believe they still control their own destinies.
"It was the album where I left behind my adolescent notions of love and freedom," Springsteen writes. "Born To Run was the dividing line." Personally (bicker, bicker), I think he was still clinging to adolescent notions of poetry and melodrama on Born To Run. The real dividing line of his songwriting career is Darkness on the Edge of Town -- the concise, sun-baked elegance of, say, "Badlands" ("Poor man wanna be rich/Rich man wanna be king/And a king ain't satisfied/Till he rules everything") beats the verbal excesses of "Jungleland" and the cinematic schlock of "Meeting Across the River" any day. Still, in hindsight, Born To Run can be seen as the last wholly good-time Springsteen album, and that may account for the particular affection fans have for it. The appeal is largely nostalgic: Springsteen is not the same person he was when he recorded it, and we are not the same people we were when we first heard it.
But then, Born To Run was always a backward-looking album. Punk was on the horizon, but Springsteen had created a loving monument to artists and sounds that were fading in the rear-view mirror: pre-Beatles rock 'n' roll, Stax soul, Roy Orbison, Bo Diddley, Phil Spector, the Beach Boys. Thirty years later, Born To Run is like a poignant echo of music you can't even hear on the radio anymore (unless you've got satellite), of artists whose names surface once a year, when Springsteen inducts them into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Born To Run is a very insular record, one man's musical obsessions (and the B-movie and car-culture myths that accompanied them) writ large. It did not start a movement, except maybe to launch a thousand Jersey bar bands. It did not have the impact of, say, the Clash's London Calling or Patti Smith's Horses, two albums that have also been reissued by Columbia in anniversary sets. Born To Run is not even Springsteen's most influential album -- that would be 1982's gorgeously spooky, sparse Nebraska, the four-track solo experiment that anticipated alternative country and neo-folk.
No, Born To Run is important today mainly in the context of Springsteen's career; it's a Bruceological artifact charting the evolution of his image and his songwriting/recording style. On Wings for Wheels, he says that when the E Street Band now play "Born To Run" in concert, the moment is "a bit sacramental." Indeed, the 30th-anniversary set is for true believers, and that's its greatest strength. Besides a pristinely remastered CD, the set includes the 90-minute Wings for Wheels DVD and a second, jackpot-hitting DVD of Springsteen and the E Street Band in a 1975 concert from London's Hammersmith Odeon. Cleaned up by Thom Zimny (who also made Wings for Wheels), the Hammersmith material is the only full-length concert film ever released from the E Street Band's first 25 years.
Wings for Wheels exhaustively documents the recording of Born To Run, with vintage studio footage and new interviews. A waifish Springsteen shows stunning determination in the recording scenes, putting the musicians through marathon sessions to get the sound he wants -- Clarence Clemons's sax solo on "Jungleland" took 16 hours to satisfy the Boss's perfectionism. As for "Born To Run," we hear its many layers separated out (forget Phil Spector's Wall of Sound -- "Born To Run" is more like Phil Spector's Wall of China), from Ernest "Boom" Carter's jazzily syncopated drumming on the bottom to the glockenspiel on top. And then there are the strings, the synthesizers and the backing choir that were left off. Says guitarist Steven Van Zandt of the Boss's compulsive retooling, "Anytime you spend six months on a song, somethin' ain't goin' right."
The Wings for Wheels DVD also contains indispensable footage from a 1973 Los Angeles concert, in which a scruffy and weirdly spaced-out Springsteen stares down the audience with eyelids at half-mast like a young Bob Dylan and mumbles oracular intros to "Wild Billy's Circus Story" and "Thundercrack."
Springsteen had worked on his showmanship, if not his personal grooming, in the interval between the 1973 footage and the Hammersmith Odeon concert. He's in his hipster-Jesus phase here, rail-thin and sporting shaggy hair, a shaggier beard and a horrible woolen cap that he keeps fondling like a talisman. (Van Zandt and Clemons, however, are resplendent in '70s pimp regalia.) The picture quality is not dazzling, but you get the gist: The boss was in the process of becoming the Boss. Springsteen doesn't play much guitar, concentrating instead on acting out the songs. (Ah, remember when he used to "crawl into the lake" on "Spirit in the Night"?) He barely talks to the audience, and the band has not yet perfected their stop-on-a-dime timing. But the energy blasts off the screen, from a revved-up "Born To Run" to R & amp;B-revue rave-ups of "E Street Shuffle" and "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out" to a blistering "Detroit Medley" encore. It all takes you back to your first Springsteen show, when this scrawny Superman seemed almost capable of flight. And it's worlds away from the (intriguingly) life-sized Springsteen of his recent solo tour.
The remarkable Hammersmith DVD shows you exactly where Springsteen's "dividing line" truly falls. Whereas the post-Born To Run albums became progressively simpler, darker, less romantic, the E Street Band's concerts became more expansive, more cathartic, more steeped in near-religious communion and rock 'n' roll/R & amp;B mythology. "Two faces have I," Springsteen sang on his most candidly self-appraising album, 1987's Tunnel of Love. And he was right. The dividing line wasn't in the tracks, it was inside the man.
This article first appeared in the Boston Phoenix.