It’s been 40 years now since Bruce Springsteen’s Born To Run album was unleashed on an unsuspecting American public.
The street had been buzzing about this galvanic talent for some time; Springsteen had recorded two albums: Greetings From Asbury Park and The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle, and many of us had been blown away by his incendiary live shows. It wasn’t a question of whether Bruce would make it, but to what pedestal he would ascend.
Neither was it a surprise that he had inspired a substantial group of doubters, for back in the 1970’s there was a gaping divide between devotees of British and American Rock.
David Bowie and T-Rex reigned among glittery Anglophiles while The Dead and The Allman Brothers were favored by the flannel-shirted masses. Where would Bruce fit in this delineated spectrum?
For many the fact that he hailed from the Jersey Shore - mecca of cover bands – was criminal in itself. Yes, indeed, people took their rock music seriously back in those delirious days!
Bruce’s case was not helped by opening for Anne Murray in Central Park; but hey, a gig’s a gig and the Snowbird never knew what hit her – people were still shouting for an encore 30 minutes into her easy listening set. Wherever he played stormy chaos ensued; at Lincoln Center the stage collapsed during the riotous encore.
I’ll make no bones about it - my favorite Springsteen album is still The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle. I remember every word, every guitar lick, and back in his pre-superstar days I saw the man any chance I could.
Hence I was exposed to many Born To Run tracks as they were being written and rehearsed; I still prefer a number of these songs in their nascent form. Brue often performed them with just the marvelous David Sancious playing piano. He delivered these anthems in a highly theatrical manner and at funereal tempos where every word was dramatically articulated.
One such song was Thunder Road. When done in the original manner you could almost hear that “screen door slam,” and Mary was more like a tragic Eugene O’Neill character than the heroine of a rock saga. The song is cinematically intense either way but 40 years later I still pine for the original Jersey Shore Mary “whose dress sways as she dances across the porch.”
Born To Run was a wildly anticipated album, as much because Clive Davis, President of Columbia Records, had promised to “break” it. So imagine my delight as I passed the Bottom Line on 4th Street to discover that tickets had just gone on sale for a ten-show album release run. To top it all I had a pocketful of money – a rare enough occurrence in those East Village days.
Throwing rent and caution to the wind I purchased three tickets for three nights and so Pierce Turner, Jacques Delorme (a French poet) and I attended three of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll shows.
Not only that but we lined up outside The Bottom Line with quarts of beer in the early afternoons so as to snag front table seats. In my delirium I even grabbed Bruce by the foot as he leaped from atop the grand piano, earning myself a smiling lecture from saxman, Clarence Clemons.
In those sweaty, adrenaline nights Bruce Springsteen made the transition from street poet to superstar, and he did so without sacrificing any of his principles or street smarts. What set him apart?
Well, he had an encyclopedic knowledge of Rock and Soul music. I still hear traces of so many influences from James Brown to Eddie Cochran, Phil Spector to Woody Guthrie. But more than anything he possessed Eugene O’Neill’s ineffable “touch of the poet” – and he’s never lost it.
Born to Run coalesced all that was great in Rock ‘n’ Roll up to that moment. Just in time too, for Punk was about to explode in CBGB’s, a couple of blocks over on The Bowery.
How thrilling that Bruce is still making a principled, ecstatic difference 40 years later!