Saturday, November 19, 2022

"Writing about EVERYTHING"

No one really needs to write any more words about "Born To Run." Or so I thought. I recently picked up an original pressing of the 45 (pictured spinning above).

By now, the story behind the writing and recording of "Born To Run" is as well known as the song itself. Springsteen started the song perched on his bed in a cottage he was renting at 7 1/2 West End Court in Long Brach, New Jersey, two blocks from the ocean. Here's a recent glimpse of the house via Street View; it's the little blue guy in the middle. I prefer the second, slightly shore-ward looking angle, with the slanting sun giving the impression of shining down on the cottage in benevolent inspiration:

Springsteen picks up the tale: "I was in the midst of giving myself a crash tutorial in fifties and sixties rock ’n’ roll. I had a small table holding a record player at the side of my cot, so I was just one drowsy roll away from dropping the needle onto my favorite album of the moment."
At night, I’d switch off the lights and drift away with Roy Orbison, Phil Spector or Duane Eddy lullabying me to dreamland. These records now spoke to me in a way most late-sixties and early-seventies rock music failed to. Love, work, sex and fun. The darkly romantic visions of both Spector and Orbison felt in tune with my own sense of romance, with love itself as a risky proposition. These were well-crafted, inspired recordings, powered by great songs, great voices, great arrangements and excellent musicianship. They were filled with real studio genius, breathless passion... AND...they were hits! There was little self-indulgence in them. They didn’t waste your time with sprawling guitar solos or endless monolithic drumming. There was opera and a lush grandness, but there was also restraint. This aesthetic appealed to me as I moved into the early stages of writing for “Born to Run.”

Helpfully, he parses his influences, sifting for the reader the ingredients of one the of all-time great rock and roll songs:  

From Duane Eddy came the guitar sound, “Tramps like us... ,” then “ba BA . . . BA ba,” the twanging guitar lick. From Roy Orbison came the round operatic vocal tone of a young aspirant with limited range attempting to emulate his hero. From Phil Spector came the ambition to make a world-shaking mighty noise. I wanted to craft a record that sounded like the last record on Earth, like the last record you might hear .. . the last one you'd ever NEED to hear. One glorious noise . . . then the apocalypse. From Elvis came the record's physical thrust; Dylan, of course, threaded through the imagery and the idea of not just writing about SOMETHING but writing about EVERYTHING.

Springsteen had a riff, but not much else besides a the title phrase, which haunted him like a half-recalled scene from a film. He was certain he'd seen the words somewhere."It might have been written in silver metal flake on the hood of a car cruising the Asbury circuit, or I may have seen it somewhere in one of the hot-rod B pictures I’d gorged myself on during the early sixties. Maybe it was just out there in the air, floating along on the salt water/carbon monoxide mix of Kingsley and Ocean Avenue on a 'circuit' Saturday night." He added, "Wherever it came from it held the essential ingredients of a hit record, familiarity and newness, inspiring in the listener surprise and recognition. A smash feels like it was always there and as if you’ve never heard anything like it before." 

A happy apostle to the imagery of "Chuck Berry, the Beach Boys, Hank Williams and every lost highwayman going back to the invention of the wheel," Springsteen was keen enough to know that he had "make these images matter...shape them into something fresh, something that transcended nostalgia, sentiment and familiarity." A tall order indeed. "I started out with cliché, cliché, cliché," he writes appealingly, "and then I caught a piece of myself and the moment." The rest of the lyrics arrived swiftly. The song was then laboriously created in the studio over many months. "We layered instrument upon instrument, mixing down and down, track to track, combining sections of instruments until we could fit our seventy-two tracks of rock ’n’ roll overkill on the sixteen available tracks at 914 Studios," Springsteen wrote, adding, "In those days, there were no automated or computerized mixing boards. It was all hands on deck." "Born To Run" was released in the summer of 1975 in advance of the album, and then entered the lore. 


There is no way "Born To Run" should have worked as well as it does. Springsteen juggled calculation, consciousness, and industry pressures with inspiration, love, and an insanely large confidence in his own ability to deliver. The song should've collapsed under its own weight, burdened with self-awareness and a do-or-die Recipe For Success. Cliche's could've buried the song. Somehow, Springsteen, his band, and co-producer Mike Appel pull it off, one of the great, and thrilling, magic tricks of the era. Familiarity, meet Newness.

I didn't think that I could possibly hear the song again with fresh ears nearly a half century after its release, but I was surprised by the mastering on this 45. I revisit all of this now—the overly-familiar origin story, the epic production battles, this defining moment for Springsteen—only because I heard something different this time around and wanted to brush up on the song's genesis. On the single the low end rumbles more powerfully, especially Boom Carter's bass drum and Garry Tallent's bass, the singer's, and the song's, heartbeat beating louder. And Springsteen's vocal sounds as if it's been brought up in the mix slightly, and feels warmer, more intimate, as a consequence. The high end percussion sounds a bit muted, the consciously theatrical details (the glockenspiel, the tambourines, the string section) fading a bit into the sonic background, all of which makes the song feel realer to me, less contrived. I think it's that the mid-range feels more present in this version, like the weather. I'm not a Springsteen authority, and I don't know whether this 45 version was in fact mastered or subtly mixed differently from what ended up on side two of the album, or maybe it was alchemy at the pressing plant. (Hey, good name for a song.) Maybe you can hear some of this in the vinyl rip I made and posted below, or maybe I'm the only one hearing because what I'm hearing in my head is the song as a single, the way it was meant to be heard, and what Springsteen envisioned as he wrote it, joining the tradition of the world-shaking 45s he grew up with, roaring out of a transistor radio by the pool, or in a car, or from a basement or bedroom stereo. Its finite edges—seven inches across, no song before or after it—isolate the song in time and space, somehow making all the song's truths feel infinite.

But I don't think it's only in my head. It's in the cherished grooves. This has replaced the album track as my go to "Born To Run." Turn it up.


cathye said...

yeah! thank you for this. sigh.

John said...

My favorite 10 minutes of Bossness contained on two sides of a 7" single.