Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Tramps Like Us

Today, now tonight, is the 40th anniversary of the release of Bruce Springsteen's "coming out party," his debutante ball, aka Born To Run.

I know where I was. I was at the Philadelphia Folk Festival, a music and camping extravaganza somewhere outside of the city.  I was with a friend, now deceased.  I was already a Springsteen fan; he was not, and he would never get there.  Like everything else folk-related, by 1975, the festival was a blend of electric and acoustic, traditional amateurs jamming in the parking lots while the main acts had embraced the power of a thumping bass, an electrified violin, even a plugged-in guitar.

From the cars near our tent, we could hear the first tastes of popular tracks from the album.  "Born To Run" had been a mainstay in Philadelphia for about a year, and I had heard via cassette tape or something else.  My older brother was in college at Penn, and he had come home a year or two earlier with Springsteen's first two albums.  I was immediately hooked, especially by the second record, The Wild, The Innocent, and The E Street Shuffle.  A rocking guitar and keyboard heavy album of drawn out tales and crisp instrumentation, with sax sprinkled throughout, it was like nothing else I was listening to at that time.

But at the festival and listening with my friend, I found myself having to defend the dense, sometimes muddy, production of a record that I would later learn sought to emulate the "wall of sound" Phil Spector had made his signature.  It sounded simpler than the previous record.  The anthemic "Jungleland" was dismissed as little more than a ripoff of Elton John 's "Tiny Dancer. ". But I was already a believer, and I either tried to refute or kept my mouth shut like any good acolyte, I don't remember which.

Born To Run hit me exactly where it needed to.  As a disenfranchised college student, its themes of alienation and the desire for something better were what I was waiting to hear.  Rock music in 1975 was not really sending that message--it was focused on either the cosmic or the intensely personal--and it was Bruce who offered the way out, at least musically, for a child of the suburbs who knew some privilege but didn't know the world around him.

In a career of powerful lyrics, some of Springsteen's best gems reside on that 1975 record.  For example:

"And the poets down here don't write nothin' at all,
They just stand back and let it all be."

Lyrics like this, meaningful in a mythical Jersey shore town, now reverberate in Ferguson, MO, or anywhere else where the events of the day seem to have no connection to reality.

Springsteen does not stunt one's growth, either thematically or musically.  He has gone any number of places since that moment 40 years ago.  Still, four decades on, I tend to divide the world between those who get Springsteen and those who don't.  He remains that vital, simply because he learned with Born To Run that he could speak for others.  Beautiful and meaningful as many of the songs on his first two records are, they do not contain the universality of BTR, Darkness On The Edge Of Town, and several of the records, now CDs, since.

With Born To Run, Springsteen tried to speak for a lot more people than just kids in Jersey who didn't fit in.  In reaching for that, he couldn't have known that he would be forever drawing the line between the romantic dreamers and the rest who just couldn't hear him.  But in a world where we all look for the next Dylan, the next Stevie Ray Vaughn, the next Springsteen, no one has stepped up, at least not successfully, to take the mantle and the crown from the young man from New Jersey who turned the cars and highways and failures of one of our smallest states into a voice for America.


troutking said...

Beautiful post. And of course I agree. You are dead right that Bruce brings to rock and roll something that few others do: empathy. As you say, he can speak for others, not by telling people what to think but by giving voice to their concerns and thoughts. His scorn is always reserved those in positions of power or himself, never the average person or even a failed love. He really cares about the characters in his songs and the fans in his live audience and seems to be able, even though he's rich and a big star, to remember when he was just Bad Scooter or the Magic Rat. Sometimes you want Dylan's sneer or Lou Reed's snarl or Van's romantic soul or Neil's hippie abandon, but when it comes right down to it, Bruce's heart beats them all. For me at least. Thanks for this post!

G. B. Miller said...

For years I really did like his music. But over the past half dozen years, his hypocrisy and his extreme left of center politics have made listening to his music incredibly hard.

Right now, he reminds me of the last Sex Pistols tour that was called "The Filthy Lucre Tour".

troutking said...

Bruce's politics haven't changed, the country's have. There's nothing extreme about opposing unjust wars and obscene redistributions of wealth to the super rich. Bruce has always stood for the decency and pride of the American working class family and for equality of opportunity. As for hypocrisy charges, he's among the few who has never sold his art for commerce and he's known to be very generous to his band members and to charities and benefit causes, both publically and anonymously. Finally, among rock stars he's the most accessible to his fans, in concert and riding around the streets of NJ. Bruce is still writing classic songs--sorry that you can't enjoy them.