I Bury The Hatchet And Listen To Born To Run: The Biggest Surprise Piano Record Of My Life (So Far.)
So here we are. I’m going to listen to Bruce Springsteen. Having since been called a martyr because I’m exploiting my musical identity to do something I hate, to write about it, I feel the need to further explain this idea.
Born To Run has been described to me as “That perfect mix of one long summer night, old time rock n roll and the next big thing, romeo & juliet and b movie fantasies.” There is more epicness in that sentence than there should be. But so says our dear locked internet friend Paul, who is a self-proclaimed Bruce enthusiast. (Which I think might be putting it lightly.)
The biggest problems I’ve always had with The Boss is his New Jersey pride. (And his voice, oh that voice. More on that throughout.) As I mentioned previously, I am the only person in the entire history of my family born in New Jersey. I am also the only one who brings it up. (Maybe because my sisters don’t have the shame on their lives of being born in Camden? Hey, at least I’m from the same state as Patti Smith.)
New Jersey doesn’t really have a lot to offer, at least I’ve never seen it that way. Yet Bruce Springsteen has been flaunting his New Jersey Pride for 40 years. It’s his main identifier. It’s the rah-rah White Jersey Pride. Which just annoys me and stands for everything I hate about New Jersey. When I picture Courtney Cox shaking her high wasted jeans in a cheesy, grainy video – I just get pissed.
But then again, our other internet friend Giovanni (whose blog you should be reading) advised me that, “The Boss’ greatness has very little to do with Jersey but Jersey has latched onto it.” Maybe it’s because New Jersey just always wished it was New York (or, for some reason, Philadelphia.)
In my room, I have this Vampire Weekend poster that I hate. I look at it every single day and think, “Wow. I really hate that poster.” I then decided that I should try to do something every day that I hate, be it listen to a song, finish a book I’m not enjoying, watch a movie that is unwatchable or stare into something on my wall, that I impulse-purchased just so I can challenge myself.
I think there’s value in doing one thing that you hate every day. (When’s the last time you listened to something you despised? And no, I will not listen to U2. I’m drawing the line there.)
So, I’m going to listen to Bruce Springsteen’s 1975 Columbia release, Born To Run.
First of all, I don’t even own this record. I don’t want to own this record, or have to explain to someone why I own it. So I’m listening to it on Spotify. My first reaction, that I announce to my roommate (who is a well wisher on this project) “Oh! Thank God! It’s only 8 tracks long.”
[The following notes were written in real time. All 39:26 of it – plus Spotify ads.]
1. Thunder Road: Wow. That opening harmonica is every reason I’ve ever needed or wanted to turn off Bruce Springsteen when he comes on the radio. This piano tracking is impressive, let me look up the personell. Roy Bittan, oh great. His nickname is The Professor. This is going well. Every lyric sounds like a cheesy line, the cheesy lines that I always assumed Springsteen songs were full of. I guess this whole record is going to be full of “WE GOTTA GET OUT OF THIS PLACE” type symbolism. I can’t wait. At least I escaped New Jersey.
I think I mentioned this before, but I can’t handle The Big Man’s saxophone in any Bruce Springsteen song (Yes, I know his nickname because I work in radio. When Clarence Clemons died I had to Google him. Because I thought a man from my office named Clarence had passed away. But then EVERYONE seemed to be talking about him.) Even though I love the sax in Billy Joel’s songs and the sax in Rolling Stones songs. The “sax rock” of Bruce gives me horrible chills.
2. Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out: Oh, good. A song I’ve heard the beginning of a hundred million times because I listened to classic rock radio in the city of Philadelphia non-stop for the first 18 years of my life. (Reader’s note: in-chair dancing may or may not be happening at this moment.) A recognizable piano solo. I don’t mind it. All piano rock is OK with me. And the orchestral horns are a hundred million times better than that skanking saxophone solo from Thunder Road. (At least I made it through Thunder Road.)
OK, here’s the thing about Bruce’s voice. It’s this weird croon, right? But sometimes his words slur together and they’re unstoppable. I can’t really understanding what he’s saying. And it makes it worse.
I will say that the best part about this song is that you can dance to it. Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out has a pop hook. Does any other song on this record have a pop-hook that is upbeat? That’s about an New Jersey custard stand? (Shout out to New Jersey custard. That shit is better than any frozen treat from anywhere else.) [Editor’s note: I mean, the rest of piece is pretty depressing when you think about it. Young, struggling love, gang violence and depressed economies isn’t exactly a happy thought.]
Oh, Spotify has ads. This is fun. (I guess we can psycho-analyze the Bruce Spotify fan. This is an ad for Autotrader.com.)
3. Night: OK, I’ve never heard this song before. I didn’t know it existed. And nothing in it strikes me as exciting. I, again, can barely understand what the hell he’s saying. Young Bruce is sexy. I will always give him that, but the way he sings isn’t a sexy croon. He just sounds like he’s wrenching his vocal chords, Chewbaca-ing the words out. At times, it sounds painful. The train-keeps-a-rollin’ drums on this track are boring and so is, “you’ve worked 9 to 5 and somehow you’ve survived through the night.”
The best part about this whole thing is how fast it seems to be happening. I can do this.
4. Backstreets: Great, a slow jam that’s 6:32 long. Piano, chord progression, progression….wow the Boss sure does have a hell of a lot of piano on this record. Where’s all this guitar god stuff? Maybe this just isn’t a guitar record? Shout out to Roy Bittan – who seems to be doing all the work. These cheesy lyrics sure aren’t winning me over. OH MY LAWD. That high-pitched “hiding on the backseats” whatever that is, screamy strain he’s doing there. Again, it sounds just as painful to project as it is to listen to. I’ve officially looked up the lyrics so I can try to digest this. And understand what he’s saying. Oh, he’s telling a story about a small blue collar town. Phew, I was worried it might be about something else.
And here it is, a guitar solo. 3:42 in to the fourth track on the record. I knew you were in there somewhere. But the piano at the end, damn that’s great. Bittan is working hard. And it shows. I never thought I’d like you, piano tracking on Born To Run but I’m enjoying spending time with you.
I wish I was counting how many times he’s repeating “hiding on the backstreets” at the end of this track. Although I’m sure its Google-able. This song is so developed. Uh huh.
Is this the American Anthem I’ve been missing out on for nearly 25 years? Oy vey.
5. Born To Run: “Uhhhhhhhhh” that opening chorus and line. Memories of “QUICK CHANGE IT” to the radio driving in the car. This song is 4:30 long, I can do it. Baby, we gotta get out while we’re young. And we did get out, we escaped America’s Armpit of crowded, over-taxed, smelly (Hello, Trenton!), traffic-y New Jersey.
Those four notes “do-done-don-donnnnn” you know the Born To Run hook? It’s unavoidable. Wait, let me look up these lyrics. Standout cheese: “Ill love you with all the madness in my soul.” What? Oh. And there’s the unforgettable, “Tramps like us/baby we were born to run.” Who the hell are all these tramps?
I have this distinct memory of when my sister was a junior or senior in college and her then-boyfriend (now husband) was in the Documentary Research class. His group spent a semester making a film about these chicken farmers who held their birds in cages. Something about inhumane treatment. We were discussing titles over lunch one day and my dad was like, “You should call it, Baby, We’re Born To Die.” He laughed. I didn’t get it. “You know, like Baby We’re Born To Run”?
Every time I hear those lyrics I think about chicken coops. Which is totally weird, but I’d rather think (and solve) the over-crowding of farmed animals than think about Bruce wishing his way out of New Jersey. You gotta give it to him though. A title track (unplanned, likely?…NOT) hit as the track 1 of side 2. Epic, Bruce. You’re a killer.
6. She’s The One: Wait, let me look up this personnel so I can figure out what instrument I’m listening to. Either way, I have no idea what he’s saying. Ah, it’s a harpischord. This is the b-side to Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out…interesting. Wikipedia says, “The topic of the song is the rock staple of an intensely attractive, but cold-hearted woman, who causes massive emotional turmoil for her lover.” I would like to be able to tell you that myself, but I can barely make out his sentences.
I am now having a hard time thinking of any other artist I listen to, like or love that is a slur-er. I love a good talk-singer, hello Lou Reed and Craig Finn, but I cannot think of another rambler like Bruce. This drawl is one of his main selling points, right? I don’t get it. And that saxophone is back. Thanks, Big Man.
Wow, another Spotify ad. Adidas Boost Sneakers. Thanks, guys.
7. Meeting Across The River: Is that a trumpet? Nice touch, big guy. Meeting Across The River: a song about getting the hell up out of New Jersey. Because if you want to make it, just spend the money getting to New York. Because no one cares about New Jersey, outside of Maxwell’s in Hoboken (I actually hear it’s really nice there. I’ve never really spent any time in North Jersey. Can you make left hand turns there?) Randy Brecker sure does have some chops. Yet again, the only work Bruce seems to be doing is scrawling out those lyrics about, yeah, I still can’t tell. Either way he wants to leave New Jersey. That seems to be our only common bond.
8. Jungleland: I knew this was going to happen at one point. The other day this song came on the radio, I immediately switched it off, even though I knew this project was looming. MORE PIANO. PIANO PIANO PIANO. Where is that hot ass guitar fondler on this record? He doesn’t seem to be doing much work (and YES I know his live shows are all hype and glory.)
“Barefoot girls sitting on the hood of a Dodge drinking warm beer in soft summer rain” THAT I heard. And hot holy shit, that sounds like QUITE the American Dream. Or the New Jersey Dream? I cannot tell. Because barefoot American women drink warm beer on top of poorly made American cars. I really cannot relate to any of this Americana Dream Bull Shit. The rah-rah Americana on this record (and in Bruce’s catalog) isn’t something I’ll ever be able to get behind. I am very happy that I’m an American, but I wouldn’t go as far to say that I’m proud of it.
Let’s get to Wikipedia. What the hell is Jungleand? “A tale of love amid gang violence,” Who knew? I couldn’t tell, he was too busy wailing and grumbling.
Ah, there’s another stand-alone line, “Kids flash guitars just like switch-blades hustling for the record machine.” AHHH, we have the guitar. This is the second guitar solo on the entire record. I am surprised how little guitar is on here, I mean it’s certainly not a primary instrument. I also get the sense that someone somewhere (maybe even someone I know, oh god) has this tattooed on their body: “Lonely-hearted lovers struggle in dark corners.” Please, please, help me.
This saxophone is killing me, Baby. We are 4:45 in to Jungleland and to my delight its a 9:36 long song. More saxophone and piano. No wonder the whole world was sad when Clemons died. (But no disrespect. RIP Big Man.) He really was holding this whole band together. At least this whole record. I cannot speak for other Bruce songs/records, but so far, he was doing all the work.
Work that also included a black man-white man friendship. At the time of his passing, I remember hearing about how Bruce stood by Clarence and included him in the band. (A black man playing the blues in a band? What?) Groundbreaking in 1975, props to The Boss breaking down racial lines. (Yes, this song is long enough for me to have an aside about race relations.)
OK, I don’t know what to do with this next part:
Beneath the city two hearts beat/Soul engines running through a night so tender in a bedroom locked/In whispers of soft refusal and then surrender in the tunnels uptown/The rats own dream guns him down as shots echo down them hallways in the night/No one watches when the ambulance pulls away/Or as the girl shuts out the bedroom light
That kind of reads like bad high school poetry. And oh boy, That croon-y groan. It’s really a moan. Actually, I’m sick of describing it.
And then the record just ends? That’s the happy ending we get? Wait. It’s NOT a happy ending. How is this beacon of American hope and glory supposed to just leave us with “And try to make an honest stand/but they wind up wounded, not even dead/Tonight in jungleland“? That’s so depressing.
OK, so I made it through this record. Let’s talk about it.
Bruce Springsteen is an American Icon. He is an icon beyond the decades. He’s a talented artist. Bruce will be selling records and concert tickets forever. People will come, Ray, people will come.
But, I do not not see him as talented. He can play guitar and write songs – two things I cannot do. But a lot of people can do that AND speak clearly into the microphone. His talent is clearly lost on me. That being said, in a more over-all question about music, popularity and fame, who is deciding? I mean, we know that numbers decide, but is it the fans or the critics? Both? ABBA and Limp Bizkit and Insane Clown Posse all have a lot of fans. And they sell a lot of records. But people are quick to judge one over another. My question is, who exactly is judging valuable talent at the end of the day? I hope to Dear-Johnny-God that it’s not Jann Wenner. But I have a feeling that it already is.
I no longer feel the need to have to defend my dis-taste for Bruce Springsteen. Hopefully I will be able to point anyone to this piece, proving to them that I have listened to an entire record (twice) to give him a chance and figure it out. My biggest fear of enjoying it did not come true (thank god.) Everything I thought about Bruce was just reinforced. Except the parts about the piano. Born To Run is a piano record whether or not it was meant to be. I would also like to point out that not one chord progression, musical arrangement or sonic detail stood out from the over-crowded blues rock on this record.
I can’t help but question if it’s too late for me to even try? Could I ever be turned around on the matter? I’m almost nearly suggesting that I listen to more of his records (and write about it, duh) to figure this out. But I’m not sure I’ll be able to hear through the smoke and mirrors surrounding The Boss.
In the end, Bruce isn’t for me. (And he will not be for my children, they’ll know better.) I don’t get it. I don’t like it. But at least I tried.