Born to Run (2016)
BORN TO RUN
BORN TO RUN
I wrote “Born to Run” sitting on the edge of my bed in a cottage I’d newly rented at 71/2 West End Court in West Long Branch, New Jersey. 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.” 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.
I started with the guitar riff. Get yourself a great riff and you’re on your way. Then I’d chug along chording randomly while I’d mumble, mumble, mumble . . . then, “Tramps like us, baby we were born to run . . .” That was all I had. The title “Born to Run” I was sure I’d seen somewhere before. 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. 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.
It wasn’t an easy piece to write. I started my title song that afternoon but I didn’t finish it until six months of trial and tribulation later. I wanted to use the classic rock ’n’ roll images, the road, the car, the girl . . . what else is there? It was a language enshrined by Chuck Berry, the Beach Boys, Hank Williams and every lost highwayman going back to the invention of the wheel. But to make these images matter, I would have to shape them into something fresh, something that transcended nostalgia, sentiment and familiarity.
I was a child of Vietnam-era America, of the Kennedy, King and Malcolm X assassinations. The country no longer felt like the innocent place it was said to be in the Eisenhower fifties. Political murder, economic injustice and institutionalized racism were all powerfully and brutally present. These were issues that had previously been relegated to the margins of American life. Dread—the sense that things might not work out, that the moral high ground had been swept out from underneath us, that the dream we had of ourselves had somehow been tainted and the future would forever be uninsured—was in the air. This was the new lay of the land, and if I was going to put my characters out on that highway, I was going to have to put all these things in the car with them. That’s what was due, what the times demanded.
To move forward, we’d have to willingly wear the weight of our unreconciled past. A day of personal and historical accountability had arrived.
I started out with cliché, cliché, cliché and then I caught a piece of myself and the moment. “In the day we sweat it out on the streets of a runaway American dream . . .” It’s a “death trap,” a “suicide rap.” “I want to guard your dreams and visions . . . I want to know if love is real.” This is what is at stake, your dreams, your visions. “Together, Wendy, we can live with the sadness, I’ll love you with all the madness in my soul . . . ,” because that’s what it’ll take. “Someday . . . I don’t know when, we’re gonna get to that place where we really want to go and we’ll walk in the sun . . . ,” but ’til then all we have is this road, this ever-present now that is the fire and marrow of rock ’n’ roll . . . “Tramps like us, baby we were born to run . . .”
Over months, I could feel the story I was aching to tell seep into my lyrics. Slowly, I found words I could stand to sing, always my first, last and only criteria to move ahead. Slowly . . . it felt real. Then there it was, my touchstone, my blueprint for my new record all wrapped up in a hot-rod rumble of sound and a low-budget movie setting that brought the trash and undercut the song’s pretensions perfectly.
While the lyrics were being written we struggled with the recorded sounds of the instruments, the drum sounds, the guitar sounds. 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. It would be Boom Carter’s only recorded E Street appearance on drums. He picked a good one. It would be the last recording I’d do with Davey Sancious. He’d soon be offered his own solo deal on Columbia and together they’d leave the band. Right before the gravy train! It would be the last record we’d make at 914 Studios and the only recording with just Mike and me as a production team. As we sat in the studio at eight a.m., beat from being up all night trying to get a final mix, the next session was pounding on our locked studio door. In those days, there were no automated or computerized mixing boards. It was all hands on deck. Our engineer, Louis Lahav, would have his left hand riding the guitar faders, his right riding the keyboards; Mike might ride the voice, the acoustic guitars in the final verse, while I’d be reaching over their shoulders to nudge the sax solo as it peaked and the guitar riff in the outro. One take, all the way through, no cutting, splicing or editing. As the sound of shouting and knocking on our studio door rose, we took one more pass. We had it, we thought; really, we were way too tired to tell. I brought it home and played it to wake up to every morning with the sun beaming through my bedroom window. It sounded great. I’d returned home with the exact record I’d wanted to make. That doesn’t happen often.
The record company wanted more vocal. We took it to a New York studio one evening and in a half hour realized the impossibility of our task. We would never corral that sound again; we couldn’t even come close to the musical integration, the raging wall of guitars, keys and drums. Out of deference to the bigwigs we listened to other takes from the original session. Some had more voice but they didn’t have . . . the magic. The singer was supposed to sound like he was fighting to be heard over a world that didn’t give a damn. No, there was only one that had that 747-engine-in-your-living-room rumble, the universe hanging, for one brief moment, in balance as the cosmic chord goes twang. Then the getaway. We had it. We only did it once . . . but once is all you need.
With Boom and Davey gone, we placed an ad in the Village Voice for a new drummer and pianist. We played with thirty drummers and thirty keyboard players for thirty minutes each. People came in to audition who just wanted to sit in for a while with the band. Guys brought double bass drum kits and tried to Ginger Baker their way through “Spirit in the Night.” An “avant-garde” violinist came in with fingernail-on-the-blackboard atonal voicings and tortured us for half an hour. Whether you were bad or good you got your thirty minutes and a handshake.
In the end, Max Weinberg, a South Orange New Jerseyan, took the drum seat as Roy Bittan, from Rockaway Beach, slipped in behind the keys. They were heads above all the others and would bring a new professionalism to our sound that we would carry into the studio. They were the first guys who weren’t from the neighborhood to play with the E Street Band.
With “Born to Run” blasting from FM radio stations (we’d handed it over assuming our LP would soon follow, a brilliant mistake!), we headed back into the studio. After several failed sessions at 914, we could not move the record forward. The most obvious problem was that shit just wasn’t working. The piano pedals, recording equipment and sundry other things regularly went on the fritz. We were trying to record “Jungleland”—it had been a staple of our live show for a while and the band had it cold—but with all the technical glitches, you just couldn’t build any momentum to get anything done. Something was wrong. After a stretch of bum recording dates, we sat dead in our tracks, my last-chance “masterpiece” going nowhere. We were stuck. We needed help.