Born to Run (2016)

BOOK TWO

BORN TO RUN

THIRTY-ONE

THUNDER ROAD

As our evening session at 914 ground to a stop, Jon leaned over and whispered, “You’re a first-class artist, you should be in a first-class recording studio.” That made sense to me. My friendship with Jon had grown slow and steady, so I’d decided to invite him to the studio to observe and perhaps bring some insight into the problems we were having. Back in New York, we went out for a late-night bite. As we sat side by side on two stools at the counter of a small diner, Jon offered, “If you need me to do something, I’d be glad to do it.” He seemed to have a clear idea of the steps that needed to be taken to get us out of our midflight stall. I thought about it. I’m insular by nature and I don’t let new people in casually. I decided it was necessary and he was the right man. I liked and trusted Jon; our working relationship grew out of our musical friendship. He was not a cold professional but a friend who perhaps had the expertise to help me make a great record. That’s what I was here for.

I talked to Mike. I explained this had to happen. He was unsure, but if I felt that strongly about it, he’d agree. A short while later we entered the legendary Record Plant studios on West Forty-Fourth Street in Manhattan. On our first evening there a skinny Italian kid was operating the tape machine. His job was to change the tape reels and turn the player off and on upon the engineer’s command. He was a classic New York character, quirky, funny, with attitude to spare. When I came in the next night, he was sitting at the center of the long recording board, replacing Louis Lahav. Jon felt we needed a new engineer and he and Mike decided to take action. I asked Jon if he thought this kid could pull it off. He said, “I think he can.” So Jimmy Iovine, brilliant impostor, young studio dog with the fastest learning curve I’ve ever seen (and soon to be one of the world’s biggest music moguls and star of American Idol?!), became the engineer on the most important record of my life.

Jon had been to rehearsals in New Jersey and together we’d begun to edit some of our long, winding arrangements. We’d grown out of them. He’d helped me compress the song lengths for maximum impact. He told me longer was not always better; neither necessarily was shorter, but I’d caught the bug and Jon had to stop me before I took an ax to the classic intro and outro of “Backstreets.” Jon’s opinions were always very measured. What would give us the biggest bang for our buck? The arrangements began to take shape and when we went into the Record Plant to record, suddenly, music got recorded.

I’d loosely imagined the Born to Run album as a series of vignettes taking place during one long summer day and night. It opens with the early-morning harmonica of “Thunder Road.” You are introduced to the album’s central characters and its main proposition: do you want to take a chance? “The screen door slams, Mary’s dress sways”—that’s a good opening line, you can take it anywhere. “We’re pulling out of here to win.” That’s about as good a closer as you’re going to get. It lays out the stakes you’re playing for and sets a high bar for the action to come. Then, you’re introduced to the soaring, highway-blown-open sound of Clarence’s saxophone outro. Ladies and gentlemen, meet the Big Man. “Thunder Road” is followed by “Tenth Avenue Freeze Out,” the story of a rock ’n’ soul band and our full-on block party. It’s Steve Van Zandt’s only Born to Run appearance, where he spontaneously arranged, badgered and befuddled the jazz players of a prize New York City horn section, amongst whom were the Brecker Brothers and David Sanborn (all of whom must’ve been thinking, “Who is this crazy fucker in the wife-beater tee and straw fedora?”), into honking out some primitive boardwalk soul. Pedal to the metal, we steam into “Night,” followed by the stately piano, organ and broken friendships of “Backstreets”: “We swore forever friends . . .”

Side two opens with the wide-screen rumble of “Born to Run,” sequenced dead in the middle of the record, anchoring all that comes before and after. Then the Bo Diddley beat of “She’s the One” (written just so I could hear C blow that sax solo over the top of it) and we cut to the trumpet of Michael Brecker as dusk falls and we head through the tunnel for “Meeting Across the River.” From there it’s all night, the city and the spiritual battleground of “Jungleland” as the band works its way through musical movement after musical movement. Then, Clarence’s greatest recorded moment. That solo. One last musical ebb, and . . . “The poets down here don’t write nothing at all, they just stand back and let it all be . . . ,” the knife-in-the-back wail of my vocal outro, the last sound you hear, finishes it all in bloody operatic glory.

At record’s end, our lovers from “Thunder Road” have had their early hard-won optimism severely tested by the streets of my noir city. They’re left in fate’s hands, in a land where ambivalence reigns and tomorrow is unknown. In these songs were the beginnings of the characters whose lives I would trace in my work (along with the questions I’d be writing about—“I want to know if love is real”) for the next four decades. This was the album where I left behind my adolescent definitions of love and freedom; from here on in, it was going to be a lot more complicated. Born to Run was the dividing line.

In a three-day, seventy-two-hour sprint, working in three studios simultaneously, Clarence and I finishing the “Jungleland” sax solo, phrase by phrase, in one, while we mixed “Thunder Road” in another, singing “Backstreets” in a third as the band rehearsed in a spare room upstairs, we managed to finish the record that would put us on the map on the exact day our Born to Run tour was starting. That’s not supposed to happen. The record should be ready months before you hit the road, released at tour’s beginning, but that’s how close we cut it. In the early-morning light, after three days of no sleep, we flopped into the waiting cars that would drive us straight to Providence, Rhode Island, and the stage.

Still, I wrestled with Born to Run for a few more months, rejecting it, refusing to release it and finally throwing it in a hotel swimming pool in front of a panicked Jimmy Iovine. He’d brought the finished master out on tour but to hear it, the two of us had to go to a downtown stereo store and beg them to let us use one of their record players. I stood in the back of the store, fretting, hemming and hawing as the record played, Jimmy’s eyes plastered to every look on my face, begging, “Please just say yes and let’s be done.” Jimmy, Jon and Mike got crazy but I still just couldn’t release it. All I could hear was what I perceived as the record’s flaws. The bombastic big rock sound, the Jersey–Pavarotti–via–Roy Orbison singing, the same things that gave it its beauty, power and magic. It was a puzzle; it seemed you couldn’t have one without the other. Jon tried to patiently explain to me that “art” often works in mysterious ways. What makes something great may also be one of its weaknesses, just like in people. I let it go.