Born to Run will surely go down as one of the most historic albums of all-time. It has the classic radio tunes (Thunder Road, Born to Run), the iconic cover photo, and it was the album that turned Bruce Springsteen into a legitimate superstar and music powerhouse. But above all, it was the ultimate example of the American Dream coming true.
Born to Run was Springsteen’s third album. Before this seminal album, Springsteen was struggling with a reputation of being nothing more than a Bob Dylan clone. In a 1975 Rolling Stone article, author Greil Marcus says, “Certainly, I couldn’t find the reasons [to go to a live show based] on Springsteen’s first two albums, despite Columbia’s ‘New Dylan’ promotional campaign…both seemed at once flat and more than a little hysterical, full of sound and fury, and signifying, if not nothing, not much.”
Now, I don’t agree with Marcus (in fact, Greetings from Ashbury Park is one of my favorite Springsteen albums), but this was the general attitude towards Springsteen at the time. Bruce was considered a working class musician. He delivered solid (but not spectacular) tunes and gave great, energetic live shows. The only thing that special about him was that audiences would get their money’s worth. Springsteen says, “I wanted to be something you could depend upon, as best as I could. I was gonna have my screw-ups and make my mistakes and I was probably gonna do things you didn’t want me to do, but fundamentally I was gonna be at least out there searching for that road.”
At the time, Springsteen was happy to be able to make a living doing what he loved. He was like us all; he was plugging along doing the best that he could. Around his New Jersey neighborhoods, he was a success, too. He was a man of music, pulling his own weight. He was the guy that lived down the street that had the balls to do it his way and the will to make it work. Springsteen says, “Michael Appel [our first manager] said, ‘We didn’t do very well, we sold about 20,000 records.’ I said, ‘20,000 records! That’s fabulous! I don’t know 20,000 people. Who would buy a record by someone they have no idea about?’”
But just because Springsteen was happy, it didn’t mean that he was satisfied. In fact, he was far from it. He had dreams of going to the top, believing in his work ethic and talent. He didn’t see limitations. “We were pretty good. As we travelled around I said, ‘Yeah, we’re not only pretty good, we’re better than a lot of these other guys I’m seeing’, and I’d put the radio on and I’d say, ‘And I’m as good as a lot of these guys that are on the radio, too, so why shouldn’t I be on the radio?”
But he knew that taking it to the next level would require even more work and dedication. He needed to move like a freight train towards this singular goal. Of course, this would not be an easy thing to do without selling out and forgetting about the people and the places that he came from. Heading into the studio to record his third album, Bruce navigated this difficult road of ambition and humility, saying, “You just want to be in the band and be a part of that thing moving along, but then somewhere along the way that becomes intertwined with, of course, raving ambition, and you’re trying to make the best, greatest rock record that could ever be made. You’re trying to be the best and your ego pushes you, which is okay, that’s how things roll. I think as long as all those things are managed in a fashion that allows you to survive and continue, and keeps you on a reasonable path, it’s fine.”
As he and his band plugged along, they strived to push their limits and do something more with their album (for example, implementing the wall of sound technique), while staying true to their working class roots. This, of course, resulted in an explosion of popularity upon the record’s release. It was the working man’s album, but sophisticated and smooth and refined. It was one of the greatest of all-time. It rose to number 3 on the Billboard charts and turned Bruce into the biggest thing in America. But even better, it was proof that the American Dream was real. It was proof that if a person works hard and stays true to himself, he has a chance to do something great with his life. The only question being: will you keep believing and working hard through it all?
After Born to Run broke through, it would be safe to assume that Springsteen sold out and forgot about his roots, right? Not exactly. For 35 years, he has remained exactly the same, showing a mixture of humility and confidence. Of course, he does have one vice. To celebrate the album’s success, Bruce went out and bought himself a 1960 Chevrolet Corvette. I can’t say that I blame him. Long live the BOSS.