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Slow down as you approach the gate, and have your change ready....
to Run: 30th Anniversary Edition
Artist: Bruce Springsteen
I had a friend who always said that in order to understand rock 'n' roll you needed to listen to it driving on a California freeway with the top down. But what do you put in the CD player? Dylan's Blood On The Tracks hardly works; in its brilliance it is melancholy and acoustic. The Beatles miss the mark as they are much too English and their best work too psychedelic. Elvis is too raw, like he was demo-ing rock 'n' roll for those who would stand on his shoulders. The Beach Boys? Maybe, but they were too surf soft and in California, a little too predictable. As I listened to the 30th anniversary release of Springsteen's Born To Run, I thought that this was it; every hire car at LAX should have it as standard as the key turns in the ignition (that is even a Born To Run type image!).
In his Storytellers DVD released just weeks before this anniversary box set Springsteen described "Thunder Road" as an invitation. Though he half embarrassingly suggests he didn't know where, he expresses the desire for living and experiencing something bigger. Born To Run ripples with that feeling of reaching beyond, stretching to the edge of human experience a lot like Jesus idea of "life and life in all its fullness" or Richard Bach's Jonathan Livingston Seagull who wanted to do so much more than eat and sleep. This album reverberates with the sound of a man in his early twenties setting out to suck the marrow out of life and seize the day.
Many of you will already have Born To Run; some on vinyl and CD and maybe even the gold version too. Fear not--you don't have to convince the spouse or feel guilty about keeping it from them. This is a splendid treat of an anniversary product; a fan's dream and well worth the money. The packaging is delightful, especially the booklet of unreleased photographs.
There are two extra DVDs, both of which are essential. Wings For Wheels is a documentary about the making of the album and is not one of those five-minute thrown-together add-ons to tempt you to waste our hard-earned cash. Thom Zimney's direction is great. There is new interviews with the E Street Band and those who left during the recording process. Bruce talks through the songs, driving round the Jersey shore and taking you to the little house up the coast from Asbury Park where he wrote the songs
There is a real sense of urgency about the creative process. A career was on the line. You get a feel for the effort, the meticulousness, the commitment--literal blood, sweat and tears. Hindsight is a great thing when you are studying classic pop records, but as you listen to the way Born To Run came together you become aware that a classic was the aim right from the off. These interviews could nearly have been done back then. They knew what they were recording. They might almost have been scripting this documentary and planning what live footage to put with it.
That extra live footage is an amazing live concert from the famous Hammersmith Odeon in 1975. That they decided back then to keep it for the 30th Anniversary Edition might explain why-oh-why-has-it-taken-30-years for it to be released. It has to be time surely to bring out the live box set on DVD that we got on CD some 20 years ago. We even get three songs from 1973 as extras on the Wings For Wheels DVD.
The Hammersmith gigs are legendary as much for the hype as to whether Britain was ready for Bruce Springsteen. I had read all about the myth around the gig but had no idea that this concert was filmed or that it was so good. It shows a young hungry Bruce, yearning for success, stretching for something more. He is a bohemian young man with beard, silly woolen hat which he caresses like a comfort blanket throughout. At a time when music was sterile and clad in eyeliner and tinsel or blanded out by banks of keyboards he is a man trying to reignite rock 'n' roll. It is looks loose and careless but is tight and precisely constructed. Thunder Road is stripped back to just Bruce and Roy Bittan's trademark piano. "Rosalita" is its usual epic self. "E Street Shuffle," when did you ever see that done live, mixes theatrical drama and mischievous humor. "Born To Run" is played like the band's life depends on it. Solo at the piano he delivers a beautifully sad and poignant For You. Then we get "Detroit Medley" and "Quarter To Three" as well. The whole thing is an insight into the rock icon before he was, still having to convince. It is fascinating and brilliant.
Having said all that, the truth is that the best part about the package is the bit that we all already have. The album itself is re-mastered to perfection. Some of clutter of the intricate layered sound used to come across a little muddy but not anymore. Everything is sharper and thus bigger and more celebratory. Springsteen himself speaks about the songs as happening in one hot summer night. The air is so clear in this mix. You can see for miles. "Tenth Avenue Freeze Out" is a point in case. Bittan's piano is crisp, the Big Man's (Clarence Clemmons) saxophone has never blown more pure which is appropriate as he joins the band in the actual lyric of the last verse and Springsteen's voice is as desperate, passionate and full of conviction as it ever would be. _Born To Run_ is a perfect cycle of an album, made by a man who had all the critics raving but never recorded anything that was getting close to fulfilling the potential or hype.
Christian author Phillip Yancey has used a verse in the Old Testament where Isaiah writes "you will fly on wings like eagles, you will run and not grow weary, you will walk and not faint." It is an interesting approach as Yancey explains that coming to faith has you flying to the moon, invincible with everything possible, then experience brings you back to earth and eventually when you experience enough suffering in your own life and in those around you and the world outside you slow down even more. Maturity is an ageing realism that sees faith entangled with the effects of a messed up earth though the hope of heaven and even a little bit of heaven and earth never gets eroded.
Springsteen's career could be seen in similar terms. As already said, the essence of "Thunder Road" and "Born To Run" is escape and hope-filled possibilities. On the "Thunder Road" "we are busting out of here to win" and the climactic confession, victory is assured. On "Born to Run" "tramps like us, baby we were born to run," has a similar sense of certainty. Not that in his flying like eagle days he had any head in the clouds to the realities of the "Backstreets," "Jungleland," or "Meetings Across The River." Yet, as has said he has spent the last thirty years wondering where to take the people running and busting out. There has been a realization that until we all win, no one wins no matter what geographical place we think is better than the one we are running from. The later acoustic version of "Born To Run" would be more like the eagle having landed and struggling still for escape but aware of all the hurdles.
Even in his own life he has flown, landed and crawled back across America from the place where dreams are supposed to be made in California to him raising a family a few miles from the Freehold hometown he was so keen to be bustin' out of. This is a documentary of a great album, a great live band and crucial human being at the heart of late twentieth and early twenty-first century rock music.
Steve Stockman is the Presbyterian
Chaplain at Queens University, Belfast, Ireland, where he lives in community
with 88 students. He has written two books Walk On; The Spiritual Journey
of U2 which he is currently updating and The Rock Cries Out; Discovering
Eternal Truth in Unlikely Music. He dabbles in poetry and songwriting and
he has a weekly radio show on BBC Radio Ulster (listen anytime of day or
night @ www.bbc.co.uk/ni/religion/rhythmandsoul). He has his own web page--Rhythms
of Redemption at http://stocki.ni.org . He also tries to spend some time
with his wife Janice and daughters Caitlin and Jasmine.