It's hard to believe now, but Bruce Springsteen almost didn't reach stardom. He had a nice local following in New Jersey and, for some reason, pockets of fans in Virginia and Texas, but in 1974, when he entered the studio to begin recording his third album, Born to Run, he was widely seen by industry types and disc jockeys as a carbonated prospect who had fizzled. His first two albums had hardly sold, despite positive reviews. He carried the burden of being labeled the next Dylan by none less than John Hammond, the executive who discovered the original. Springsteen was signed by Columbia as a solo act, but he showed up with a band. Those who saw him in small clubs loved his spirited, tireless live performances, but there were lots of riveting artists who wrote a decent song or two, drew some acclaim, and then faded away.
Springsteen knew that the stakes for the third album were high. Garry Tallent, the bassist in the E Street Band, recalls, “We were ready to be booted from the label.” Keyboardist Roy Bittan remembers that Bruce “felt everything was on the line.” Guitarist Steve Van Zandt says that if the third record “didn't make it, it seemed obvious that it was going to be the end of the record career.” To make matters more difficult, Bruce's ambition was as towering as the pressure. He would not settle. Years later, he recalled, “When I did Born to Run, I thought, ‘I'm going to make the greatest rock ’n’ roll record ever made.’ ”
It took him six months during the spring and summer of 1974 to record the title track. Van Zandt now laughs at the thought of it. “Anytime you spend six months on a song, there's something not exactly going right,” he says. “A song should take about three hours.” But Bruce was working with classic-rock motifs and images, searching for the right balance musically and lyrically. Born to Run marked a change in Springsteen's writing style. Whereas previously it seemed as if he had a rhyming dictionary open beside him, now his lyrics became simultaneously more compact and explosive. What mattered to him was to sound spontaneous, not to be spontaneous. “Spontaneity,” he said, in 1981, “is not made by fastness. Elvis, I believe, did like 30 takes of ‘Hound Dog,’ and you put that thing on,” and it just explodes.
The alternate mixes of “Born to Run” that are available reveal some of the ways in which Springsteen experimented musically. In one, a female chorus joins him in the background when he sings, “get out while we're young,” “got to know how it feels,” and “walk in the sun.” Musically, the strings at various points are more prominent than they would be in the final version. It's easy to see why Bruce rejected this mix: The chorus and strings make the song too ethereal and distance it from the driving force of the beat. In another mix, Springsteen's lead vocal is doubled, the chorus is still intact, and the strings at the end of the song are even more pronounced. Two other mixes play with the balance of strings and bass. At one point, the band experimented with different sound effects such as streetcars and drag racing.
The earliest live version of the song that is available dates from July 13, 1974, at the Bottom Line in New York, more than a year before a string of shows at the same venue that would astonish the industry. While musically the song is almost set, lyrically it is dramatically different from the final version, so much so that its meaning shifts. After “runaway American dream,” Springsteen sings, “At night we stop and tremble in the heat/ With murder in our dreams.” The song is darker. He is not singing to Wendy, whose name does not appear. The second verse opens, “So close your tired eyes little one/ And crawl within my reach. ... [W]e'll ride tonight on the beach/ Out where the surfers, sad, wet, and cold/ As they watch the skies/ There'll be a silence to match their own.”
Springsteen is working the themes of loneliness and violence to the extreme. After “boys try to look so hard,” he sings, “Like animals pacing in a dark black cage/ Senses on overload/ They're gonna end this night in a senseless fight/ And then watch the world explode.” Clearly, he is trying to stay consistent with other songs that he is considering for the album—at the same show he premiered “Jungleland.” The “broken heroes” of this early version of “Born to Run” have “a loneliness in their eyes,” and instead of loving “with all the madness in my soul,” the narrator seeks to “drive through this madness/ Oh burstin' off the radio.” Sometime between July and the end of the summer, Springsteen transformed “Born to Run.” He told one writer, “I'm still fiddling with the words for the new single, but I think it will be good.” The notes of alienation, loneliness, and violence yielded to love, companionship, and redemption.
Peter Knobler, a writer for Crawdaddy, got an early listen in Springsteen's Long Branch house. The place was cluttered with motorcycle magazines and old 45s. Over Bruce's bed was a poster of Peter Pan leading Wendy out the window. The detail is suggestive: “Wendy let me in, I wanna be your friend/ I want to guard your dreams and visions.” To Knobler, the “song sounded huge, like a Spector spectacular. I still couldn't make out many words, but through a wall or on a cassette Bruce had worked up to simulate a car radio, it sounded to me like Hit City. The end was fairly pulsating and as it faded, Bruce chimed in ‘WABC!’ [AM hit radio] and, honest to God, it sounded inevitable.”