Tramps Like Us
The birth of Born To Run.
By early 1975, any attempts to shorten or change the song would have been too late, because it had already become something of a hit. Mike Appel, Springsteen's manager, was eager to get the single airtime on the radio. It had been a year since the previous album, The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle. On Nov. 3, 1974, Springsteen appeared with DJ Ed Sciaky on WMMR in Philadelphia. Sciaky was an early and boisterous supporter. He had a surprise for listeners that day: the radio premiere of "Born To Run."
Within weeks, Appel also sent tapes to Scott Muni at WNEW in New York, Maxanne Sartori at WBCN in Boston, and Kid Leo (Lawrence Travagliante) at WMMS in Cleveland. To Leo: " 'Born To Run' was the essence of everything I loved about rock 'n' roll. Bruce held on to the innocence and the romance. At the same time, the music communicates frustration and a constant longing to escape." Leo played the song every Friday afternoon at 5:55; one fan remembers it as the start to the weekend happy hour. Nearly two dozen more stations had it by the new year. All this exposure, with no record in sight, made the record company nervous. When listeners heard something they liked, they usually wanted to buy it right away. But in this case, hearing the song on the radio helped build anticipation for the album.
That Bruce and the band had "Born To Run" down is evident from a show at the Main Point in Bryn Mawr on Feb. 5, 1975. Whereas the premiere performance of "Thunder Road" and performances of other songs that would appear on Born To Run later in the year only partially resembled the final recorded versions, the band rocked "Born To Run" as if they had been playing it for years. Bruce had a lot of work ahead of him in the studio, but "Born To Run" was done.
The rest of the album proved just as challenging. "We were recording epics at the time," recalls Bittan, who along with Max Weinberg joined the band after "Born To Run" was recorded. "I mean 'Jungleland' and 'Backstreets' are not easy songs to record," Bittan maintains. "It's like trying to drive a Grand Prix course: Every time you go around one turn, there's another."
Bruce kept struggling to get on tape the sound he had in his head, and at times it seemed like he was ready to give up. Long nights at the studio ended in misery, the atmosphere tense and rancorous. To stay awake, engineer Jimmy Iovine would take a piece of gum, throw it away, and chew on the aluminum wrapping. In the end, Springsteen was miserable: "After it was finished? I hated it! I couldn't stand to listen to it. I thought it was the worst piece of garbage I'd ever heard."
He almost didn't release it. But Jon Landau, who had stepped in as a producer, helped persuade him to let go. According to writer Dave Marsh, Landau called Springsteen and said, "Look, you're not supposed to like it. You think Chuck Berry sits around listening to 'Maybelline'? And when he does hear it, don't you think he wishes a few things could be [changed]? Now c'mon, it's time to put the record out." The album appeared in 1975, and it launched Springsteen toward mega-stardom, getting him on the covers of Time and Newsweek simultaneously. Reviewing the album in RollingStone, Greil Marcus proclaimed, "It is a magnificent album that pays off on every bet ever placed on him—a '57 Chevy running on melted down Crystals records that shuts down every claim that has been made. And it should crack his future wide open."
Born To Run, song and album, fulfilled its destiny. By fusing the pop sounds of the 1950s and 1960s to the generational desires of the 1970s, it defined its time and transcended it. Even Springsteen eventually came around to appreciate what he had accomplished. In 2005, on the 30th anniversary of the album's release, he admitted that "[i]t's embarrassing to want so much, and to expect so much from music, except sometimes it happens—the Sun Sessions, Highway 61, Sgt. Peppers, the Band, Robert Johnson, Exile on Main Street, Born To Run—whoops, I meant to leave that one out."
Louis P. Masur, a Professor of American Studies and History at Rutgers University, is the author of Lincoln’s Hundred Days: The Emancipation Proclamation and the War for the Union, and is guest curator of “Promise of Freedom” at the Fairfield Museum and History Center.
Photograph of Bruce Springsteen by Dave Hogan/Getty Images.