In celebration of Bruce Springsteen being born 67 years ago today, we revisit Dan Caffrey’s ranking of The Boss’ classic album Born to Run.
Ranking the Album is a feature in which we take an iconic or beloved record and dare to play favorites. It’s a testament to the fact that classic album or not, there are still some tracks we root for more than others to pop up in our shuffles. Today, in honor of the 40th anniversary of Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run, we rank the iconic LP from best to greatest.
Born to Run turns 40 today. If you’re interested in the arduous making of the album — a sort of last-ditch effort for Bruce Springsteen to reach the superstar status he craved (working-class roots be damned) — or how it represented the decline of the American dream, there’s no shortage of great retrospectives out there from many other reputable publications. While these chronicles are more than worthy in their own right, I’m also not interested in how many guitar overdubs were recorded for the title track, or regurgitating the “lyrics by Dylan, sung by Orbison, and produced by Spector” line (although I guess I just did). Both of these bits of lore — and many other stories surrounding the album — are true, but that’s just what they are this late in the game: lore. The Springsteen mythology has been endlessly picked over, reassembled, torn apart, then built up again over the years, usually into a bigger, stronger, more godlike statue.
So for this installment of Ranking the Album, I’d like to put the grown-up critic in me to sleep and let my inner nine-year-old stay up past his bedtime. That’s the age when I first heard Born to Run during a road trip or two to Cocoa Beach, Florida, on my dad’s stereo while he was lifting weights, and just playing around the house whenever my family was cleaning, eating, or doing nothing at all. I’m sure I heard it all in one sitting at some point, but when you’re a kid, you can only remember one or two songs at a time. As such, I recall Born to Run slowly revealing itself across several months. That’s how I remember it, so for all intents and purposes, that’s how it happened.
And don’t worry, I didn’t write this in the tone of a precocious elementary schooler with purposely bad grammar and the verbal cadence of a propeller beanie spinning around and round on his head. I tried instead to channel those thoughts that bloom when hearing an album you love for the first time — intangible and more akin to images and pangs and colors than a refined analytical vocabulary. Some analysis, cynicism, and hindsight still crept in there, naturally, and there are several leaps and backpedals into time (I’m a 31-year-old man these days), but for the most part, it’s hard for me to not still hear this album the way I first heard it. I know “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” has nothing to do with the show Taxi, and “She’s the One” has little association with the film Heavyweights, but, as you’ll soon read, those connections, silly as they are, will always exist for me.
So let’s do it together. Let’s take a stab at music-lover romance as we disappear down Flamingo Lane or Thunder Road or Tenth Avenue or whatever your preferred Springsteen may be. Thanks for joining me.
– Dan Caffrey
Senior Staff Writer
Max Weinberg’s driftwood-on-oil-drum snaps are always jarring after the fading boardwalk party of “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out”, and as a kid, this bothers you. As you get older, you learn that music critics call these sorts of dips “filler” and that they’re a necessary device. Every great album needs a a valley where you can come down from the mountain and take a breather. Born to Run just happens to be an album so anthemic that one of its valleys is a song like “Night” — still one of the fastest and most urgent tracks on the record.
As you get older yet again, you learn that great albums don’t actually have filler at all, and that “gems” or “deep cuts” are perhaps more accurate descriptors, even if The Boss did the guy-getting-off-work thing better on his next album, Darkness on the Edge of Town. Your mom and dad play this CD around the house, too, and even at nine, you could tell that the two works were markedly different, despite containing similar stories: Springsteen the idealist versus Springsteen the realist. And when it comes to getting-off-work songs, you’ll eventually prefer realism, especially once you start working yourself. For the record, this will always be at an office, not a factory.
7. SHE’S THE ONE
In 1995, a kids movie about a fat camp will come out. It’s called Heavyweights. You haven’t watched the film much since then because you remember it being great and are afraid you’ll feel otherwise if you revisit it. You remember there being a montage set to a song called “I Want Candy”. It sounds an awful lot like “She’s the One”, which, you’ll find out later, is because they both utilize the syncopated “Bo Diddley Beat”.
You don’t know any of this as a nine-year-old, so whenever you hear “She’s the One”, you have visions of chubby kids running around the woods, tying domineering counselors to trees, and pigging out on sweets they’ve stashed around their cabin. It doesn’t matter that the song has nothing to do with this. As an adult, you’ll tell fellow critics it’s one of your least favorite tracks on Born to Run because of its repetition (it’s the only song that feels long to you), and for the fact that Springsteen wasn’t yet old enough to accurately write about love (a stance you cribbed from both Robert Christgau and Pitchfork’s Mark Richardson).
But those are lies. The real reason “She’s the One” kind of irks you is because it reminds you of a camp counselor getting punched in the balls. That’s still pretty funny, but it breaks up Born to Run’s consistent imagery of muscle cars, motorcycles, factories, boardwalks, rumbles, and bank heists.
6. TENTH AVENUE FREEZE-OUT
This is the one your parents always sing along to, except for the one line sung-said by Clarence Clemons. “And kid you better get the picture,” he purrs soothingly and almost inaudibly. Out of all the songs on the album, it’s the one that reminds you most of the ’70s — Steven Van Zandt’s horned-out intro and bridge touched with just a sprinkling of desperation, aka a young Springsteen’s ceaseless quest to be a rock star, even if it means trudging through the snow to a gig after the band’s van breaks down.
That image of vehicular malfunction is a far cry from the other auto-related icon the intro and bridge remind you of: the theme from Taxi. This will become a less accurate comparison as you get older, but the footage of an automobile successfully making its way to and from New York becomes an apt metaphor for the career of Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band following the success of Born to Run.
5. BORN TO RUN
The glockenspiel must be an enormous medieval instrument: rows and rows of elongated bells that rise from a church floor like redwood trunks. Danny Federici runs back and forth between the cylinders with a mallet, clanging on a different one every time he needs a new note. That’s how the glockenspiel sounds on “Born to Run”.
In reality, the glockenspiel isn’t enormous at all. It pretty much looks like a xylophone, and as an adult, you wonder if there’s even a difference between the two. But none of that matters as a kid, when its metallic, chime-like tone heralds the rev of a motorcycle engine catapulting two teenagers out of their small New Jersey town. There’s just one problem: Some of Springsteen’s descriptions of his bike, which he probably considers to be more of a stallion, confuse you. For one, there’s his “velvet ribs” (he’s saying actually “velvet rims,” but as a stupid kid without a lyrics sheet, you don’t know this). “Velvet ribs” could mean The Boss is wearing a crushed velvet suit a la Austin Powers (or whatever the 1994 equivalent to Austin Powers would be) or that his actual ribs are made of actual velvet, both of which are terrifying prospects.
You also don’t understand that when he asks Wendy to strap her hands across his engines, he’s referring to his chest, not the scorching hot gears of his vehicle. So you paint this haunting illustration in your head of Springsteen sitting on his motorcycle wearing a plum-colored velvet suit while his lady wraps her triple-jointed legs around him like a spider. Meanwhile, she’s doing a painful back-bend so she can reach all the way down and clutch the exhaust pipe with both hands. It sears the flesh from her palms, but she doesn’t mind. She throws back her head and cackles, her man pulls back the throttle, and they speed off into the night and onto the pages of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, volume three.
Later on, the song will become inseparable from its ’80s music video (see above), which captured the goofy maximalism of the Born in the U.S.A. tour. That means lots of band pranks, 10-gallon hats, and a final “Thanks to all our fans!” freeze-frame that’s similar to the ending of holiday episodes on any number of TGIF sitcoms. When stacking that against the velvet-arachnid-technosex, I’m not sure which is more frightening.
This is actually the song you remember getting the least amount of play while growing up, and looking back, it’s hard to tell why. Maybe it’s because out of the four epic tracks that begin and end each of the record’s sides (the other three being “Thunder Road”, “Born to Run”, and “Jungleland”), this is the most downtrodden. “Jungleland” may finish more tragically since it goes out with an actual death, but the finale’s jacked-up romantic language and triumphant crescendo make you forget that.
It’s not until you’re out of college and get a decent set of head-cans to go with your iPod that you realize why “Backstreets” was always the Springsteen underdog in the Caffrey household: the bass. Garry Tallent’s low end toggles between a sustained pick on the harder parts and a daddy longlegs crawl on the softer ones, adding even more dynamics while still holding everything together more firmly than Weinberg’s drums or even Federici’s constant organ.
But these kinds of sonic nuances weren’t so obvious while growing up, when Born to Run blasted exclusively from tinny car speakers and one of those garish, yellow beach boomboxes that required batteries the size of shotgun shells. On a better sound system, you realize that this isn’t just one of Springsteen’s best epics; it’s one of his most subtle.
3. MEETING ACROSS THE RIVER
When your dad told you this song was about two guys planning a bank robbery (or some other unknown crime), it was hard to process. At nine, you thought rock songs were only supposed to be about … well, if not good things, then at least fun things. Not only was robbing a bank or stealing jewels or drugs or whatever not fun — it probably wasn’t going to end well for the narrator and his accomplice, Eddie. You know because the trumpet tells you so. As wept out by jazz and R&B great Randy Brecker, the horn brings to life — what else? — a noir film that ends — how else? — fucking tragically. This is a nameless rust-belt town, probably one with an old water tower silhouetting against the moon. Nothing ever ends well in towns like these.
Being the most lyrically bare song on Born to Run, “Meeting Across the River” always felt like it would make a great, if depressing, heist film. When you were 13, you pictured it starring Ben Affleck as the down-on-his-luck protagonist and Sean Penn as his hothead accomplice, never mind that the men, at 12 years apart, were from different generations of Hollywood. No matter; you were only in middle school. Here’s how it ended, from the finale of the ill-fated bank robbery to the closing credits.
(Sid starts shoving all the wads of money from the counter into the duffel bag. Eddie keeps his gun aimed at everyone in the bank.)
Stay where you are! Nobody move. Nobody FUCKING move!
(One woman keeps crying.)
(The woman keeps crying.)
I said shut the fuck up!
(He gets in her face with the gun.)
Hey, take it easy.
(The woman’s cries get louder. Eddie screams and shoots her in the head. Sid stops dead in his tracks, still clutching the money in his hand. Everything goes into slow motion. Eddie looks over at Sid. He is smiling. Sid looks horrified. We hear a loud bang. Eddie lurches, then falls out of frame. Behind him, we see a security guard standing there with a smoking gun. He looks frightened, not sure what he’s just done. He and Sid connect eyes. He aims the gun at Sid. Another bang. The security guard falls over. Sid looks over at Eddie and sees that he has opened fire on the security guard from the floor. He clutches the bullet wound in his stomach, which is pleading profusely. He tries to get up, but can’t. He reaches up to Sid for help. Sid pauses, then slowly reaches out to Eddie. Closeup on their hands grasping. Then Sid looks over at the dead woman. His hand makes a fist around Eddie’s and he pulls back. He fires two more bullets into Eddie’s chest. Eddie moans on the floor. Everything is silent. Sid looks at his gun, then back to Eddie, then back to the gun. He cries out, drops the gun on the floor, and dashes out of the bank. As the bank doors open, they flood the room with white light that blurs everything out, taking us to the next scene. CUE: “Meeting Across the River” starts playing over this next, final sequence.)
(Sid’s getaway car driving over the George Washington Bridge. It’s getting darker outside.)
(Sid inside the car. He has taken off his ski mask. Eddie’s blood is on his face. He drives, staring straight ahead.)
(The outside of the bank. Police cars and ambulances everywhere. Two paramedics wheel Eddie down the steps. Now without his ski mask, he is strapped down and handcuffed to a gurney. He has an IV. His bleeding hasn’t stopped. A detective stops the paramedics. He says something to Eddie that we can’t hear over the music. Eddie motions for him to come closer, so he does. Eddie whispers something into the detective’s ear. The detective starts directing orders to several police officers, who quickly get into their vehicles and drive away. Once again, we can’t hear any dialogue over “Meeting Across the River”.)
(Sid’s car silently pulling into his driveway.)
(The police cars driving across the George Washington Bridge.)
(Sid on his couch. The money sits in a pile on the coffee table in front of him. The television is on, but he isn’t watching. His wife enters. She picks up the money, throws it down, and screams something at him, but we can’t hear her. Sid doesn’t respond to her. He just keeps staring.)
(Sid’s wife exiting the house with the baby.)
(Sid again on the couch.)
(Sid’s wife pulling out of the driveway with their baby.)
(Sid again on the couch. He continues staring ahead. As the song nears its end, we see flashing blue and red lights from outside. They dance on the walls as Sid stares ahead. The sound of sirens rises, drowning out the song completely. We hear commotion outside, then a door opening and guns being drawn.)
POLICE OFFICER (off camera)
(Sid, still on the couch, slowly and simply turns his head towards the police officers off camera. He just looks at them. The lights continue to flash from outside.)
FADE TO BLACK.
2. THUNDER ROAD
You’re at Hardee’s and talking to your dad about this new Beck album that just came out called Odelay. “The lyrics are really good,” you tell him before reciting a couple verses from “The New Pollution”: “She’s got a paradise camouflage/ Like a whip-crack sending me shivers/ She’s the boat in a strip-mine ocean/ Riding low on the drunken rivers.”
Dad pauses for a second, his Frisco melt loosely hanging from one hand.
“But what does that even mean?” he asks. Years later, maybe you’ll be able to articulate that lyrical clarity doesn’t necessarily make for a good or bad song, but at 12, you’ve got nothing. And if you’re being honest, you probably bought Odelay because it was the cool thing to do, although it genuinely does go on to become one of your favorite albums.
“‘There were ghosts in the eyes of all the boys you sent away,'” Dad says. “‘They haunt this dusty beach road in the skeleton frames of burned out Chevrolets.’ That’s a good lyric.”
And you can’t argue with that. Despite not knowing what song it’s from, you immediately know what the singer is talking about. Even better, it reminds you of several scenes in your favorite Stephen King novel, The Stand. Dad tells you it’s from “Thunder Road”. It’s a song you’ve heard plenty of times before, but never stopped to listen to the words.
When you re-listen to it, you notice how great the lyrics truly are, but are also struck by how sleepy everything is in the beginning. It’s as if Springsteen’s harmonica is waking everybody up. The sun rises higher and higher with each note until it fully illuminates a beach road lined with telephone poles. It’s the kind of picture you’d see on a box of raisins or some other morning fruit from California. And that’s before there’s even any singing.