Monday, November 21, 2005

Born to Run

It's hard to believe that it was thirty years ago that Bruce Springsteen released his classic Born to Run album. Not only doesn't it feel like it's been thirty years, the album doesn't sound dated at all. But that's the mark of a classic; it doesn't get older, it just gets better.

To mark the thirtieth anniversary of the album, Sony (the current owners of Columbia, the original label) has re-released the album as part of a three-disc set. The album itself is one of the discs, a remastered CD that sounds noticeably but not significantly better than the original pressing. (It's not the most impressive remaster I've ever encountered, to be honest, but it still sounds damned good.) The other two discs are DVDs, one a particularly interesting documentary of the making of the album, the other a rare, long-thought-lost Springsteen concert from October 1975.

As good as the CD is, and as interesting as the documentary is, the real gem is the concert disc; it captures the band in their first non-U.S. appearance (at Hammersmith Odeon, in London), in what is truly a legendary performance. It's here where the E Street Band really started to gel, with Miami Steve, Max Weinberg, and Roy Bittan all just recently having joined the band. Springsteen and company felt like they had something to prove to the jaded British critics (and to live up to some of the pre-concert hype), and they did. The band starts off a little tentative, but soon enough catches fire and rips the roof off the joint. When people say a performance is legendary, this is what they mean, and we're fortunate that it was captured in its entirety. I've seen many other Springsteen concerts over the years, but this one is by far the most dynamic and moving. My previous favorite concert movie was The Band's The Last Waltz, but this one goes immediately to the front of the pack.

I'm embarrassed to say that in August of 1975, when Born to Run was first released, I was totally unaware of the album and the artist, in spite of the dual newsweekly covers. I didn't get turned on to Springsteen until the 1978 release of Darkness on the Edge of Town, and then worked backwards through the catalog. (That's right, I discovered Elvis Costello before I discovered Springsteen -- a definite chronological error.) I don't know how I avoided Born to Run back in 1975, but it wasn't just me; none of my musically-inclined friends noticed it, either. Maybe I was too much of a jazz and jazz-rock snob at the time, I don't know. But it passed right by me, and I was the less for it.

In August of 1975 I was getting ready to start my senior year in high school. I had just broken up with my girlfriend of the past year (or, more accurately, she had just broken up with me), and I was more than eager to get through my final year and get on to college. My senior year was not my best year; I was bored and missed my older friends who'd graduated the year before. Yeah, I owned the joint, but I didn't care about it anymore. The place had changed, and it just wasn't as much fun. I wanted to get out and move on.

I could have done with a little Springsteen at that point in time. I definitely would have identified with "Thunder Road" and "Born to Run" just as much, if not more so, than I did three years later. Springsteen painted such vivid pictures of loss and longing, it tore your heart out. His music on Born to Run was operatic, fusing the best of all that rock and roll had offered up to that point. When I listen to "Thunder Road" today, I still want to grab my Mary with her waving dress and race as fast as I can out of this town full of losers. "Jungleland" still stuns me with its stark tale of dime-store hope and despair -- "The poets down here don't write nothing at all, they just stand back and let it all be." Born to Run was Dylan fused with Phil Spector, with a little Roy Orbison thrown into the mix, like nothing before and nothing since.

And, as great as the album was, Springsteen's live performances were even better. Oh, what I'd give to go back and time and catch the E Street Band on that Born to Run tour. In fact, if I had a time machine, I wouldn't use it for the normal stuff, to go back and look at the dinosaurs, or see what Jesus was really like, or to try and stop JFK's assassination. No, I'd use my time machine to let me capture the legendary performances of my lifetime, and before. I'd go back to 1975 to see Springsteen and the E Street Band, and to 1964 to see the Beatles' first American tour, and to 1963 to hear Dylan at Newport, and to 1959 to catch Miles Davis at the Blue Note, and to 1956 to see a young Julie Andrews come into her own in My Fair Lady, and back even further to see Fred Astaire dancing on Broadway, and on and on and on. Some of these performances are captured on film and video, some on vinyl and CD, but it's not the same as being there. That's what I'd use my time machine for, to catch the magic.

But that's just my opinion; reasonable minds may disagree.

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