It seems to me that people who don’t like Springsteen never quite get over not liking Springsteen. I like a lot of different music but the one that friends bring up time and again is Springsteen. If you listened to them talking about me you’d think he was all I listened to. I don’t know what it is, perhaps they feel they’re missing something, or they’re genuinely curious but they can’t stop talking about how they just don’t “get” him. So what?
Anyway, this album was released in the UK about the same time as I was born. Therefore it didn’t have an immediate effect on me but somehow I identify with it because we came into the world together. It was the stuff from the mid-80s I first started listening to, stuff played on Radio 1 as I grew up. Probably his weakest period but enough to get me interested. And let’s be honest, I fancied him too. I had a strong working class ethos in the men I went for at that time – at one point I remember horrifying my mother by saying that I found men in donkey jackets enormously attractive. So the voice of blue collar America, in his blue jeans and stubble, was always going to do it for me.
Discovering that ‘Tougher than the Rest’ wasn’t all I wanted to listen to, I went back to find other stuff he’d done. It’s only in the last 5 years or so that I find I can really appreciate albums like Nebraska. Born to Run, on the other hand, worked immediately. I guess because on first listen it’s a bit bombastic? He was hyped, at the time, especially when he came to Britain, and it’s the first real “dad-rock” album he did, the kind of stuff he’s best known for. It’s a young man’s album too, an album full of dreams and ambitions, of getting away from small town life and making it big. The lyrics reflect that, and growing up in a small town, sitting in my room at night listening to my parents arguing, it did help to know that I wasn’t the only one.
Springsteen’s main attraction for me is his ability to tell a story. There are characters in his songs. I can see barefoot girl, the magic rat and the maximum lawmen in my mind as he sings. I sit by the side of the road and watch Frank’s taillights going over the border on ‘Highway Patrolman’, I feel Mary breathing next to me by ‘The River’. Somehow he paints pictures with the music too. The introduction to ‘Thunder Road’, with the piano and the harmonica, immediately tells me where he is. I can see the street of houses, the porch door banging, the tinny radio. His rise coincided with the real saturation of British TV with US shows, which perhaps makes our identification with the characters and places easier to imagine but it doesn’t detract from his skill in painting the pictures in the first place.
While Born to Run has ambitions, Springsteen doesn’t offer too much in the way of a focus for that ambition. The characters in the songs work hard and are knocked back by circumstance, finding themselves trapped and never realising their dreams but he never tells them what those dreams are. In one of my favourite later songs ‘This Hard Land’ the song ends with a positive call:
Hey Frank won’t you pack your bags
And meet me tonight down at Liberty Hall
Just one kiss from you my brother
And well ride until we fall
Well sleep in the fields
Well sleep by the rivers and in the morning
Well make a plan
Well if you can’t make it
Stay hard, stay hungry, stay alive
If you can
And meet me in a dream of this hard land.
For The Boss, it’s the journey that’s important. Destination unknown.