Bruce Springsteen’s handwritten working manuscript for “Born To Run” is not the only highlight by the music legend in Sotheby’s Fine Book and Manuscripts online sale (18–28 June). Springsteen fans can also own the manuscripts for the hit song “Thunder Road” and the title track from the artist’s fourth studio album, Darkness on the Edge of Town. Below, discover how these songs provide insight into a formative time in Springsteen’s career, one that helped to cement “The Boss” as one of the greatest rock stars of all time.
BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN'S HANDWRITTEN LYRICS TO 'BORN TO RUN' (1974).
ESTIMATE $200,000–300,000. TO BE OFFERED IN FINE BOOKS AND MANUSCRIPTS INCLUDING AMERICANA (18–28 JUNE, ONLINE).
While engaged in the arduous process of writing the album’s eponymous track, “Born to Run,” Bruce Springsteen was concurrently attempting to flesh out the rest of his third album. The album’s opener, “Thunder Road,” would occupy a crucial introductory role and establish many of the albums central themes – Springsteen said, “I’d loosely imagined the Born to Run album as a series of vignettes taking place during one long summer day and night. It opens with the early-morning harmonica of ‘Thunder Road.’ You are introduced to the album’s central characters and its main proposition: do you want to take a chance?”
Like “Born to Run,” Springsteen wrote "Thunder Road" on the piano in his living room in Long Branch, New Jersey. The inspiration for the song's recorded title comes from the 1958 crime drama starring Robert Mitchum, Thunder Road, which caught Springsteen’s eye when he saw a poster in a local movie theater. The manuscript being offered for sale represents a later, nearly perfected first verse (lacking only the last two lines), with a number of superscript annotations, which provide further insight into Springsteen’s inspiration and process.
On the heels of Springsteen’s breakthrough with “Born to Run” and “Thunder Road,” the singer underwent a management change, which resulted in a three-year gap between Born to Run and his fourth studio album, Darkness on the Edge of Town. Where Born to Run presented a sweeping cinematic vision of Springsteen’s uniquely American mythology, Darkness would present a smaller, more intimate vision – a markedly more mature album, but one that didn’t sacrifice any of rock & roll's adolescent energy. The carefree escapism of his previous work became tinged with sadness and desperation, perhaps a result of the pressures of the preceding years. Like much of his work, both albums are characterized by a sense of yearning. “I wanted [my characters] to feel older, weathered, wiser but not beaten.”
Working alongside album producer and manager Jon Landau, Springsteen honed a sound that fused the clarity of west coast record making with the density of English production – a more sparse method of production. Instead of looking to Orbison and Dylan, he found inspiration in the lyrical themes of Hank Williams and Woody Guthrie. The songs were guitar driven and recorded by the full band at once (the E Street Band in peak form), often shortly after Springsteen had written them. By this time, Springsteen had noticeably perfected the dense and compact style he began to strive for in Born to Run.
This manuscript represents an almost perfected complete draft of the album’s eponymous closing song, “Darkness on the Edge of Town,” with multiple emendations and alternate lines. Written about six months after Born To Run was finished, “Darkness” is marked by a sense of disappointment and resignation, which is heightened by the intensity of Springsteen’s vocals. Springsteen presents a dark but resilient vision of working-class life in the midst of a personally and politically turbulent time. As he reflects in his autobiography: “I’d escaped the shackles of birth, personal history, and finally, place, but something wasn’t right. Rather than exhilaration, I felt unease...I began to ask myself some new questions. I felt accountable to the people I’d grown up alongside of and I needed to address that feeling."
The three Springsteen songs on offer in Fine Books and Manuscripts Online sale are not only three of the artist’s most enduring – in 2014 Rolling Stone included all three in the top 8 listing of the “100 Greatest Bruce Springsteen Songs of All Time” – they are also illustrative of a critical time in Springsteen’s young career.
Lead Image: Bruce Springsteen poses for a portrait at home on January 14, 1977 in Holmdel, New Jersey. Photograph by David Gahr/Getty Images.