In early 1974, a 26 year old Bruce Springsteen was not yet a bona fide star. After the critical acclaim but modest commercial success of his first two albums, 1973’s Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. and The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle, Springsteen felt the pressure from the record company to prove himself profitable, injecting an urgency into the situation that he had not felt with the first two records. He immediately set to work on composing the music and lyrics for the crucial first single off the third album, with his career hinging on its success.
“I was living in a small house in West Long Branch, New Jersey, up the coast from Asbury. One day I was playing my guitar on the edge of the bed, working on some song ideas, and the words “born to run” came to me. At first I thought it was the name of a movie or something I’d seen on a car spinning around the circuit. I liked the phrase because it suggested a cinematic drama that I thought would work with the music that I’d been hearing in my head.”
The writing process for the entire third record was grueling, but Springsteen had a particularly difficult time finding precisely the right lyrics for the pivotal first single. Springsteen began writing with a more compact style that conveyed a sense of ubiquity, in opposition to the marathon songs about localized urban legendry of his first two records, in an attempt to capture a broader audience. About the process he has remarked: “The music was composed very, very meticulously. So were the lyrics. The amount of time spent honing the lyrics was enormous.”
Jon Landau, famed rock critic and eventual co-producer of the album Born to Run, was highly impressed with a Springsteen performance in the spring of 1974, prophesizing in his review: "I saw rock and roll future and its name is Bruce Springsteen." Springsteen and the E Street Band played several early variants of “Born to Run” at shows leading up to the album’s release in August of 1975, and Landau reviewed one of the very first live performances of the song. The tune was already memorable for its imagery of down on their luck lovers struggling to reconcile their reality with over-the-top dreams, but it had a much darker and more violent tone. Springsteen gained praise from the record company for a first cut of the song and was picking up momentum playing epically long sets for a growing number of fans at respectable venues on the East Coast.
Although Springsteen is known to have an intensive drafting process, few manuscripts of “Born to Run” are available, with the present example being one of only two identified that include the most famous lines in the song. This iteration expresses the darkness that the early versions are known for, but has the distinction of a nearly perfected chorus. Captured here, perhaps for the first time, is the most powerful of any Springsteen lyric:
“This town’ll rip the (out your) bones from your back / it’s a suicide trap (rap) (it’s a trap to catch the young) your dead unless / you get out (we got to) while your young so (come on! / with) take my hand cause tramps / like us baby we were born to run” (lines 9 – 13).“Born to Run” would go on to become the most important song in the impressive Springsteen canon and a staple of his historically long live performances.
The majority of the lines are apparently unpublished and unrecorded, but Springsteen reworked many of them to produce what would become the recorded version. The imagery and tone are constant from the present manuscript to the final song. Unmistakable are the mention of the Palace (line 2), reiterated as “beyond the Palace hemi-powered drones scream down the boulevard” and the words “everlasting or never ending / kiss” (lines 20 – 21) and “angels in an everlasting kiss (fix)” (line 27), retold as “I wanna die with you Wendy on the streets tonight in an everlasting kiss.” It is easy to see how other passages progressed: perhaps “they live in fury chasin the bad / kind of (fools) glory down a killers highway into / (mainlined into) the sun” (lines 7 – 8) became “the highways jammed with broken heroes on a last chance power drive,” and “I looked out cross the hood and saw / the highway buckle neath the wheels / of a (my) gold Chevy 6” (lines 14 – 16) grew into “chrome wheeled, fuel injected and stepping out over the line.” Most significantly, this manuscript exposes the lyrical developments of one of America’s favorite rock songs and epitomizes its ideology: escapism, optimism, rebellion and the promise of time. Though different, the lyrics still impress upon the listener the romantic and impassioned feeling of being "Born to Run."
Ultimately, the single took six months to finalize and clocks in at four and a half minutes long. Springsteen aimed for musical perfection and Spector-level grandeur; it paid off. “Born to Run,” the gun-the-engine single from the down on his luck singer, became a breakout smash and Springsteen’s first worldwide release. To this day it remains a beloved classic. In 2013, after nearly 40 years of performing the career defining hit, Rolling Stone ranked "Born to Run" Springsteen's #1 greatest song, and Springsteen himself as #1 on their 2013 list of the “50 Greatest Live Acts Right Now.”
The beginnings of hit anthem that catapulted The Boss to mega-stardom.
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