- Springsteen, Bruce
- "Born to Run" Working Manuscript, [Long Branch, New Jersey, 1974]
- paper, ink
In early 1974, a 26 year-old Bruce Springsteen was barely getting by, living in a small house in West Long Branch, New Jersey working on his third album under the watchful eye of record executives. On the heels of the disappointing commercial performance of his first two albums, 'Greetings from Ashbury Park' (1973) and 'The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle' (1973), many in the music industry had written him off as a local phenomenon—a performer who had built a small following on the east coast, but who would never break through to the mainstream. In spite of the onerous pressures building around him, it was here that Springsteen would craft his breakthrough album, 'Born to Run'.
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. Reflecting on the record in later years, Springsteen remarked: “The music was composed very, very meticulously. So were the lyrics. The amount of time spent honing the lyrics was enormous.” In an attempt to capture a broader audience Springsteen began utilizing a more concise style that conveyed a sense of ubiquity, in opposition to the marathon songs about localized urban legendry of his first two records. Throughout this process, he sought inspiration by immersing himself in fifties and sixties rock and roll: Roy Orbison, Phil Spector, and Bob Dylan, to name a few. His aspirations were as grand as the musicians he sought inspiration from: “I wanted to craft a record that sounded like the last record on Earth, like the last record you might hear...the last one you’d ever NEED to hear. One glorious noise...then the apocalypse. From Elvis came the record’s physical thrust; Dylan, of course, threaded through the imagery and the idea of not just writing about SOMETHING but writing about EVERYTHING.” “Born to Run” began with a guitar riff, and grew into the cinematic song we know today over a tortured 6 month period of editing and reworking.
The lead single first hit the airwaves in late 1974, when Springsteen’s manager Mike Appel released a rough cut of “Born to Run” to a small selection of disc jockey’s, which precipitated a wave of interest from young listeners and larger radio stations alike. In its early limited release, “Born to Run” initially found success in working-class cities like Philadelphia and Cleveland, where demand was so great DJs played it multiple times a day. Springsteen’s lyrical description of down-on-their-luck lovers struggling to reconcile their reality with over-the-top dreams resonated with working-class Americans in the context of the mid-1970s political climate, which was characterized by a pervasive sense of dislocation in the face of multiple economic and cultural shocks, including wide-spread unemployment and sky-high inflation.
"Born to Run" was the product of a complicated time in American history — the 1970s have often been thought of as an era characterized by complacency and narcissism, but it was also one that gave rise to meaningful social, cultural, and political changes. In the midst of these sweeping cultural changes and economic stagnation, an air of uncertainty pervaded. Springsteen wasn't one to shy away from the complexities of American life: "The country no longer felt like an innocent place ... Dread — the sense that things might not work out, that the moral high ground had been swept out from underneath us ... was in the air. This was the new lay of the land, and if I was going to have to put my characters out on that highway, I was going to have to put all these things in the car with them."
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 [sic] 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 into the rock-and-roll stratosphere