When my wife and I lived in New York City, the church we went to in Greenwich Village was just a short walk from the Hudson River. After church when the weather was nice, we would take a walk down to a pier there and just stare out at the water for several minutes. As I gazed across the river, I saw Jersey City, thinking it was actually pretty amazing that just a quick ferry ride away was a different state. I grew up in the Pioneer Valley of Massachusetts, where Connecticut was about 45 minutes south. When I was a kid, 45 minutes seemed like a long time to be sitting in a car. Every other state border was characterized as “there be dragons.”
New Jersey is so close to New York City that some people characterize it as “pretty much New York.” I know New Yorkers (like Ted Mosby) get really offended at that, and with good reason. Jersey residents ought to get even more miffed by it. I can think of few things more degrading than having your identity be defined by your proximity to something else. Still, some of the Jersey shore exists in the shadow of Manhattan. Heck, there’s even a subway (the PATH) that goes from certain places in Manhattan to several Jersey destinations, and it’s cheaper than the MTA! It cost less money to cross a state border than to go from West 4th to Rockefeller Center; go figure.
Bruce Springsteen is New Jersey through and through. His song “Meeting Across the River” tells a tale of a Jersey boy going through the Lincoln Tunnel to meet a guy in Manhattan about a drug deal. Mind you, drugs are never mentioned explicitly in the song, and that’s because it’s not about drugs – as is the common theme for the entire Born to Run album, “Meeting Across the River” is about freedom. This time, it’s money that gets you that freedom. The main character wants to score $2,000 and throw it on the bed for his fractious wife to see; maybe then she’ll see he “wasn’t just talkin’.” So money can buy more than just freedom, according to the hopes of the narrator: it can buy respect, too.
It’s worth noting, too, that no mention is made in “Meeting Across the River” of what happens when the drug deal goes down. It’s all before that happens, all optimism and “this is our big chance.” But Bruce definitely isn’t averse to grim reality, even though he dodges it in “Meeting Across the River.” “Backstreets” talk about homelessness and hopelessness, and “Jungleland” is an epic story about gang wars. They both feature sky-high anthemic melodies, instruments right up in the front of the mix, and Bruce singing like his life is on the line. He plays “Jungleland” like he believes the world will end when it’s over. He pours every ounce of energy, emotion and pathos he has into it, and it’s simply amazing he has anything left.
Until the emergence of CDs as the medium-of-choice, albums needed division in order to function properly. In both LPs and cassettes, there was “side A” and “side B” in order to accommodate the flipping of the vinyl or tape. You didn’t have to do that with CDs, though; they just played until the end. You had options, too. Never before could you skip to a certain song by pressing a button a bunch of times. You could also make the songs play in a random order, also at the touch of a button, or program them to play in whatever order you wanted. You could even make the album repeat endlessly. Now we have MP3s and iTunes and we just take those features for granted, but back then it was like we were all astronauts rocketing off into the future.
When division was necessary, though, artists always needed to make sure the music on side A was generally equal in length to that on side B. Some artists took it a step further and used vinyl flips to make artistic statements.
Bruce Springsteen was great at this. Born to Run is structured with this division in mind, both sides existing in a double continuum. They each start off with bright and optimistic tunes (“Thunder Road” and “Born to Run”), being symbolic of morning and new hope. The afternoon comes (“Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” and “She’s the One”), the troubles of the day increase, but you’re still going strong. Then the sun goes down (“Night” and “Meeting Across the River”) and another world emerges, and finally there’s midnight (“Backstreets” and “Jungleland”) that brings pessimism and a dark downward spiral. But new hope emerges with the next side, and also when you start the album over again.
After the tepid success of his first two albums, Bruce was pinning all his hopes on Born to Run. He has said he wanted it to “explode into people’s homes.” He wanted to take over the music world with this album, but he didn’t have dollar signs in his eyes. He wanted to change lives. That initial desire wasn’t fulfilled – there was no explosion – but something much better came later. Now, Born to Run is one of the most respected albums of all time. It’s pointed to by magazines and music critics as one example of how an album should be done. It’s also one of the best loved pieces of music in the last 50 years.
Born to Run may not have exploded into our homes, but it did seep in through the roof, coat the walls, stain the wood and get in the upholstery of our furniture. It’s in our speakers, in our hearts, and always will be.
Next: Pink Floyd wondering aloud “How did we get to this crazy place?”