[SoundStage!]For a Song
Back-Issue Article

June 2006

Born to Run

In the day we sweat it out in the streets of a
   runaway American dream
At night we ride through mansions of glory in
   suicide machines
Sprung from cages out on Highway 9
Chrome wheeled, fuel injected
And steppin’ out over the line
Baby this town rips the bones from your back
It’s a death trap, it’s a suicide rap
We gotta get out while we’re young
‘Cause tramps like us, baby we were born to

Wendy, let me in, I wanna be your friend
I want to guard your dreams and visions
Just wrap your legs around these velvet rims
And strap your hands across my engines
Together we could break this trap
We’ll run till we drop, baby we’ll never go back
Will you walk with me out on the wire
‘Cause baby I’m just a scared and lonely rider
But I gotta know how it feels
I want to know if your love is wild
Girl I want to know if love is real

Beyond the Palace hemi-powered drones
   scream down the boulevard
The girls comb their hair in rear-view mirrors
And the boys try to look so hard
The amusement park rises bold and stark
Kids are huddled on the beach in a mist
I wanna die with you out on the streets tonight
In an everlasting kiss

The highways jammed with broken heroes
On a last chance power drive
Everybody’s out on the run tonight
But there’s no place left to hide
Together, Wendy, we can live with the sadness
I’ll love you with all the madness in my soul
Someday girl, I don’t know when, we’re gonna
   get to that place
Where we really want to go
And we’ll walk in the sun
But till then tramps like us
Baby we were born to run

The Boss’s Theme: "Born To Run" by Bruce Springsteen

Bruce Springsteen’s "Born To Run," the title song of the 1975 booster-rocket LP that propelled Bruce onto the covers of Time and Newsweek both in the same week and launched him toward universal designation as "the Boss," is a super-charged piece of songwriting.

Welding youthful longing, love, lust, pain, fear, cars, adventure, diversion, and ambivalence to the American dream as fantasy of a richer life, "Born To Run" blends car and landscape images and metaphors with internal drama. Some details suggest Springsteen’s hometown of Asbury Park, New Jersey, but the song’s compressed, combustible energy takes the listener everywhere the dream plays out in all of its sorrow, madness, and hope.

Welcome to my life

The opening couplet is so gripping, you almost feel dragged behind one of those "suicide machines." Sweating it out in the streets of a runaway American dream suggests "we" are working our butts off but the dream eludes us, or we lack work and bake in the summer heat doing nothing. Highway 9 is the old two-lane running north-south, parallel to the beach and the Garden State Parkway, through towns slightly inland along the Jersey shore. Thousands of people who live in those towns year-round do the hard work that provides summer sun and fun for outsiders. Highway 9 has made many livelihoods possible for generations, while also offering a way out of the hard life.

"Sprung from cages" -- jobs whose only reward, with the American dream passing us by, is leaving at the end of the day -- "we" cruise in powerful vehicles that can kill us if we aren’t careful, not only by crashing but by carrying "us" away from the only life we know -- hence in the last verse, "there’s no place left to hide" and the song’s vagueness as to any destination: "that place / Where we really want to go." This is no place in particular, just out of the "death trap" the town represents. Hence, too, "bold and stark" describing the amusement park countless thousands of outsiders visit to escape from whatever grind they might experience -- to no meaningful avail, as it, too, is mere fantasy.

As life changes from reality to fantasy when day changes to night, the cars are both real and metaphorical. They give their drivers possession of the streets, which become their "mansions of glory" in their dream of escape from sweating it out in pursuit of another dream that is all they’ve got but never materializes.

Born to run with nowhere to go except out on the streets -- same streets all the time, in dazzling "chrome-wheeled" machines with all the power but no place to take their drivers and passengers where they would belong. But the people who did not escape while young are not mere victims. Their own character imprisons them. They chose their "cages," to which they returned every day without a whip cracking behind them, partly because they lack the courage to set themselves free. The song does not explicitly blame them, but choosing the known over the unknown and habituating themselves to sweating it out every day has ripped the bones from their backs.

With the bones gone from one’s back, one is spineless -- a coward. The singer apparently wants to take courage from his lover’s agreeing to run away with him. The title and the repeated "Tramps like us baby we were born to run" gains force as it gathers ambiguity: They are born to run from the life they have seen grind down those who have gone before them, and they are born to run from their own perceived need to flee from the town.

I have a (vague) dream

The town, "a death trap" that "rips the bones from your back," is also "a suicide rap": Choosing to stay may kill you. But choosing to run is suicide, too, as there is nothing definite out there, just a dream in your head. The suicide machines can kill you by crashing or by bearing you away from all that you know. So the difference between working till death for the dream that never comes true and dying or losing everything by fleeing is that the latter is glorious in youthful eyes. Riding through mansions of glory at night means returning to cages and sweating it out the next day, but leaving will enable the riders to "walk in the sun." Hints of "riding off into the sunset" in westerns where we never know what happens next.

So, clearly, the song is not about people of Bruce’s "boomer" generation who obtained professional degrees that enable them to find work and raise a family wherever they might find their paradise, who don’t "sweat it out" but live and work in air-conditioned spaces and labor with their minds, not their bodies. It is about the countless good Americans who run the warehouses, carpet the motels, work the power stations, repair the cars. The ones for whom the dream so often is a TV-, movie-, car-fueled fantasy enabled by ideologies promoted as universal truths.

Love will keep us together

A big part of the artistry here, keeping these verses from degenerating into a complaint about how the system hurts people, is that this is a love song linking details of the singer’s romantic plea to his profound predicament concerning his background and his future.

At the end of the first verse, the singer just tells his "baby" that while they’re still young they have a chance to get out of a place where they’ll fare poorly and that they’re "born to run." The second verse begins, "Wendy let me in I wanna be your friend / I want to guard your dreams and visions." The first of those lines is a come-on that elicits, "Yeah, right." But the second part is pretty elegant! A spiritual component: He respects, even treasures, her deepest thoughts. How can that be insincere pants-undoing material? It gives the singer a sympathetic persona. We want him to fulfill his dreams and guard hers. The tragedy of the lack of a way out moves us all the more.

The sexually suggestive lines that follow link the power of physical desire to the source of their power to leave their town: the singer’s motor vehicle. He acknowledges his fear of leaving. It is like walking a tightrope, "the wire." He needs her with him to avoid falling. He needs to know if she has the courage to abandon herself to her love -- "if love is wild" -- and if her love is strong enough to enable her to go with him -- "if love is real." As in the sonnets that gave the lover’s plea new form in English centuries earlier, we don’t hear the reply because the plea is the point.

The view is hard to take

Placing the couple in the physical and social landscape -- the boulevard, amusement park, beach, the girls combing their hair "in rear-view mirrors," the boys trying to look "so hard," "kids…huddled on the beach in a mist" -- the bridge elaborates on what drives the singer to want to die with Wendy "on the streets tonight / In an everlasting kiss."

Ingenious details! In combing their hair for the boys, the girls are looking backward -- "in rear-view mirrors" -- in that they are repeating their mothers’ mistakes that caught them in this "death trap." The boys who "try to look so hard" are looking tough by hiding their feelings (which probably resemble the singer’s) and preparing to be trapped like their fathers: girl pregnant, married without time to think (Springsteen’s "The River" focuses on that detail beautifully). The singer, in contrast, wants to take part in a relationship with a woman built on love so genuine and deep that it will save both of them rather than condemn them to repeat their parents’ and grandparents’ lives.

But there is no concrete alternative landscape in the lovers’ future. "Someday girl, I don’t know when, we’re gonna get to that place / Where we really want to go" suggests the moment of death, except we don’t usually think it is where we really want to go. But in this song, it is implied just in leaving town. These "tramps" who are "born to run" are in a sense contemplating a suicide pact: If we can’t achieve our share of the American dream, we’ll martyr ourselves to our dream of escape. "And we’ll walk in the sun" suddenly sounds less like riding off into the sunset and more like Icarus flying too close to that giant star.

In the original LP recording, the guitar riff in the introduction and after every verse recalls big-sky Western-movie-soundtrack motifs. The Wild West theme promotes the American dream at its most alluring and most destructive: spreading out across the land, conquering, putting to use all that is not human or of the enfranchised group pursuing the dream. "Born To Run" partly reflects that legacy and partly a latter-day social consciousness born of ubiquitous knowledge of how the other half lives. He wishes for something hard to define, while also realizing the danger of getting what he wishes for. Through Springsteen’s powerful writing, we can empathize with those around us and see them, in the over-used words of Kahlil Gibran, as "life’s longing for itself."

It is no wonder the working-class contingent of Springsteen’s audience accepts him as "the Boss": They appreciate that he would free them if he could, not cage them as their real-life bosses do.

...David J. Cantor

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