Is there a better-known Springsteen story than the one about the making of Born to Run?
The months of torturous recording sessions, Springsteen’s notorious perfectionism, the make-or-break ultimatums from Columbia Records — it’s all become so much a part of Boss lore that a new book about it hardly seems necessary. Why doesn’t anybody ever write a book about the making of Human Touch? There are probably plenty of stories there that nobody’s ever heard.
Well, all of the above can be found in Louis P. Masur’s Runaway Dream: Born to Run and Bruce Springsteen’s American Vision, but Masur’s great achievement is separating it from the legend and retelling it in a way that makes it feel fresh. That’s partially due to his extensive research, which he’s laser-focused to shed as much light as possible on Springsteen’s early history without getting bogged down in tangents or passages from more windy writers.
But that’s not to say it’s Springsteen for Dummies. Masur, a professor at Trinity College in Hartford, admits in the foreword that he’s a fan — in fact, he wants “Born to Run” played at his funeral, he says — and he approaches this work with that perspective. He respects the man’s work, he realizes the way it’s affected people’s lives, including his own, and he’s clearly fascinated with the why and how of that phenomenon.
But his academic’s eye for in-depth examination tempers any temptation he may have had to pander — in fact, this relatively slim volume may the most clear-headed look at Springsteen yet written.
Runaway Dream does well to go beyond the making of Born to Run, although its historical segments are fascinating to anyone with even a passing interest in Springsteen. Masur does a particularly good job summarizing Bruce’s childhood in Freehold, his troubled relationship with his father and the early efforts that led to being signed with Columbia and releasing his first two albums. And the accounts of the Born to Run recording sessions may be familiar, but Masur’s descriptions and the first-person sources he cites make the frustration of the experience palpable:
There is a photograph that was taken on the morning of the rehearsal. “It’s the scariest thing I’ve ever seen,” Bruce said a few months after. “You have to see the band. It should be on the cover of that album. Scariest thing ever. You ain’t never seen faces like that in your life … we were there for four days, and every single minute is on everybody’s face.”
What really makes Runaway Dream essential, though, is the song-by-song rundown of the tracks on the album, which is equal parts music criticism, philosophical analysis and historical account, with Masur detailing how Springsteen’s presentations of the songs have changed in concert over the years, and how those changes reflect on the songs’ meanings. It’s like the most extensive set of liner notes ever written, and I mean that in a good way.
The section on “The Geography of Born to Run” is slightly less successful — it’s probably the most academic of the book’s chapters, and feels like it’s stretching in its quest to explain the album’s “dialectic of freedom and fate, love and hatred.” But it has more than enough insights to keep you reading, including an absorbing account of the session that spawned the album’s cover image.
Masur traces the gestation of that iconic photo, writing: “Even before we listen to the first song, we know that this is a narrative of action: moving, going, running, hiding, riding, looking, searching, meeting, reaching.”
He also includes this little tidbit, about how Bruce discovered a real-life Thunder Road some time after he’d conceived his imaginary one, on a desert road in Nevada: “He came across a house with a picture of Geronimo with the word landlord on it and a sign that said, THIS IS THE LAND OF PEACE, LOVE, JUSTICE AND NO MERCY. It pointed down a little dirt lane that said Thunder Road.” It’s those kinds of details that propel Runaway Dream even when Masur isn’t covering especially new ground.
Most remarkable, though, is the chapter “Born to Run Thirty Years On,” where in a mere 36 pages Masur manages to train his analytical scalpel on every one of Springsteen’s releases since that breakthrough album, analyzing them on their own merits and on their relationship to BTR, which Masur still considers Springsteen’s seminal work. This chapter, taken in concert with the terrific analysis that comes before it, drives home the remarkable nature of Born to Run as a touchstone both in rock history and in Springsteen’s career, and even its role in breaking America out of its mid-’70s cultural malaise.
It also leaves you feeling that similar book-length treatment of pretty much all of Springsteen’s albums would be welcome, if Masur is the one taking us on the journey. Yes, even Human Touch. Better get busy, Professor.