The thirtieth anniversary edition of Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run came out a few months back. For better or worse, we have all chosen to spend four years in Springsteen country, and truth be told, he’s kind of hard to avoid, as anyone who has gotten caught in traffic on Route 1 at the wrong time can attest. Born to Run is a classic album, but what makes this re-release particularly noteworthy is its inclusion of a two-hour concert DVD from a burning 1975 gig with the E Street Band in London’s Hammersmith Odeon and a 90-minute documentary on the making of the album that introduces just enough fascinating footage to compensate for its celebratory tone. For anyone who grew up listening to Springsteen’s ’80s output and dismissed him as some kind of muscle-bound testosterone-soaked jingoist, both should be required viewing.
Apart from a couple of covers which should convince anyone who believes Springsteen is a classic rock act that he actually owes much more to rhythm & blues and early rock and roll – and this shows the wild eclecticism of the E Street Band, comprised of rockers, soulmen, and jazz fusion players – the set focuses on the songs of his first three albums – 1973’s Greetings from Asbury Park, New Jersey, 1974’s The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle, and 1975’s Born to Run. For all his consequent work – his report on the dark side of Reagan’s America in Nebraska, his passionate but flawed album The Rising, in which he became the first popular artist to respond meaningfully to September 11 – he has not created anything to match the weight of his first three albums.
If The Band is rock’s best-known myth project, as capable of the stalest Americana as of genuine mysticism, Springsteen’s early work plows soil even more fertile. “This is the story of a place that never existed,” writes the journalist Daniel Wolff in his generally laudable book 4th of July in Asbury Park: A History of the Promised Land (2005). Wolff falls into the same trap that claims so many of those intent on digging out a place for Springsteen in the American Studies curriculum: his analytic framework emphasizes the culture that resulted from Springsteen’s work at the expense of the one that informed it. This is a shame, because the rest of the book illustrates the pains Springsteen took to be precise in his juxtaposition of myth, history, and history-that-never-was.
I sometimes meet parents of friends who are visiting New Jersey for the first time, and the first thing they want to do is go visit Asbury Park. They are sometimes surprised to find it a ghost town now. The famed boardwalk closed down in the mid-1970s, not long after Springsteen moved out; after a long history of fierce racial tension that left an indelible mark both on the city’s social and economic life and on local politics, a large share of the tax base moved out and left the exhausted city to crumble. Springsteen’s characters manage to inhabit both this world – check out the references to the 1970 race riot in “The E Street Shuffle” – and the mythical dreamscape of the old American shore town, seemingly at the same time. It is a feat rarely accomplished in American popular music, and Springsteen is right to call it a cinematic vision: check out the background shots in the documentary, which bounce from the ’70s to the ’40s and ’50s and back again.
At the heart of Springsteen’s songs lies a great and wonderful American myth. You find it in the period postcard that adorns Greetings from Asbury Park, in the tilt-a-whirl and the switchblade lovers; in the joint under the boardwalk. You find it when the cops finally bust Madame Marie for telling fortunes better than they do, and when you’re left stranded on the 4th of July: the American tradition of the boardwalk dream and all the faces, famous and anonymous, that come and go: the city’s Methodist founders (Asbury was founded as a religious resort town), ragtime musicians, Stephen Crane, the Ku Klux Klan, summer tourists and black migrants who came to fill the resort jobs and found a vibrant spirit of democracy mixed with Northern racism and political corruption, all, like Springsteen’s characters, staking some sort of claim about America.
It’s always summer in Springsteen’s Asbury Park, but it’s also usually the end of summer – a time when hope, desperation, and a longing for redemption, “a chance to make it good somehow,” are not just hard to distinguish, but might very well be the same thing. By the mid-1970s, things had gotten out of control in Asbury Park. “Summer’s long,” one of Springsteen’s characters said, “but I guess it ain’t very sweet around here anymore.” By the end of the London concert, Springsteen is ready to get out. “This boardwalk life for me is through,” he sings. “Ya know, you oughtta quit this scene too.” On Born to Run, most of Springsteen’s characters wanted nothing more than to escape the runaway American dream of race riots, corrupt politicians, overwhelmed cops, and general decline. Who could have nostalgia for a world like that?
Maybe it’s an inevitable fate in a country that has made a tradition of looking to its past for comfort – and, increasingly, for entertainment. After thirty years, Asbury is safe to touch again. The boardwalk reopened last year, and on July 4, 2004, the ageless Madame Marie Castello reopened her Temple of Knowledge and is once more offering regular weekend readings.