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Hot Rod Rumble In The Promised Land

By Lester Bangs
CREEM Magazine
November 1975

And in his excited way of speaking I heard again the voices of old companions and brothers under the bridge, among the motorcycles, along the wash-lined neighborhood and drowsy doorsteps of afternoon where boys played guitars while their older brothers worked in the mills. All my other current friends were "intellectuals"...But Dean's intelligence was every bit as formal and shining and complete...And his "criminality" was not something that sulked and sneered; it was a wild yea-saying overburst of American joy...long prophesied, long a-coming (he only stole cars for joy rides).

Jack Kerouac, of Neal Cassady

Bruce Springsteen reaches his stride at a time when the listening audience is not only desperate for a new idol but unprecedentedly suspicious of all pretenders to the throne. We have no idea what the Next Big Thing will be, but we're pretty certain what it isn't--and one thing it certainly isn't is Another Bob Dylan. So here's this kid Springsteen, coming on like a customized wordslinger in a black leather jacket, his mother's own favorite Francois Villon. And as if we weren't suspicious enough already of all run-on rhapsodic juvenile delinquents, we have another cabal of rock critics (including one who later went on to become his producer) making extravagant claims for him, backed up by one of the biggest hypes in recent memory. Out here in the Midwest, where at this writing Springsteen has not even toured yet, you can smell the backlash crisp as burnt rubber in the air.

Springsteen can withstand the reactionaries, though, because once they hear this album even they are gonna be ready to ride out all cynicism with him. Because, street-punk image, bardic posture and all, Bruce Springsteen is an American archetype, and BORN TO RUN will probably be the finest record released this year.

Springsteen is not an innovator--his outlook is rooted in the Fifties; his music comes out of folk-rock and early rock 'n' roll, his lyrics from 1950s teenage rebellion movies and beat poetry as filtered through Sixties songs rather than read. Springsteen's gifts lie in the way he has rethought traditional sounds and stances, coming up with a synthesis fresh enough to constitute a minor renaissance. After all, what's more old-fashioned than the avant-garde?

When his first album was released, many of us dismissed it: he wrote like Bob Dylan and Van Morrison, sang like Van Morrison and Robbie Robertson, and led a band that sounded like Van Morrison's. We were too hasty, of course, but I still don't think Springsteen's true voice began to emerge until this album, and a friend's criticisms still nag: "When I listen to Bruce Springsteen, I hear a romanticization of New York. When I listen to Lou Reed, I hear New York."

Maybe so, but maybe that's precisely the point. Sprinsgteen's landscapes of urban desolation are all heightened, on fire, alive. His characters act in symbolic gestures, bigger than life. Furthermore, there's absolutely nothing in his music that's null, detached, or perverse and even his occasional world-weariness carries a redemptive sense of lost battles passionately fought. Boredom appears to be a foreign concept to him--he reminds us what it's like to love rock n roll like you just discovered it, and then sieze it and make it your own with certainty and precision.

If I seem to OD on superlatives, it's only because BORN TO RUN demands them; the music races in a flurry of Dylan and Morrison and Phil Spector and a little of both Lou Reed and Roy Orbison, luxuriating in them and an American moment caught at last, again, and bursting with pride.

If Springsteen's music is calculated, it's to extract the most emotional mileage out of relatively spare instrumentation--rich without being messy, the solos are succinct, built for speed, providing a perfect counterpoint to the headlong surge of the lyrics. Particularly intelligent use is made of keyboards and instruments like glockenspiel which contribute mightily to the Spectorish feel. And Clarence Clemons' sax solos, like Andy Mackay's in Roxy Music, demonstrate that in terms of sheer galloping exuberance, Johnny and the Hurricanes are just as valid an influence as John Coltrane.

The playing is clean but the mix is keyed to a slightly distorted throb in which Springsteen's voice is almost buried. When you do get to the words, you discover that they have been tightened up from his first two albums; no longer cramming as many syllables as possible into every line, he is sometimes almost economical, and tthe album resonates with breathtaking flashes like this:

The amusement park rises bold and stark
Kids are huddled on the beach in the mist
I wanna die with you Wendy on the streets tonight
In an everlasting kiss

It could almost be a concept album, from the opening "Thunder Road," where Springsteen grabs his girl and hits the highway in his car, "riding out tonight to case the promised land," to the melded metaphors of "Jungleland":

Kids flash guitars just like switchblades
Hustling for the record machine
The hungry and the hunted
Explode into rock and roll bands
That face of against each other out on the street
Down in Jungleland

Through all of these songs Springsteen's characters "sweat it out in the strees of a runaway American dream," skating for a longshot in automobiles and beds with the omnipresent roar of the radio driving them on to connect anew, as even in the failure of their striving they are redeemed by Springsteen's vision: "Tramps like us--baby, we were born to run."

In a time of squalor and belittled desire, Springsteen's music is majestic and passionate with no apologies. He is so romantic, in fact, that he might do well to watch himself as he comes off this crest and settles into success---his imagery is already ripe, and if he succumbs to sentiment or sheer grandiosity it could well go rotten. For now, though, we can soar with him, enjoying the heady rush of another gifted urchin cruising at the peak of his powers and feeling his oats as he gets it right, that chord, and the last word ever on a hoodlumn's nirvana.

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