Bruce, Existentially Born To Run
Bruce in his pre-ticket-price controversy days...
by David Chirko, A.B.
"Man's search for...meaning is...the...sign of being truly human." Viktor Frankl (1967, p. 72).
Bruce Springsteen, "The Boss," usually fronts his E Street Band and accomplished it all- touting some of the greatest ever selling albums, filling concert stadiums, receiving an Academy Award, winning a plethora of Grammys, and getting his portrait to grace (simultaneously) the covers of Newsweek and Time. By encapsulating the vivacity of '50's rock, combined with a '60's cerebral posture and culminating into a 70's phraseology, "...critics hailed him...the savior of rock'n'roll..." (Ruhlmann, 1997, p. 357). Note Wilson (1996), who quotes Springsteen's redeeming words (unsourced), "People deserve truth, they deserve honesty...and the best music is there to provide you something to face the world with" (p. 831). This applies to Springsteen at his finest, who, as a solo artist, was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1999, with U2's Bono delivering the poignant and mirthful induction speech (RRHOF, 1999).
Romanowski and Warren (1995) declare Springsteen to be "...a rock & roll working-class hero..." because he embraces the heart of small town America, with the perspicacity of singer-songwriter Woody Guthrie and novelist John Steinbeck (p. 940). Graff (1996) states that although Springsteen, the 1970's large stage bar-rocker, had a "...common man touch..." his lyricism is powerful and picturesque (p. 638). Moreover, Wolff (2014) documents Springsteen's ideological "folk process," by extrapolating from poets William Wordsworth's concept on the voice of the everyday citizen, and T.S. Eliot's ideas on the history of tradition. Wolff then ponders Springsteen's heritage as cultural emissary for the arts. Unsurprisingly, Springsteen was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1999 (SHOF, 1999).
Springsteen's songs that became singles could have covert meanings, like "Dancing in the Dark" (1984), which is about the stress over being challenged to pen a hit and the go-getting it entails (Shelton, 2020). Also, behold "Tunnel of Love" (1987), that presents an excursion at the Palace amusement park, in Asbury Park, New Jersey, as a metaphor for a tumultuous romantic union and its after-effects (Songfacts, 2022). His songs could also be overt, like "My Hometown" (1985; recorded 1983), which describe the vicissitudes of growing up with his father, who drives him through downtown Freehold, New Jersey, during politically and economically challenging times. Later, he and his wife contemplate fleeing that dying civilization. Ironically, Springsteen then drives his son through the same neighborhood he once lived in (SongMeanings, 2005-2017). Then there is "Streets of Philadelphia" (1994), which, as London (2020) explains, grapples with the abandonment of an AIDS victim, and Springsteen's previous loss of a comrade to that disease.
Launching Springsteen into the rock stratosphere was "Born To Run,"1 an opus with covert facets, found on and released concurrently to the album, Born To Run, a Billboard Number 3 in the U.S. (White, 1990, p. 216). Arriving August 25, 1975, the LP would be an attestation to the sonic signature of Phil Spector's2 productions, with its pertinacity, yearning and infatuation, making it "A bombastic masterpiece..." (Floyd, 1997, p. 357). With 9.1 million worldwide album sales (Kosowan, 2020), on Billboard, the 45 RPM would reach Number 23 in the U.S., Number 16 in the U.K., and Number 53 in Canada. In 2009, it made Number 3 in the annual "Top 1043 songs of All Time" on New York City's radio station Q104.3 (Story Of Song, 2022). Marsh (1989) places it Number 24 on his 1001 Greatest Singles list. He describes how Springsteen is renowned for his lyrics, but it's the music that propels "Born To Run" (like the frenetic saxophone, keyboards and glockenspiel). He declares that the work philosophically conveys a "...determined outward rebellion, a desire to move, a sense of goals and purpose that skirt the edges of the larger-than-life." This all equaled by a lugubriousness harkening a felicitous future, just because the present is so crestfallen. Alluding to the song's automotive theme, he says your auto may need tuning, and where it goes isn't where you may wish to reside, but go out anyway and rejoice in the night's offerings (p. 23).
Springsteen's compositions express the concrete experience of emerging and being--comprising "existence," or Dasein (German). This, psychologist Rollo May, Ph.D. (1958) states, means "...that I happen to exist at this...moment in time and space, and...how I am to be aware of that fact and what I shall do about it" (p. 18). Psychologists Henryk Misiak, Ph.D., and Virginia Staudt Sexton, Ph.D. (1973), aver that "...existentialism3 developed into a powerful cultural movement...felt in...all aspects of contemporary life and culture" (p. 68). This undoubtedly applies to Springsteen's music too.
The preamble to the acoustic version of "Born To Run"--performed live, April 27, 1988, at Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena--inspired me to examine the song's existential dimensions. Therein, Bruce (SpringsteenLyrics.com, 2013), explains he was 24 when he penned the song in his bedroom in Long Branch, New Jersey. Moreover, that he had been playing it for about 15 years and the penetration of time molded how he has been singing it. It reflects what he wanted in life, based on queries he asked himself; continuing to acquire answers.
He adds, the song is about a guy and gal who, romantically, are running, and "...trying to find their way home," thereby seeking "connection." Springsteen said he was doing the same, by performing his music and seeking purpose. But, he realized, with all those other folks mentioned in the song's cars, he would have to select a place for them to sojourn.
Springsteen further says, personal freedom has to possess connection to friends, community, and outside world, otherwise it becomes bereft of meaning. Therefore, as psychologist, Gary R. VandenBos, Ph.D. (2015) admonishes, what comes to fruition is an existential crisis. This is defined as that decisive point when one is confronted with securing purpose and meaning in life and is then responsible for what they choose to do (p. 394).
"my shot at the title. A...kid aimin' at the greatest rock'n roll record ever." Springsteen (1995, p. 1).
"Born To Run"
Music & lyrics: Bruce Springsteen,
Recorded: May 21, 1974 - August 6, 1974 (SecondHandSongs, 2003-2022).
Studio version, produced by Springsteen and Mike Appel.
E Street Band (instruments listed, mainly Discogs, 2022):
Ernest "Boom" Carter - drums
Clarence Clemons - tenor saxophone
Danny Federici - glockenspiel, organ
David Sancious - keyboards
Bruce Springsteen - guitars, vocals
Garry Tallent - bass guitar
(Uncredited - brass, strings, tambourines)
Live Acoustic Version
Bruce Springsteen - guitar, harmonica, vocals
Lyrics (Springsteen, 1989)
In the day we sweat it out on the streets of a runaway American dream
Elusive goals, leading one to not acquire what they strive for, as this song was Springsteen's last stab at success (Story Of Song, 2022).
At night we ride through mansions of glory in suicide machines
Courting death, in royal modes.
Sprung from cages on Highway 9
Route 9 in New Jersey, driving through Freehold (Story Of Song, 2022).
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
I wanna get out while I'm still young
'Cause tramps like us, baby, we were born to run
Springsteen's vocals bemoan existential anxiety, which is the experience of angst over human freedom to choose; subsequently, being responsible for the ensuing consequences. One's existence then becomes bereft of total meaning and purpose, considering the choices are executed without structure and rational certitude (VandenBos, 2015, p. 394).
The "tramps" are the psychological vagabonds, possessing no permanence. They must seek new horizons outside their present town of disillusioned youth, venturing "over the line"--via death-defying speeds. Psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, M.D., Ph.D. (philosophy), proclaims, "...human life can be fulfilled not only in creating and enjoying, but also in suffering!" (1980, p. 106).
Well Wendy let me in, I wanna be your friend, I wanna guard your dreams and visions
Lord (2019), explains, "...rumor has long been...Wendy was Wendy Cook, also known as Winter BelViso, his friend from childhood. She was once married to Peter McDermott, the childhood friend mentioned on the first page of his autobiography" (see Springsteen, 2016).
Just wrap your legs 'round these velvet rims, strap your hands across my engine
And together we could break this trap
Male protection, and the "trap," where Bruce and Wendy are physically and mentally in life.
We'll run 'till we drop and baby we'll never go back
Walk with me out on the wire
Girl, I'm just a scared and lonely rider
Inviting Wendy "out on the wire," reflects desperation, leading to existential dread, the situation where one feels dejected and insecure, regarding the human condition and life's meaning (VandenBos, p. 394).
But I gotta know how it feels
I want to know if love is wild, I want to know if love is real
Not cognizant of the veritableness of feeling love, the existential vacuum develops, defined as not being able to secure meaning in one's life; one then feeling alienated, empty, and directionless. This meaninglessness is symptomatic of our modern times (VandenBos, p. 395).
Beyond the Palace hemi-powered drones scream down the boulevard
But girls comb their hair in rearview mirrors, the boys try to look so hard
Indomitable racing sedans speed on, while gals primp for guys, as the latter flex their masculinity.
The amusement park rises bold and stark, kids are huddled on the beach in the mist
Well I wanna die with you Wendy on the streets tonight in an everlasting kiss
A solemn view of the sullen environs and possible aftermath, where passion meets nonexistence.
Well the highway's jammed with broken heroes on a last chance power drive
Everybody's out on the run tonight but there ain't no place left to hide
It's do or die for the "broken heroes," facing possible serious injury, in a race typifying life and gaining, perhaps, nothing. Springsteen then is immersed in a nothingness, or void, wherein one believes that nothing structures existence. Meaninglessness and nothingness of human existence triggers angst or anguish (VandenBos, pp. 717-718).
And together we could live with the sadness
I'll love you with all the madness in my soul
Someday, baby, I don't know when, we're gonna get to that place
At where we really wanna go and we'll walk in the sun
But 'till then tramps like us baby we were born to run
The choice is made in the existential crisis of life, as Bruce and Wendy run to find meaning, somehow, somewhere.
Whoa, oh, oh...
In "Born To Run," young Bruce Springsteen belts out a raw, mellifluous missive, addressing his angst, which deluges modern youth. This is all captured by escapist imagery, via the car races he impulsively takes with Wendy, the girl he is enamored with. Therein, Bruce existentially experiences his alienation, aspirations, fears, hopes, loves, and temerity. This happens that given moment in space and time--within his world--in relation to everyone he connects with. Ultimately, his reaction helps him to secure meaning and become truly human.
1. There are 65 cover versions of "Born To Run," reflecting sundry genres, by artists like Melissa Etheridge, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Amy Macdonald, Suzi Quatro, and David West (SecondHandSongs, 2003; Garneau, 2011; Story of Song, 2022).
2. One can hear tinctures of other artist's stylings in Springsteen's oeuvre. AllMusic (2022) lists 22 of them, including The Animals, The Byrds, Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Roy Orbison, Rolling Stones, and Pete Seeger.
3. Misiak and Sexton (1973) explain existentialism was spawned, largely from phenomenological philosophy, a methodology of "...direct intuition as the primary source of knowledge..." and "...intuitive study of essences" (p. 17)--of how things appear in consciousness; and from existentialist philosophy, whose focus is on existence, as it is experienced by a human being as an individual (p. 70). This is his being-in-the-world (p. 105)--man inseparable from his world.
Phenomenological psychology is the exploration of experience and consciousness, sans any bias or preconceived notions (p. 42). Existential psychology is, via its primary intention, to comprehend man in his complete existential reality, particularly "...in his subjective relationship to himself...fellow men, and...world" (p. 105).
SACAP (2020) states that existentialism proposes that there are no rules, only freedoms, leading to responsibility. One decides his worldview, values and personality. Contrast essentialism, where one is sculpted via DNA and the environment, because there is a pre-determined plan for order, ahead of things.
AllMusic. (2022). https://www.allmusic.com/artist/bruce-springsteen-mn0000530745/related
Discogs. (2022). https://www.discogs.com/release/1874253-Bruce-Springsteen-Born-To-Run
Floyd, John. (1997). In Michael Erlewine (Ed.), All Music Guide. San Francisco, CA: Miller Freeman Books.
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___________. (1980). The Doctor and the Soul From Psychotherapy to Logotherapy. New York, NY: Vintage Books.
Garneau, Eric. (2011, October 31). Five Good Covers: Born to Run (Bruce Springsteen). Cover Me. https://www.covermesongs.com/2011/10/five-good-covers-born-to-run-bruce-springsteen.html
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Kosowan, Gene. (2020, March 23). Bruce Springsteen's Highest-Grossing Albums Of All Time, Ranked. TheTalko. https://www.thetalko.com/bruce-springsteen-highest-grossing-albums/
London, Amanda. (2020, July 24). Songmeanings+facts. https://www.songmeaningsandfacts.com/streets-of-philadelphia-by-bruce-springsteen/
Lord, Lolo. (2019, September 29). Quora. https://www.quora.com/Is-Wendy-in-the-song-Born-To-Run-a-real-person-or-just-a-made-up-name?share=1
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RRHOF, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. (1999, March 15). Timeline. https://brucespringsteen.net/timeline/rock-and-roll-hall-of-fame
Romanowski, Patricia, & George Warren, Holly. (Eds.). (1996). The New Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll. New York, NY: Fireside.
Ruhlmann, William. (1997). In Stephen Michael Erlewine (Ed.), All Music Guide. San Francisco, CA: Miller Freeman Books.
SACAP, The South African College of Applied Psychology. (2020, February 28). Existentialism vs essentialism: the psychology of existence. https://www.sacap.edu.za/blog/applied-psychology/essentialism/
SecondHandSongs. (2003-2022). https://secondhandsongs.com/performance/13554
Shelton, Jessica. (2020, January 12). Songmeanings+facts. https://www.songmeaningsandfacts.com/dancing-in-the-dark-by-bruce-springsteen/
SHOF, Songwriters Hall of Fame. (1999). https://www.songhall.org/profile/Bruce_Springsteen
Songfacts. (2022). Tunnel of Love by Bruce Springsteen - Songfacts
SongMeanings. (2005-2017). Bruce Springsteen - My Hometown Lyrics | SongMeanings
Springsteen, Bruce. (1989). Born To Run (acoustic). On Video Anthology/1978-88 (VHS). New York, NY: CBS Music Video Enterprises.
_______________. (1995). Greatest Hits. [CD]. Columbia Records.
_______________. (2016). Born To Run. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.
SpringsteenLyrics.com. (2013, November 28). https://www.springsteenlyrics.com/lyrics.php?song=borntorun_1988-04-27
Story Of Song. (2022). https://storyofsong.com//story/2917/
VandenBos, Gary R. (EIC). (2015). APA Dictionary of Psychology Second Edition. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
White, Adam. (1990). The Billboard Book of Gold & Platinum Records. New York, NY: Billboard Publications, Inc.
Wilson, Hugh. (1996). In Buckley, Jonathan, & Ellingham, Mark (Eds.), Rock The Rough Guide. London, UK: Rough Guides Ltd.
Wolff, William I. (2014, August 10). Springsteen, Tradition, and the Purpose of the Artist. Springsteen, Tradition, and the Purpose of the Artist | The Biannual Online-Journal of Springsteen Studies (mcgill.ca)
David Chriko is a Professional Affiliate Member, American Psychological Association.
See the author's website at chirkoart.ca
Also see our article on Springsteen's "Born in the U.S.A."
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