Born to Sequence

July 27, 2010

Over at Confirm or Disconfirm, there’s some disgruntlement about my re-sequencing of Born to Run. Which we have to take seriously, because John’s from northern Jersey and owns more Springsteen bootlegs than anyone I know. To wit:

[F]irst, I think that Thunder Road ends on a relatively too positive note than what the overall album appears to be about: It’s a town full of losers, we’re pulling outta here to win. That suggests some hope, when this isn’t an album about hope.  Indeed, the title track suggests it is an album of leaving (indeed, there’s a story that the New Jersey legislature wanted to make Born to Run the official song of the state, until someone pointed out the lyrics: at night we ride through mansions of glory in suicide machines… it’s a death trap, it’s a suicide rap… I want to die with you Wendy on the streets tonight… ).  Anyway, my point is that this album isn’t really meant to suggest a whole lot of hope out there, and Jungleland certainly captures that, as the song ends in date rape and murder.  So I think Jungleland still closes the album

I definitely concede that (a) Thunder Road is a more positive song than Jungleland, and (b) that Born to Run (the album) is not about hope. But let me make a case for my sequencing on purely “storytelling” grounds. This treads deep into English Lit territory (i.e. there’s no way this story is anything but a retrospectively-built analysis), but bear with me.

Ok. There are five crucial songs on the album, all of which hang together thematically: Born to Run, Thunder Road, Night, Backstreets, and Jungleland.  The other songs are either not crucial (Meeting Across the River) or don’t seem utterly in theme with the others (Tenth Avenue Freeze Out; She’s the One). The five crucial songs can be read to tell a story, and my sequencing can accommodate everything but Tenth Avenue Freeze Out into that story.

Shortest version: I’m disillusioned with my life and I’ve finally decided to get the fuck out of here. Will you come with me?

There are two strands to this story as I see it — one follows a young man’s growing disillusionment with his town/life, the other relates to the women he knew or knows from that town. Over the course of the record, he observes his situation and thinks about these girls. Finally, he decides he’s done with it all and he’s moving on, asking one of them to come with him.

Longer version, with song placements: My job sucks, but it’s 7:30 and it’s time to go out and forget about all of that (Night). As I’m driving toward the strip and the beach, my mind wanders back to Terry and what went wrong (Backstreets). I encounter Wendy, and as we cruise around town. I tell her how upset I am with my life and how I want to leave (Born to Run). Around midnight, everyone is chilling in the parking lots and dancing in the clubs (1st half of Jungleland). It’s slowly dawning on me that this whole scene is bullshit and a waste of life; a dead end, the social equivalent of my job (2nd half of Jungleland). Wendy’s not the girl for me;  she’s never leaving this dump. I  go sit alone in my car and try to figure out what to do (She’s the One). One option is to take that guy up on his offer (Meeting Across the River), but you know what, I’m not a criminal. In fact,  I’m outta here. A fresh start. But it’s 4am, I’m scared, and I don’t want to go alone. Maybe Mary will come with me (Thunder Road).

This reading of the album tends to fit will with the imagery presented about the setting: early on, we get a romantic picture of the “soul crusaders” lining the circuit in their “chrome invaders,” and we’re “in love with all the wonder it brings.” The “street’s alive.” By the end of the record, it’s shown for what it is in the cold light of morning: a “dusty beach road” filled with the “burned-out Chevrolets” of this “town full of losers.” This, I think, squares John’s complaint about Thunder Road being the last song. Yes, it’s optimistic, but only because the protagonist has decided that he’s done with the hopelessness described in the rest of the record. In effect, Thunder Road is not the end, but the new beginning.

Just to undermine my entire theory here, I should mention that I glanced through Runaway Dream: Born to Run and Bruce Springsteen’s American Vision yesterday (it’s nice to work at the Library of Congress). Incredibly, in an entire (mediocre) book about the record, I found exactly one sentence regarding its sequencing — that the Boss liked Thunder Road over Born to Run as first on the album, because he thought it better summed up the record. Yeah, like he would know.


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