‘The album became a monster. It just ate up everyone’s life.”
That’s Bruce Springsteen talking about “Born to Run,” which 30 years ago catapulted him from a cult artist with a small but rabid East Coast following into a superstar.
Looking back on the eve of the release of the “Born to Run” 30th anniversary box set, which The New York Post got an exclusive sneak peek at this week, it’s easy to say that “Born to Run” is a watershed moment – a record with unstoppable force and charisma that established Bruce as the premiere musical icon of his generation.
But in the summer of 1975, it was turning into something of a nightmare.
Bruce wasn’t an unknown at the time – a local legend on the Jersey Shore and a journeyman working the Eastern Seaboard club circuit, he’d made two records for Columbia, “Greetings From Asbury Park” and “The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle.” Wordy, Dylan-influenced and freewheeling, they’d helped expand his following, but they hadn’t exactly set the world on fire. When he went to make his third record, the writing was on the wall.
“If this record didn’t make it, it seemed obvious to us that this was going to be the end,” says E Street Band guitarist “Miami Steve” Van Zandt, in “Wings for Wheels: The Making of Born to Run,” a documentary on the making of the record that’s included in the anniversary box, along with a 1975 show at London’s Hammersmith Odeon. The set hits stores Tuesday.
Live, Bruce was a force of nature, who dependably slayed audiences and won rabid converts. But that energy wasn’t translating to the records, and everyone knew it.
“The record company was confused,” Bruce later said. “The kids in the audience were going nuts, but the record wasn’t selling. It got obvious that we needed a rock ‘n’ roll record.”
CBS wanted him to record with session musicians, but he insisted on working with the E Street Band, fellow Jerseyites who’d cut their teeth in clubs along the shore. Constant gigging had turned the band into a high-performance machine, and Bruce had come up some magnificent songs. But the recording sessions were stumbling, and things were getting desperate.
Begun in the winter of 1974-75, and derailed initially by technical problems, the sessions were still going when summertime came, as Bruce, a near-pathological perfectionist who knew the unfolding record’s potential, endlessly tweaked arrangements, rewrote lyrics and re-recorded tracks.
“The thing about Bruce is that he has a very hard time letting go of things, and that’s especially true of things he knows are good, because if it’s good it can get better,” says Dave Marsh, the veteran rock journalist and Springsteen biographer. “I would hear the tracks and my reaction was basically, ‘It don’t get no better,’ and Bruce’s reaction was, ‘I think I can do this better.'”
Meanwhile, a single version of the title song had been sent out to radio stations and was creating heavy-duty buzz around the upcoming record, even as Bruce and company were pulling their hair out trying to finish it, working until dawn every morning at the Record Plant on West 53rd Street.
“The record was legendary before it was even finished,” Marsh says.
Right up until the end, making the record was like pulling a molar with pliers – when it came time to master the disc, a process that involves taking the recorded tapes and turning them into an actual record, Bruce rejected one attempt after another. At one point he even decided to scrap the whole thing and release a live record instead.
Hearing this, Jon Landau, now Bruce’s manager but then a co-producer, went ballistic. After he read Bruce the riot act, Springsteen relented and the release date was set for October 1975. To generate some pre-release buzz, Columbia had Springsteen do a five-night stand, two shows a night, at the Bottom Line in Greenwich Village, and flew in journalists and tastemakers from around the country. It was a publicity masterstroke – Bruce killed, and the buzz grew into a deafening roar.
“Everybody who saw those shows had a sense that history was being made,” says Allan Pepper, the Bottom Line’s co-owner. “For weeks afterward, every artist who played the club – and I’m talking about some formidable artists – paled in comparison to that guy. It was in the walls of the club. It hung in the air for weeks and weeks afterward.”
When “Born to Run” was released two months later, the verdict was unanimous: Springsteen had delivered a classic.
“Born to Run” “shuts down every claim that has ever been made for him,” wrote Greil Marcus in Rolling Stone, likening it to “a ’57 Chevy running on melted-down Crystals records.”
Other rave reviews, platinum sales, expanding crowds and the famous (or infamous) twin cover stories in Time and Newsweek followed. The Boss was born, and the rest, as they say, is history.