Tramps Like Us
If ever a rock and roll record could be considered essential to a certain time and place, then Bruce Springsteen's Born to Run was the album, and America, 1975, was the time and place. The moment does not get the attention that the blackout summer of 1977 enjoys as New York City's post-1960s nadir (thanks in part to Jonathan Mahler's Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning,) the summer of '75 was, in my then-15-year-old's opinion, the worst time to go through adolescence ever invented. To those of us who came of age during these cursed years, it was a singularly hellish time to be young.
The American Century was melting like cheap plastic left out in the sun. Watergate was over, but only because Gerald Ford had pardoned Nixon moments before the hangman arrived. Americans were no longer dying in Vietnam, but Saigon was finally falling to Hanoi's advance. As US embassy personnel escaped from the roof, the nation abandoned those who foolishly believed decades of America's solemn assurances. When the vets who did their duty did come home, no one wanted to hear their stories.
Inside post-Watergate, post-Vietnam, post-idealist America, the economic foundations of prosperity were eroding. Following the 1973 Yom Kippur War, gasoline prices suddenly rose nearly 400 percent. More than 10,000 gasoline stations went out of business that year, taking a whole way of life with them. In 1974 alone, retail prices increased by 11 percent and wholesale prices by 18 percent. The Dow Jones Average plunged 45 percent in less than two years. The recession seemed endless, and hope for a better future, pointless. Economic experts argued as to whether the Arab oil nations or the Japanese would be first to buy up whatever was still worth owning in America. By mid-1975, unemployment had reached its highest point since the Great Depression, as real GNP continued its apparently inexorable decline. At home, the President of the United States was telling the greatest city in the world to "drop dead." Another newspaper headline seemed to capture the historical moment perfectly: "Things Will Get Worse Before They Get Worse."
From a pop culture standpoint, pretty much everything that had given 1960s culture its passion, energy and creativity had disappeared and been replaced by exhaustion and exploitation. The "revolution" was over. The drugs had turned ugly. With small pockets of resistance, most rock music had become robotic and repetitive when it was not self-parodic. The decade began with three major rock icons destroying themselves in fits of self-indulgent excess. Bobby, Martin and John may have died as symbols of a nation at war with itself, but Jimi, Janis and the Lizard King died for nobody's sins but their own.
Mainstream culture appeared to undergo a collective lobotomy. Among the period's signifiers were pet rocks, mood rings, coke spoons and leisure suits; "No mai job, man," "Up your nose with a rubber hose," "Whip inflation now." In 1998 Rhino Records released a seven-CD set of the best of 1970s pop music titled Have a Nice Decade. 1975 contributed: The Captain and Tenille's Love Will Keep Us Together, Morris Alberta's Feelings, C.W. McCalla's Convoy, The Bay City Rollers' Saturday Night and, tellingly, the theme from Happy Days.
The flip side of this frivolity proved to be the reification of public sadism. The height of this phenomenon manifested itself in the glorification of the thuggish bouncers outside Studio 54 and Xenon, who mocked the pathetic ambitions of the suburbanite schmucks waiting on the street for the privilege of doing their lines in the bathroom alongside Bianca or Liza. Fat chance. Discos perfected not only the velvet rope but also the VIP area, where the Truly Blessed were walled off from those forced to pay cash.
Idealism, in this culture, was treated as kind of willful delusion akin to schizophrenia. What happens to the idealists in Scorcese's Taxi Driver, Coppolla's Godfather films, Polanski's Chinatown, Beatty's Shampoo and Bogdonovitch's The Last Picture Show? Is there a single moment on the Stones' masterpiece Exile on Main Street where a fan can unironically throw his fist in the air? What about the Who's Quadrophenia? Examine the difference between Sly Stone's Stand or I Want to Take You Higher and his drug-addled, almost comatose There's a Riot Goin' On.
I was thoroughly miserable. I was always in trouble with teachers and coaches, and as my career as a jock was coming to rapid close, I seemed to be replacing it with pot, poker and petty larceny. I loved rock and roll, but I hated what I heard on the radio. I hated disco. I hated those transvestites from England who wore all that ridiculous glitter. I thought Ozzy Ozborne was a jerk for biting the heads off of live bats. I did not feel welcome in Alice Cooper's stupid nightmare, either, and those poor Eagles, with all that fun-filled, coke-fueled angst, failed to move me.
Enter Bruce Springsteen.
A few months earlier, the respected rock critic Jon Landau went to a Springsteen show and went home and wrote, "I have seen the future of rock & roll and its name is Bruce Springsteen." Now the rock press was filled with reports of this 24-year-old critical-success-but-commercial-washout retreating into the studio--and inviting Landau with him--to make what he planned to be "the greatest rock & roll record of all time": a record, as Bruce would later explain it, that would "explode in people's homes and minds and change people's lives."
Springsteen's manager had been sneaking bootlegged tapes of unreleased songs to sympathetic deejays to keep the faithful from forgetting. A slow, mournful version of The Fever filled the airwaves, to be replaced by Born to Run a few months later. This amazing song, which ultimately showcased approximately a dozen guitar tracks, a massive sax solo, a glockenspiel, a fancy string arrangement, numerous keyboard tracks, along with the requisite bass guitar and drums, created a considerable frisson wherever it was heard, whether on the radio or in concert. On WMMS in Cleveland, the deejay Kid Leo played it at 5:55 every Friday afternoon. Record store clerks were driven crazy by Springsteen fans eager to buy it. Columbia booked Springsteen for ten shows at The Bottom Line, making the largest ticket buy anyone could remember. Time and Newsweek offered up their covers. The setup--and the potential for let-down--was unprecedented.
Springsteen nearly cracked under the pressure. As the summer closed, and the dream still eluding his perfectionist ears, he was ready to tell Columbia he wanted to throw out the tapes, and just release his live performances.
At 15 I too was betting on Bruce to deliver something I could never have defined. I remember walking around the city that summer, seeing Springsteen on posters hung up on the side of dumpsters and abandoned construction sites like a modern-day Russian icon, with his guitar on his back--a leather jacket reading Born to Run on the back--promising redemption, if not deliverance.
I was still three years away from being legally allowed into The Bottom Line. My brand-new "New York State Official ID Card," purchased for $3.50 at Playland in Times Square for exactly this purpose, failed to convince the bar's bouncers. I went home dejected. Fortunately, WNEW-FM was to broadcast one of the shows on the radio.
And amazingly, Springsteen delivered. The collective delirium poured out of my little boombox that night and into my cynical young heart. "Tramps like us, baby we were Borrrrraaaaaaarrrrrrn!"I shouted into the sky, lying on the football field outside my high school on the night of the broadcast, drinking little Miller eight-packs with my best friend. Born to Run exploded in my home and my mind. It changed my life, just as Elvis and the Beatles had done for Bruce a decade earlier. Religious revivalism is about the only metaphor that works here, though my only experience with it at the time was reading Elmer Gantry in ninth-grade English class.
Springsteen's music pierced this misplaced teenage soul. I could never have articulated it at the time, but Born to Run offered me an alternative context for my life; a narrative where hopes and dreams that felt ridiculous were imbued with dignity and, no less important, a sense of solidarity. Most of my life was beyond my control, but my own reaction to it would be my own. I may have been stuck inside a town for losers, but dammit... I was pulling out of there to win.