Recently, fans celebrated the 40th anniversary of the iconic rock album, "Born To Run." That party was one guest short. He was a fan who started talking about The Boss before anyone we knew. When Jon Landau wrote in The Real Paper, "I saw rock and roll's future and its name is Bruce Springsteen," he knew that future had already arrived. He had been following Bruce up and down the rust belt since 1973, so the critical and commercial success of "Born To Run" didn't surprise him. He was my older brother, and, by rights, this should be his story to tell. Unfortunately, you're going to have to make do with my side of it.
Back in 1975, I was 17 years old and about to enter my senior year of high school. My big brother was 22 and the family's go-to person for all things rock and roll. He was an aficionado who attended as many concerts as he could, listened to a variety of music, and read everything about the business. On the other hand, the rest of us, his four sisters, were into bubble-gum pop, show tunes, and Julie Andrews.
Our brother loved a lot of music, and he did have an influence on us. You can't be that passionate about something and not have it rub off on the people around you. In fact, he is responsible for my deep affection for the Beatles, as I was too young when they burst on the scene to care. But, he never tried to convince us we'd be better off listening to the music he preferred, except when it came to Springsteen. With him, he was like someone who had found religion. He was evangelistic, impassioned, sure that we needed to join the church of Bruce Almighty lest we endure eternity never knowing the experience of pumping our fists for 4.5 hours straight at one of his concerts.
As for me, the first time I ever heard the song "Born To Run," I was in the car with the brother driving to Ohio for our cousin's wedding. Kid Leo of Cleveland's rock station, WMMS, had begun playing it every Friday at the end of the work day. The song had yet to be released to radio, so there were only a few areas in the country where you could hear it. "This is it, Susie," my brother said, turning up the volume. I was unimpressed. What was he even saying? "mumble mumble highways mumble mumble dreams." Plus, the one lyric I did understand, "wrap your legs 'round these velvet ribs, and strap your hands 'cross my engines" sounded dirty, and I didn't care for dirty. Also, I'd seen his picture, and he wasn't even cute. In those days, I liked cute.
A summer later, still not a Springsteen fan, I was, yet again, in the car with my brother driving to Ohio. This time, it was to our grandfather's funeral. We listened to a lot of music on that drive as we talked about our grandpa. Robin Trowler, Bryan Ferry and Roxy Music, Led Zeppelin, as well as my own favoritesThe Eagles, Paul McCartney and Wings, Frampton, Fleetwood Mac, and, naturally, Springsteen. We also discussed the fact that I still had not gotten my driver's license, despite being 18 and a high school graduate. Long story short, I was afraid. The car felt as if it had too much control, and nothing my parents or the school's driver instructor could do got me past that. I told him I knew I had to get over my fear, but it wasn't a priority at that time. I started singing along to Rhiannon.
Next thing I knew, my brother had pulled his car off the road. "Switch seats. You're driving," he commanded. Did I mention we were on the Pennsylvania turnpike? I told him I couldn't possibly! Was he insane? "Then, I guess we aren't going anywhere." What choice did I have? He was serious! Plus, he drove a Camaro. Heck, if I was going to crash a car, it might as well be one that would sound cool in the accident report. Once I gave in and took over the driving, he was supportive and patient. "It's okay. If you are only comfortable going 35 miles per hour, the other cars will just have to pass you." I puttered along on open highway, finally getting up the courage to go 45 MPH, then 60! Oh my gosh, I was driving! At some point, he'd popped Springsteen into the 8-track and I was singing along to Thunder Road. "Um, hey," he said, at some point, "You might want to slow down a little. You don't want to get a ticket." No way! It's a town full of losers and I'm pulling out of here to win!
Later, like every red-blooded American female, I became a bonafide fan of The Boss. Remember when MTV played music videos? Remember how buff Springsteen was in all those videos from Born In the USA? "I now love Bruce Springsteen!" I told my brother. He smirked. In his opinion, he'd sold out. He was now being named in the same company as Madonna, for Pete's sake! I didn't see the issue as I loved Madonna. (Sue me.)
I did, eventually, become a fan of the actual Bruce Springsteen. I started listening to his music with a critical ear, and internalizing his lyrics. At family gatherings, my brother and I would sometimes debate whether or not Nebraska was his worst album or just misunderstood. In 2002, he got tickets for his wife and two daughters to see Springsteen in Detroit on The Rising Tour. He managed to snag another pair, and my sister and I grabbed them right up. I had never seen Springsteen and the E Street Band perform live, but I knew I was in for a one hell of a concert. I was completely unprepared for the adventure that is a Springsteen concert. Never before had I experienced such unity between a performer and his audience. We were one body, totally at the whim of our central nervous system - Bruce and the band. He was the televangelist, the tent-preacher, and we were all injured souls needing the healing of the music. The Rising Tour was different because it was far more somber than any he had done previously or would do again. On the heels of 9/11, the music resonated with a wounded nation. I left that concert ready to do exactly what my brother had done decades before....follow him.
A few weeks later, he debated whether or not to drive to Columbus to see the same show. It was a 2 1/2 hours one way. He'd have to leave work early, then drive home and get up the next day to be in his office on time. He decided to go for it. The next day, he told my father it was the best decision he'd ever made. Indeed, it was. That would be the last time our brother would see Springsteen and his band perform.
In 2010, my brother lay dying in the intensive care unit, in a section in the far back reserved for the most critical patients. He had an auto-immune disorder called sarcoidosis which had been slowly destroying his lungs. A bout with pneumonia finished the job. At one point, he had been on a vent for three weeks straight, in a drug-induced coma for a bit, then in a coma of his own for the rest. But, like many critical patients, he had a rally. He opened his eyes, became alert. So, his daughters filled an iPod with songs of Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band, and plugged in the ear buds. Though he was compromised, he tapped his foot in time. At one point, he pumped his fist. He heard! In the end, he heard the music he loved. He passed away less than two weeks later at the age of 58, leaving behind a wife and two lovely daughters.
Springsteen was quoted in his obituary. The Catholic Church where his funeral mass was held could not allow secular music be played during the mass, but the director of services, a kind woman, let his daughters provide of a tape of "Terry's Song." As his casket was carried from the church, that was the last song to follow him to his final rest.
Time moves on. Soon, my brother's oldest daughter was engaged and planning her wedding. She and her sister knew that it was important to have their father's presence at the wedding, but they weren't sure how to properly do that without making it a mini-memorial service. Weddings are joyful occasions, and they both knew their dad would never approve of some maudlin moment dedicated to him.
My niece chose to walk down the aisle alone. Or, shall I say, she practically danced down the aisle alone. She was the picture of joy as she approached her groom. The song to which she made that long walk? A beautiful acoustic version of Thunder Road.
At a wedding reception, tradition dictates that the first dance be for the bride and groom. Next, the bride dances with the first man she ever loved, her father. At this wedding, that dance was discreetly passed over without mention. My new nephew danced with his mother, and we all watched as the bridal party began to take their positions on the dance floor for the group dance. The lead singer of the band stepped up to the microphone and informed us that the bride's father was, unfortunately, not there. So, could we all come to the dance floor to help her celebrate this day? We all looked around, feeling awkward.
Then, it happened. 1-2-3-4! Ba-baBAbaba...ba! We rushed to the floor, hands in the air, eyes pointed towards the ceiling. And the lead singer sang:
"In the day we sweat it out on the streets of a runaway American dream
At night we ride through the mansions of glory in suicide machines
Sprung from cages out on highway 9,
Chrome wheeled, fuel injected, and steppin' out over the line
Oh-oh, Baby this town rips the bones from your back
It's a death trap, it's a suicide rap
We gotta get out while we're young
`Cause tramps like us, baby we were born to run "
In that moment, he was there. The father of the bride was there with all of us! But, in particular, he was on that dance floor with his two daughters, the bride and maid of honor. If we could have heard his voice, it would have been singing to his girls, "I love you with all the madness in my soul."
"Born To Run" is 40 years old. But, it will live on in the history of fan's lives forever as the legacy is passed on. Wedding dances, grand babies, anniversaries, funerals. And someday, all of us, like my brother before us, will get to that place where we really want to go, and we'll walk in the sun. Until then...well, you know the rest. Sing it loud and proud.