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Bruce Springsteen on Making ‘Born to Run’: ‘We Went to Extremes’

In a never-before-published 2005 interview, Springsteen goes in-depth on the writing and recording of the 1975 classic.

He had one last chance to make it real. Or at least that’s how the story goes. With 1975’s Born to Run, a 25-year-old Bruce Springsteen felt like his very life was on the line, which is probably why he drove himself — and the E Street Band — to the brink of breakdown over the tortured months of its creation. In November 2005, a couple of hours before going onstage for a show on his solo Devils and Dust tour, Springsteen called Rolling Stone to talk about making Born to Run. On the 40th anniversary of the album’s release, here is the full transcript of that conversation, published for the first time.

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I talked to Steve Van Zandt today, and he said that there was a real sense that Born to Run could have been it for you as a recording artist. How true does that feel to you?
 I was signed [to Columbia Records] with John Hammond and Clive Davis, and then after my first record, Clive Davis was gone and I fell into disfavor for the second record. A different group of people came in. Nobody had an investment in me, and we were just slipping through the cracks. I think when The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle came out it, wasn’t particularly promoted and I always remember going to radio stations where they didn’t know I had a second record out [laughs]. I remember everybody coming down to watch some promising young band who was opening for us —and then leaving when we came on. It was at My Father’s Place [in Roslyn, Long Island] and [former manager] Mike Appel was at the door taking down their names, writing down who left. So the atmosphere was very, very combative. At the time, there was a great disagreement over The Wild and the Innocent, and I was asked to record the entire album over again with studio musicians. And I said I wouldn’t do it, and they basically said, “Well hey, look, it’s going to go in the trash can.” That’s the record business, you know.

The “Born to Run” single came out far in advance of the album.
Yeah, when Born to Run came out, we had the unusual thing of the single being out six months before the album came out. We took so long with the record that we gave the song to the radio stations thinking we were going to be almost done, but that’s not what happened. So a lot of time passed before the album came out and a couple of good things happened. One is that the song itself did get quite a bit of radio play, and there was a big buzz on it. I think what made the album have a buzz on it was the fact that “Born to Run,” the cut, had been played for quite a while on the FM radio stations. And the other good thing that happened was there was a guy named Irwin Segelstein who came in to run the company. Irwin came in from the television department to take over the record company and he had a son who was going to school at some college…

Brown, I think.
Yeah. So he came and saw the show, and the next day I was lambasting the record company in the school newspaper, with some school reporter, and I believe the son went home to the father and said, “Hey, what about these guys?” Then Irwin Segelstein called us up and got together with us and said, “Gee, let’s bury the hatchet.” But we were on very shaky turf the whole time, and we didn’t know what was going to happen. We were considered not a success at that particular moment, and so Born to Run was pretty critical — we were hoping to get some attention and make a dent, so yeah, I think Steve is right. On the other hand, I mean, I don’t know if it would have finished us — because what the hell else were we going to do [laughs]? There’s that element, too. And the night the guys from the record company walked out of the show, I told the band, “Look, they may think we are going to go away, except we have no place to go.” [Laughs]

That’s quite a pep talk.
I said, “Don’t worry fellas — we have no place to go. We’re not going away. We’re going to continue.” And the live shows were getting a great response from the audience and there was no going back to your day job. Nobody had any day jobs, and they were ill-prepared for such a thing. So we knew wherever we were, that’s where we were gonna be.

When you heard a mastered version of the album, you hated it and threw it into a pool. You’ve said the truth is that you were afraid. What were you afraid of?
I’ve always had a bit of an ambivalent attitude towards… what was I afraid of? Change, I don’t know [laughs]. Also, it was a moment when your music was the totality of your identity, and so you were so caught up and so invested in it. Part of what made the record good is that we went to extremes to structure it and compose it and play it in this very detailed and drive-yourself-crazy fashion. I hadn’t listened to it in about 20 years or so, and I recently listened to it because we remastered it and I said, “Wow.” It held up really well, because it was just structured and built like a tank. It was indestructible, and that came from an enormous amount of time that we put in, an unhealthy amount of obsessive-compulsiveness. So part of it was, I was afraid of releasing the record and just saying, “Well, this is who I am,” for all the obvious reasons that people are afraid of exposure and putting themselves out there: This is who I am, this is everything I know, this is my best, this is the best I can do right now.

You also had lost perspective on it at that point.
I lost the ability to hear it clearly, certainly towards the end of the production. After the long period of time we spent on it, I could only hear what was wrong with it or what I thought was weak with it. And also, the way we listened to the master was, we went downtown in Richmond, Virginia to the local stereo outlet and we asked the guy if we could play something on a stereo in the store. The guy made a big fuss and finally he sent us to the back of the store and we just put it on a record player that was on the shelf. Then we stood there in the middle of the store listening to the whole thing, attempting to judge what we thought of it. It was just really me not wanting to let it go and not wanting to admit that it was the best that I could do and that I was finished. To accept that our fortunes were going to rest on whatever this was, for better or for worse. That was a big responsibility at the time, and we were putting everything we had on what we’d done. So it was just traumatic. And you’re young, 24 or 25, and you don’t have the stability or the history to be able to put it in any kind of perspective. It was just all that there is and all that there was gonna be. [It felt like] there were gonna be no more records after this record. We were all going off a cliff the next day, as far as my approach to it. It was just, “This was it.”

You were 24 or 25 – still young — when you wrote, “You’re scared and you’re thinking that maybe you ain’t that young anymore.” What was that about?
The songs were written immediately after the Vietnam War and you forget, everybody felt like that then. It didn’t matter how old you were, everybody experienced a radical change in the image they had of their country and of themselves. You were going to be a different type of American than the generation that immediately preceded you. A radically different type, so that line was just recognizing that fact. A lot of my heroes influenced that album. But I realized that I was not them. I was someone else; I was not them. I embraced what made us singular, individual. It wasn’t just a mishmash of previous styles. There was a lot of stuff we loved in it from the music we loved, but there was something else too — and that something else was quite a sense of dread and uncertainty about the future and who you were, where you were going, where the whole country was going. That found its way into the record.

The lyrical, major-key style of the album’s piano parts – “Thunder Road,” “Backstreets” — became a big part of what people think of as your sound. Where did that come from? What were the musical touchstones for you there?
The fact that those things had these elaborate introductions and melodic parts and a variety of movements, you can trace that back to the way the Roy Orbison records were composed. But, also, it was just something that I liked. I had a little old Aeolian piano sitting in the front of my living room, and I knew I was interested in writing on the piano at that time, partly because I was interested in those thematic movements. I suppose when you do it correctly, a good introduction and a good outro makes the song feel like it’s coming out of something and then evolving into something. Like it’s part of some sort of continuity, and it was also dramatic and it was meant to set up the song. I think somebody asked me about it in the little film we made, and I said part of the idea was to make it feel that something auspicious was going to occur. And it just set the scene. There is something about the melody of Thunder Road that just suggests “new day,” it suggests morning, it suggests something opening up. That’s why that song ended up first on the record, instead of “Born to Run” — which would’ve made sense, to put “Born to Run” first on the album. And we still put it on the top of the second side. But “Thunder Road” was just so obviously an opening, due to its intro. And these things evolve. I think there’s only eight songs on Born to Run — I don’t think it’s much more than 35 minutes long. But as you move into it, where every song comes up in the sequence makes a lot of sense — though we weren’t thinking about it; we were going on instinct at the time.

Before you recorded a note of the song “Born to Run,” what picture of the thing did you have in your mind?
Just, exhilarating, orgasmic [laughs]. I remember when the riff came into my head. I’d been listening to the record “Because They’re Young” by Duane Eddy, and I’d been listening to quite a bit of Duane Eddy because I was into the twangy guitar sound at the moment. But it was one of those things that I can’t completely trace back. I mean, I had these enormous ambitions. I wanted to make the greatest rock record that I’d ever heard, and I wanted it to sound enormous and I wanted it to grab you by your throat and insist that you take that ride, insist that you pay attention, not to just the music, but just to life, to feeling alive, to being alive. That was sort of what the song was asking, and it was taking a step out into the unknown. And that’s the big difference, say, between “Born to Run” and “Born in the U.S.A.” “Born in the U.S.A” was obviously about standing someplace. “Born to Run” wasn’t; it was about searching for that place. It was a moment when I was young and that’s what I was doing. I was very untethered and you had a rough map and you were about to set out in search of your frontier — personally and emotionally — and everything was very, very wide open. And that’s how the record felt, just wide open, full of possibilities, full of fear, you know, but that’s life [laughs].

When you play “Born to Run” now in concert, people who are settled down — who aren’t running anywhere — get as excited as ever, and sing along like it’s still their anthem. And you aren’t really running anymore, either. So what does the song mean now that’s different from what it meant then?
I think that those emotions and those desires — and it was a record of enormous longing, tremendous longing — that never leaves you. You’re dead when that leaves you. It’s just about, “Hey, you’re gonna take that step into the next day and nobody knows what tomorrow brings.” No one can know that. And so the song continues to speak to that part of you — it transcends your age and continues to speak to that part of you that is both exhilarated and frightened about what tomorrow brings. It’ll always do that, that’s how it was built.

“Meeting Across the River,” for me, presaged Nebraska and a lot of your other stripped down story songs. What was the origin of that?
I had that little piano riff, and I’m not exactly sure where the lyric came from. I don’t know, there was something North Jersey in it; I can’t quite explain… There was that New York–New Jersey, big-time/small-time thing, you know? It’s funny, because back then, when you lived in New Jersey, you could’ve been a million miles from New York City and yet it was always there. By that time, I think we’d been counted out, and it probably had something to do with that, a feeling I had about myself maybe, that you’d been underestimated. Most of the folks that go into my business have had the experience of someone counting them out, or of being underestimated, of someone judging your life as being without great value. So that song grew out of, “Hey, that guy’s sort of a small-time player, but he’s still got his sights set on what’s across that river.” I suppose that was where the emotions of it came from. 

When you look at the newly released footage of your Hammersmith Odeon concert, what strikes you?
I guess the main thing that surprised me was, we just had an amazing setlist. “Born to Run” came up in the middle of the set! It was just like, your new song. And I remember that was hard to play because it was a studio production and I never felt like we had a strong enough version of it for it to be a closer for the first year or two. It’s interesting how really good the band was — it’s a relatively new band you’re seeing, really. Steven had just gotten in the band; Max and Roy were new members in the band — this was their first tour and their first record. And if you look at the version of the band before that, that’s a very different band, that’s a real carnival band. So the band was new, and it had just morphed into what would be its defining shape. So it was fun seeing that when it was just poppin’ out of the box. We were just very good. We were very good.