There’s a retrospectively comic passage about Bruce Springsteen in former Columbia Records president Clive Davis’ 1974 memoir, Clive: Inside the Record Business. After praising the artist’s ”fascinating use of words,” Davis, who greenlit Springsteen’s 1972 signing to Columbia, gripes that ”he is building a small cult, but it’s been difficult to break him commercially…without that trademark single, it’s a slow build.”
By late 1975, two years after Davis left Columbia, that ”trademark single” had arrived. ”Born to Run” and the album that shares its name had launched Springsteen into the public consciousness, big-time. Spectorian in scope and execution, Born was an inarguable watershed, a richly dramatic document that found Springsteen breathing fresh life into hoary Top 40 clichés. This scruffy, post-Dylan hipster from Freehold, N.J., had become a new kind of rock & roll alchemist, capable of transforming a genre of songs that had been largely concerned with girls, cars, and the search for kicks into one that encompassed stirring, almost religious epics about the Girl, the Car, and the Quest for Redemption.
The faithful have probably been singing hosannas since getting wind of Born to Run: 30th Anniversary Edition, although we imagine some acolytes may be perturbed by the absence of any outtakes (usually considered de rigueur in compilations of this sort). The package includes only a lone, remastered CD of the original album, which still sounds both timeless and terrific. From the romantic, wind-in-our-hair rush of the title track and the madcap R&B propulsion of ”Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” to the steely-eyed balladry of ”Backstreets” and the gritty urban melodrama of ”Jungleland,” it’s a collection that will no doubt be as compelling three decades hence.
But it’s the two DVDs that accompany Edition that make this boxed set something extra special. The documentary Wings for Wheels: The Making of Born to Run includes interviews with Springsteen and E Street Band members and associates past and present, who reminisce about the long, often painful process of honing that album. (The Boss’ autocratic tendencies may be old news, but who knew that he had coached saxophonist Clarence Clemons through literally every single note of the solo on ”Jungleland”?)
Wheels contains a wealth of delectable info-tidbits, whether it’s Springsteen’s confession that he still has no idea what the title ”Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” means, or the revelation that Steve Van Zandt walked in cold one day and conceived the final horn arrangement for that track on the spot. The scenes showing today’s Springsteen talking about the sessions are particularly refreshing, with the Boss achieving just the right mix of gravitas and self-deprecating humor as he recalls what it was like to make the album while under tangible pressure from Columbia to come up with a hit. Sitting around a studio with longtime manager Jon Landau, we see him listening to — and occasionally laughing at — alternate takes, like syrupy, string-soaked versions of the title track and the intro to ”Jungleland” (”We should have used that one,” he comments to Landau of the latter snippet).
There is also a swell 20-minute segment of a 1973 Los Angeles show (with excellently named original drummer Vini ”Mad Dog” Lopez). But perhaps the biggest treat is the two-hour London concert, filmed four months after Born to Run’s release. Here we see a bearded, hoop-earringed Springsteen leading the E Street Band on a joyride through songs from his three then-existing albums. It’s a sizzling testament to what many have long contended — that, in the ’70s, Bruce and his boys put on the most exciting show around. Look out for the priceless moment when a sheepish Springsteen says to the audience, ”I’ve never been here before.” He was talking about England, but he could just as well have been referring to his newfound seat at the table of rock royalty. He’s been there ever since — and this lovely anniversary set reminds us why.