'Born To Run': What Makes A Great Song?

Dec 31, 2013
Originally published on January 14, 2014 3:15 pm

An early draft of Bruce Springsteen’s lyrics for his first big hit song “Born to Run” sold for $197,000 at auction earlier this month.

The song was written in 1974 at a time when Springsteen was under pressure to produce a hit or get dropped from his record label.

“He was living in a little bungalow he had just rented  north of Asbury Park,” Springsteen biographer Peter Ames Carlin tells Here & Now’s Robin Young. “And he describes sitting on his bed in his little bedroom and suddenly having that phrase pop in his head. From there the thing grew. I think something resonated with him. I think just the phrase ‘born to run’ is the key phrase that launches the entire album ultimately: to get out of town, to get out of where you are and recreate yourself.”

Carlin says Springsteen poured everything he had into the song, writing, re-writing and tinkering with musical elements like a women’s chorus that were later dropped from the final version.

The notebook that sold was one of many that Springsteen uses to scribble down thoughts, images and catch phrases for his songs, Carlin said.



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And it's one of rock 'n' roll's most iconic anthems.


YOUNG: Bruce Springsteen's "Born to Run." His next album, "High Hopes," comes out next month. But fans are still buzzing about this first big hit.


BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN: (Singing) In the day, we sweat it out on the streets of a runaway American dream. At night, we ride through mansions of glory in suicide machines.

YOUNG: And the early draft of "Born to Run" lyrics that sold for $197,000 at auction at Sotheby's earlier this month - a commanding price for the scribblings of a struggling young musician nearly four decades ago - made us wonder how and why did Springsteen write what ended up becoming one of the greatest rock songs of all time.

Peter Ames Carlin wrote the 2012 Springsteen biography "Bruce" with the cooperation of The Boss. He joins us now. Peter, welcome.

PETER AMES CARLIN: Thank you very much. It's great to be here.

YOUNG: Tell, us, first of all, about this - it was a notebook, actually, that sold. Tell us more about it.

CARLIN: Well, Bruce has always - or for many, many, many years, going back to the earliest part of his career, kept notebooks full of songs and ideas and random words and stray thoughts. And out of these occasionally cryptic remarks, he would create his songs. And so if you look through the books that he kept in those, you know, over the course of that album, you'll find a lot of very sort of stripped-down, you know, completely raw iterations of those songs that became such cultural epics.

YOUNG: Yeah. Start with the chorus. We got to get out while we're young. What do the scribbling show us about what he was writing?

CARLIN: The one thing that's there present throughout the entire, you know, all the different iterations of the song is the phrase: Take my hand because tramps like us, baby, we were born to run. But so many other things are, you know, completely raw or in totally different form. I mean, the first line is something like: The junkies at the palace shotgun some soldiers who were up from Fort Dix.

But even in that line, you've got a couple scribble-ins or things written near it, the words hit angel around the junkies part. But it's hard to tell whether those are just phrases he scribbled in randomly, you know, not meant for that particular lyric, or whether he was considering placing them in the verse somewhere.

YOUNG: Yeah. Where was Springsteen when he was writing this song, what, 1974-5? What - where was he in his career and in his life?

CARLIN: He was living then - he had just broken up with a longtime girlfriend and he was living in a little bungalow he had just rented north of Asbury Park on the Jersey Shore. And he describes sitting on his bed in the little bedroom and suddenly having that phrase pop into his head. From there, the thing grew. You know, I think something resonated with him. I think just the phrase born to run is really kind of the key phrase that launches the entire album, ultimately.

YOUNG: Yeah.

CARLIN: You know, to get out of town, to get out of where you are and to recreate yourself.

YOUNG: Well, stay with the recreate yourself part because the book was in the possession of his former manager. We remember in the early years, Bruce Springsteen had a huge blowup with the manager and record contract disputes. He was actually taken out of play for a while because of it. Where was he professionally? Was there a part of that, too, a pressure from the record companies to get some terrific thing down on paper?

CARLIN: Oh, absolutely. At that time, he'd put out two records, neither of which had been particularly successful. And particularly given the amount of buzz he had when he came into the company in 1972, you know, they thought this guy was really it, you know, but he was...

YOUNG: He was the future of rock and roll.

CARLIN: Well, that was before anyone called him the future of rock and roll, but that was essentially what they thought. And - but then the albums just never really connected, the first two. And by the start of 1974, it was clear that, you know, there was a new president at the label. There was a lot, you know, there were a lot of new leaders at the thing. And they didn't have the kind of emotional connection that the earlier generation of people did. They basically said, well, we'll give you enough money to make a single. And if you can make a single that sounds commercial to us, then you can make the rest of the album. But if we don't like the single, we're basically dropping you from the label.

YOUNG: Yeah.

CARLIN: And so he went into this process, you know, the "Born to Run" album, knowing full well that in, you know, practically in literal way, his life was at stake.

YOUNG: Putting it all in. Well, what's interesting - we're going to talk more about "Born to Run" as we deconstruct that song. But a year earlier, in 1973, he'd written "Blinded by the Light." It was on "Greetings from Ashbury Park." But it failed commercially and turned out to be a hit for the Manfred Mann's band, 1976. But it's very different, very complicated. Let's listen to some of those lyrics.


SPRINGSTEEN: (Singing) Madman drummers bummers and Indians in the summer with a teenage diplomat. In the dumps with the mumps as the adolescent pumps his way into his hat.

YOUNG: It's obvious he sorts of say, OK. That was, maybe, too complicated. I'm just going to go with a story, "Born to Run."

CARLIN: Yeah. Well, you know, his manager, you know, the guy we're talking about a second ago, Mike Appel, I mean, that was kind of their mantra going into this album. He was always yelling to Bruce, you know, simplify, simplify, simplify. And eventually, you know, one of Bruce's greatest strengths, I think, as a writer is his ability to capture the essence of very complicated feelings and ideas in one or two lines.

YOUNG: Well, he also musically stripped away early things...


YOUNG: ...that he'd attached to the song. You can find him YouTube. Here is a woman's chorus, some extra singing and instrumentation that ended up being cut out.


SPRINGSTEEN: (Singing) ...because, baby, I'm just a scared and lonely rider. But I gotta find out how it feels. I want to know if love is wild. Girl, I want to know...

YOUNG: Oh, dear.


CARLIN: Yeah. Well, it didn't work, obviously. You know, they worked on that tune for, like, six months, putting things on, taking things off, Completely revising the song, going back to earlier version. I mean, it was, you know, just - the work was constant.

YOUNG: Well, let's listen to another version that was dropped.


SPRINGSTEEN: (Singing) Baby, we born to run. Run, we will - tramps like us, baby, we were born to run.

YOUNG: Oh, no.


YOUNG: You know, when you hear that, it's lovely enough, you know, in a way as the woman's chorus was sort of in a Phil Spector girl group way.


YOUNG: But it wouldn't have been the same rough and tumble song. What's great about the song to you?

CARLIN: You know, it just got this incredible power to it. It's that feeling of his emotions just exploding out of the song. And that song is kind of just four-and-a-half-minute catharsis basically, and the fact that he sings, you know, every syllable like his life depended on it. And it became a mission statement for the whole - rest of his career in a sense. I mean, obviously, he's evolved quite a bit. But that burning feeling of being young and having no place to go and feeling walled off from the opportunities in life, you know, I mean, and what that song is about just like what "Thunder Road's" about is saying, well, screw it. You know, I'm going to jump in the car and head off down the highway and I ain't going to stop until, you know, we'll get to that place that we really want to go. And we'll walk in the sun.

You know, on the one hand, that line, the place where we really want to go, seems kind of lame, you know, on the page. It's like, well, what place, dude? Tell me, you know, where exactly are we headed? But on the other hand, in the context of the song and in sort of swept up in the tornado of feeling in that song, it makes perfect sense. It's like he has no idea where he's headed. But it doesn't matter as much as at least starting the journey, you know, leaping into the void just on the strength of your own believe in yourself.

YOUNG: That's Peter Ames Carlin. He wrote the 2012 Bruce Springsteen biography, "Bruce." We're talking about the song "Born to Run." Some early scribblings of lyrics just sold for $197,000 at Sotheby's. Peter, thanks so much for helping us look at this one song.

CARLIN: It's been my pleasure. Thank you.


SPRINGSTEEN: (Singing) One, two, three four, the highway's jammed with broken heroes on a last-chance power drive.

YOUNG: Something more to be grateful for, no strings in "Born to Run." So from Jeremy Hobson and the hardworking staff of HERE AND NOW, thank you for being here in 2013. Come with us as we see what 2014 brings. From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Robin Young. This is HERE AND NOW.


SPRINGSTEEN: (Singing) Oh, someday, girl, I don't know when we're going to get to that place where we really want to go, as we walk in the sun. But till then, tramps like us, baby, we were born to run. Honey, tramps like us, baby, we were born to run.... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.