Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Born to Run (30th Anniversary Edition)

In his career-making third album, a Jersey contender turned an old Chevy into a Pink Cadillac and took an epic ride

The biggest problem with Bruce Springsteen's 1975 breakthrough album was always how unabashedly it proclaimed its own greatness. The wall-of-sound, white-soul-at-the-opera-house Born to Run is definitely full of itself--its lead track emoted over five minutes of portentous piano, its title track laden with glockenspiel and guitar guitar guitar, its thematic burden an unresolved quest narrative, its groove as grand as a V-8 hearse. Newcomers may not get why its class-conscious songcraft provided a relief from the emptier pretensions of late-hippie arena-rock. Yet it sounds greater today than it ever did.

By definition, the remastered thirtieth-anniversary edition of the album that put a cult artist from South Jersey on the cover of Time and Newsweek isn't shy about its greatness either. Greatness is what such packages hawk, so be grateful that this one has a right. Rather than "bonus tracks"--45-rpm mix of "Born to Run," anybody?--you get the original album and nothing but the original album. The remastering adds only presence, warmth and texture to the digitalization, which by lax early-Columbia standards wasn't bad to begin with. Three decades later, Springsteen still takes pride in his workmanship and his art, and that's strong of him. But the bonus DVDs that bring the damage up to $40 suggest some questions--and not just who will watch either of them twice.

One disc is a re-edited version of the oft-bootlegged November 1975 London concert that lasts two hours; the other, 20 minutes of a 1973 performance in L.A. plus an 87-minute making-of-the-album documentary. Surprisingly, it's the documentary that conveys more of the impish irrepressibility that made Springsteen so hard to resist onstage when he was young. His febrile ambition is less omnipresent than fond memory would hope at the London show, which the documentary recalls as if it was V-E Day. It's there in London when the singer disappears into an onstage crevice during "Spirit in the Night" or launches another chorus of "Rosalita," and on the show-topping rock & roll covers. But it's intermittent on the Born to Run material and lost in the fog of several loosely structured earlier songs. Which isn't even to mention the solos--let's hope organist Danny Federici knows how lucky he is to have his job.

In the still photos, taped studio chatter, reminiscences and descriptiosn of the 25-year-old Springsteen who bet his life on Born to Run, however, youthful intensity is palpable. The idea here, as in so much public Springsteen, is to establish a seriousness that avoids the pomposity the music risks. We learn Springsteen composed the album's melodies on piano and worked out the words in a notebook where a single lyric can occupy dozens of mostly scratched-out pages. We hear a boogieing run-through of "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out," an abandoned femme chorus behind "Born to Run," a lost violin intro to "Jungleland"--all possible bonus-cut fodder. Springsteen grins sheepishly at these shards of misplaced enthusiasm. They were just errors, history tells the auteur. As of 1975, Born to Run said what he wanted to say, and because it's a realized work of art, its truth will endure.

But its truth is now historic. Whatever factual value there once was in Springsteen's epic vision of small-town street kids buying a cool old car and pursuing their destiny on the road--and it was always a romance--is reduced to poetry in a world where college graduates wait tables to get through the indentured servitude of internship and gas costs whatever the oil companies say it does. But if any rock star knows that, it's Springsteen. He's pleased that many of his former dead-enders can afford $40 commemorative reissues. If he's also angry that today's young have it worse, which he is, he can at least help them appreciate their parents' lives.

Blender, Jan.-Feb. 2006