Sounds of Summer: One of my favourite summer albums “Born to Run” by Bruce Springsteen
By John Merchant – singer/guitarist Ghosts of Sunset
It seems like since the dawn of recorded music, the summer has held a special place in the hearts of songwriters. There’s something about the warmth, the rebirth after a long winter, the hopefulness that spring promises. Then, boom, it’s summertime.
Going back to the roots of rock n roll and Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime Blues”, or 1969 with Sly and the Family Stone singing “Hot Fun in the Summertime” to Bryan Adams “Summer of 69” to Demi Lovato’s 2015 “Cool for the Summer”, songwriters plow fertile ground in the summer.
One of my personal favourites is “Born to Run” by Bruce Springsteen. This record is so important to me, that I’ve watched documentaries on its making and recording, watched Bruce break it down while sitting at the piano, and burned through SEVERAL copies since I was a kid. Every summer since I first heard it, “Born to Run” finds its way onto my summer playlist. With all the summertime options, why this album?
An older friend turned me onto this album while we were sitting in his bedroom listening to 1980s hard rock like Sammy Hagar, Billy Squier, and Iron Maiden. Back then, we would cut the gatefold album covers and hang them on our bedroom walls. Of course, that meant we all owned a bunch of scratched records too. Collectors would hate us. Anyhow, on his wall, populated with heavy metal was a guy with a Fender Telecaster learning on a large African-American gentleman holding a saxophone. I was to learn the guitar-wielding gentleman was “the Boss” and the other guy was “the Big Man”. Their names were Bruce Springsteen and Clarence Clemmons. The black and white cover belonged to “Born to Run”. It had been released in 1975, which at that time, to me, seemed like a million years prior. It had been less than 10.
My buddy threw it on the turntable. It started with piano and harmonica. Iron Maiden’s song “Number of the Beast” began with a creepy, spoken bible passage. I could tell “Born to Run” would be different. The first song on “Born to Run” was “Thunder Road”, and the line “the screen door slams”, opened up the boardwalk of New Jersey to a kid in Northern Michigan. I could HEAR that screen door slam in my mind. I could feel the sticky, thick, summer air smack me in the face. The night was beginning. Bruce Springsteen would be my guide.
For the next 39:23, I would sit in my friend’s room and watch a movie in my mind. “Born to Run” was the soundtrack. I was going to meet “Mary”, “Eddie”, and even learn how “a change was made uptown and the big man joined the band” [the song, “Tenth Avenue Freeze Out”].
It was all there and I was HOOKED. I was a music nerd and fanatic long before this time, but “Born to Run” changed what I expected from songs, or at least, what I was asking them for.
“One soft infested summer, me and Terry became friends, trying in vain to breathe the fire were was born in” [the song “Backstreets”]. There was summer again, and friendship, and trying to somehow rise above everything to taste that one great summer night where anything could happen and MIGHT happen.
Of course, the song “Born to Run” is iconic and filled with the spirit of freedom and the spirit of wonder. “We gotta get out while we’re young”. Suddenly my little Michigan town started to feel constricting and tight. I just knew it was all happening somewhere I wasn’t. But I had resolve, it was the same resolve of restless kids everywhere, “this is gonna be THE summer”.
The next three songs that closed the album out went even deeper into the stories of the characters who lived in the grooves of “Born to Run”. There was tension in “Meeting Across the River” and danger. There were some shady characters and money being made in less than above the board ways. The thing is, I could FEEL the danger. I was THERE.
“Born to Run” played like a movie. It told stories, it introduced characters, and it changed what I was looking for in songs. Although I still loved simple songs with messages like “She Loves You” by the Beatles or even “Rock You” by Helix (“give me an R”), “Born to Run” would influence my listening, my writing, and even how I lived my life and how I viewed things like love, adventure, bands and songs. After that first listen, nothing was going to be the same. I still thank that friend from time to time.
Now, some, 40-ish years later, I still refer to this album as guidebook of what John Merchant often expects from songwriters. Bruce Springsteen made me want songs and albums to “take me places”. When I fall madly in love with a band or record, I can almost always draw a parallel line back to this record. It happened with “New Jersey” by Bon Jovi (duh), it happened with “the ’59 Sound” by the Gaslight Anthem.
As a co-writer in Ghosts of Sunset, I always TRY to infuse everything we do with those elements that meant so much to me on “Born to Run”. Characters, stories, emotions, and songs so rich with content that you can HEAR the screen door slam, you can FEEL chains of the city trying to hold you back from your DESTINY. To muster up the courage for that first kiss, to roll the dice that tonight might be the best night of your life.
Now, as we’re about to embark on summer 2023, a lot has changed from me, and the “perfect summer” looks a lot different, but Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run” will be there to provide the soundtrack like it has since I first heard it in a metalheads bedroom so many years ago. If someday, even a single person puts on Ghosts of Sunset to provide the backing track to THEIR perfect summer, I’ll know I’ve at least paid a small part of a huge debt I owe to “Born to Run.”