Hot Rods, Highways, and High Drama: The Meaning Behind Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run”

Bruce Springsteen wrote “Born to Run” in a rented cottage in Long Branch, New Jersey, just steps away from the Jersey Shore. 

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“I was in the midst of giving myself a crash tutorial in Fifties and Sixties rock ‘n’ roll,” he explains in his 2016 autobiography, Born to Run. Every night, he’d drift off to sleep while listening to a soundtrack of mid-century music: Phil Spector’s pop opuses, Duane Eddy’s surf-rock soundscapes, Roy Orbison’s operatic crooning. During his waking hours, he took note of his surroundings, from the hot-rod vehicles that cruised down Ocean Avenue to the young couples who walked the boardwalk, their arms draped around one another. There was a particular romance to this place, and Springsteen wanted to create its soundtrack. 

The song took him six months to finish. “I wanted to use the classic rock ‘n’ roll images, the road, the car, the girl…what else is there?” he wrote in Born to Run. “It was a language enshrined by Chuck Berry, The Beach Boys, Hank Williams, and every lost highway going back to the invention of the wheel. But to make these images matter, I would have to shape them into something fresh, something that transcended nostalgia, sentiment, and familiarity.”

Like so many of Springsteen’s compositions, “Born to Run” focuses its spotlight on two lovers who dream of escaping the confines of their small town. It’s a tale of wanderlust, restlessness, and the lure of the open road. The song’s narrator might as well be sitting behind the wheel of his car, keys in hand, imploring his girlfriend to hop in and chase down a new horizon. He’s desperate, but he’s driven, too, and “Born to Run” sparkles with the doggedness of those desires. 

Oh, baby, this town rips the bones from your back, the protagonist sings to his girlfriend, Wendy. It’s a death trap, it’s a suicide rap / We gotta get out while we’re young

Are those lyrics a little dramatic? Sure. Springsteen’s characters are young, though, and nothing magnifies the details of day-to-day life like youth. The narrator isn’t just bored; he’s trapped, boxed-in, and straight-jacketed by a hometown that isn’t nearly big enough to house his big dreams. He doesn’t just love his girlfriend, he wants to “guard [her] dreams and visions.” Highway 9 isn’t just a stretch of blacktop that runs through town, taking southbound motorists to Delaware and northbound drivers to upstate New York. It’s a highway that’s “jammed with broken heroes on a last-chance power drive,” with “girls [who] comb their hair in rearview mirrors” and “boys [who] try to look so hard.” 

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For the characters in “Born to Run,” life is vivid and emotions are amplified. Escaping town is much more than an aspiration. It’s a necessity. A lifesaver, even. Once the chorus arrives, it becomes a birthright. Tramps like us, baby, we were to run, Springsteen sings, ratcheting up the melodrama as he scoops into the refrain’s final note. 

To match the grandeur of those lyrics, Springsteen pulled long hours in the recording studio. “We layered instrument upon instrument, mixing down and down, track to track, combining sections of instruments until we could fit our 72 tracks of rock ‘n’ roll overkill on the 16 available tracks at 914 Studios,” he recalled, name-checking the New York studio where he’d already tracked records like Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. and The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle. The song’s guitar riff had arrived early in the songwriting process, becoming a cornerstone for the “Wall of Sound” production that followed. Clarence Clemmons’ wailing saxophone arrived later, speeding the song toward a new peak during its final stretch, delivering the release that “Born to Run” so urgently craves. 

As a vocalist, Bruce Springsteen can’t hold a handle to his influences. Roy Orbison might be the song’s touchstone, but Springsteen’s gruff, bar-band baritone is limited in its range and tone. If Orbison’s classic songs reach toward the heavens, driven by an otherworldly voice that shoots itself skyward, then Springsteen’s bark is definitely earthbound. That’s part of the appeal to “Born to Run,” though. It’s a song that glorifies the grit of hardscrabble life. A song that elevates everyday desires into something grand. 

After Born to Run‘s release, Springsteen went on to become one of the most celebrated artists in modern music, writing more albums that turned common-man struggles into street poetry. “Born to Run” wasn’t his first song to hit that mark, but it might have been his best. Like the song’s own characters, Springsteen dared to dream about something bigger and better. He had the gall to climb toward the musical heights his heroes had reached. In “Thunder Road,” another track from Born to Run, he even nodded to “Only the Lonely,” a song that Roy Orbison sang with effortless grace. You can hear, literally, the effort in “Born to Run,” but the effort is what makes the song—and its storyline—so beautiful. 

Photo by Fin Costello/Redferns

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