Sometimes I like to write about songs that are special to me. Today the song is Born to Run; you know it, everyone knows it. It’s a hit. But there’s something about it I’ve not been able to put my finger on – a strange vertigo; a vague, nauseating sadness. And I’ve figured out why.
It has all to do with Springsteen’s vocal. Listen to the track and you’ll see that it carries a morose desperation. It sounds as though he is singing through gritted teeth; as though the weight of life and work is a carried agony in his soul, and his song is his last defiant kickback at the world. He sounds weary, beaten down, on the brink of defeat. Springsteen’s soul got old before its time, like the souls of so many poor bastards, and you can hear the cynicism in his delivery. He waxes about escaping the dead end town, running away with Wendy, but listen to the dripping melancholy in his tone: he knows it’ll never happen. He’s singing the lyrics but he doesn’t believe them.
‘The highway’s jammed with broken heroes on a last chance power drive’
The song was written in 1974 after two unsuccessful albums, and this was it, this was the last shot at stardom, at escaping the humdrum. You can hear it in his voice – he’s shooting for the stars, one last time, and if it doesn’t work, if he misses, well – it’s oblivion, and he knows it. Springsteen’s delivery is angry and exhausted, and I think it’s that subtle anguish that delivered Springsteen to the hearts of a hundred thousand brow-sweating American dreamers.
I understand where he’s coming from, but for me that’s where the original recording and I part ways. The original version ultimately just makes me sad; whatever it was designed to convey when it was created, with its downbeat shimmering guitars and that damned out of place saxophone solo – that solo has no right to be in there amongst all that pain- it sounds fake, like smiling up at your mates with tear filled eyes and telling them that everything is fine after your girlfriend just dumped you.
And then I heard Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s cover – and there you’ll find it: the missing energy and fuck-it-all-I-love-you idealism that finally makes the track everything it deserves to be. Holly Johnson’s vocal is clear cut and bold, echoing and young, free of The Boss’s gravel-peppered despair. Johnson was a younger man than Springsteen at the time of their respective recordings, and it shows. That spark still burns bright, and his delivery promises an altogether different translation of Springsteen’s notion of what it means to escape. What you’re running away from shouldn’t matter, it’s what you’re running to that counts. Frankie Goes To Hollywood deliver something that is a world away from gloom-spun romance: hope.
And there is nothing – not hate, fear, fury or love – so graceful and pure as hope.
Johnson’s vocal promises us that after everything, after all of the bleak imagery spun by the lyrics, we might just make it. This town rips the bones from your back; we’ve got to get out while we’re young – and you know what? That’s exactly what we’re going to do. Romanticism without that hope falls flat; leads to nowhere but melancholy, which is undeniably beautiful yet ultimately useless. That’s why, for all its morose glorification of last-chance sweet failure and beautiful doom, Springsteen’s version will always err on the side of the depressing. He leaves nothing for us to cling to.
And then listen to Johnson howl the word ‘Highways’ after the breakdown! There’s a man that believes. There’s a man that isn’t beaten and won’t be – not by nothin’ or no one, and that’s the spirit of true romance. It’s that invincible feeling; the sudden hand that grips yours just when you need it most, when all is lost and then- …and then you’ve got everything you ever wanted. And nothing hurts.
Here’s the thing about being young and watching your whole life fall apart and wondering what the fuck you did to smash up your life so fabulously: you’ve got nowhere to go but up. I’ve been living in that state on and off for a few years now, subsisting in the waking fallout and ongoing karmic resolution of some shitty things I did when I was younger and stupider. That’s why Johnson’s vocal is the one for me. Because sometimes it might feel like everything around is crumbling but, god – that’s all the more reason to laugh.
Laugh in the face of adversity, love with everything you’ve got, because life is fucking hard and we exist in the great challenge of figuring it all out and fucking it all up, time and time again, growing every day and rallying and falling deeply, irrevocably in love with the lonely souls we stumble across, and at the end of everything, that’s what we’ve got to cling onto, on this pale blue dot suspended in a moonbeam above the infinite: each other. And when you hold that person in your arms, none of it matters. You can be broken and destitute and wreathed in desolation, but when you love, none of it can touch you. There’s the hope that Springsteen missed when he sang Born to Run, and that’s what Johnson captured so beautifully.
There’s joy out there in infinite capacity, and don’t you forget it. As E.B. White once wrote, “Hang on to your hat. Hang on to your hope. And wind the clock, for tomorrow is another day.”