Springsteen played this for the first time on May 9, 1974 when he opened for Bonnie Raitt at Harvard Square. Rock critic Jon Landau was at the show and wrote in Boston's Real Paper: "I saw rock and roll's future - and its name is Bruce Springsteen." Landau eventually became Springsteen's manager.
Allan Clarke from The Hollies released a cover version a year before Springsteen released his.
This was the first song Springsteen wrote for a studio production, rather than a live performance. After recording four versions (one with a female chorus) at the low-budget studio where he recorded his first two albums, he moved to a higher end studio to finish it, refusing to release it until it was just right.
Springsteen wrote the lyrics in his Long Branch, New Jersey, home in early 1974. "One day I was playing my guitar on the edge of the bed, working on some song ideas, and the words 'born to run' came to me," he recalled. "At first I thought it was the name of a movie or something I'd seen on a car spinning around the circuit. I liked the phrase because it suggested a cinematic drama that I thought would work with the music that I'd been hearing in my head."
In the liner notes to his Greatest Hits album, Springsteen wrote: "My shot at the title. A 24 yr. old kid aimin' at 'The greatest rock 'n roll record ever.'"
Many of Springsteen's songs mention girls by name; in this one the heroine is Wendy. He explained that these ladies are composites of different people he knew.
Springsteen chose this as the album title after rejecting several other names, including War And Roses, The Hungry and The Hunted, American Summer, and Sometimes At Night.
"Highway 9" refers to Route 9 in New Jersey, which went through Springsteen's hometown of Freehold. Springsteen sang about another Jersey road, "Route 88," in "Spirit In The Night."
Springsteen performed a solo, slowed-down, acoustic version on his 1988 Tunnel of Love Express tour, changing the lyrics so the couple in the song were now married. He would play it as the first number in his first encore, emerging with an acoustic guitar and introducing the song by saying something along these lines:
"This is a song that has changed a lot over the years. As I've sung it, it seems to have been able to open up and let the time in. When I wrote it, I was 24 years old, sitting in my bedroom in Long Branch, New Jersey. When I think back, it surprises me how much I knew about what I wanted, because the questions I ask myself in this song, it seems I've been trying to find the answers to them ever since. When I wrote this song, I was writing about a guy and a girl that wanted to run and keep on running, never come back. That was a nice, romantic idea, but I realized after I put all those people in all those cars, I was going to have to figure out someplace for them to go, and I realized in the end that individual freedom, when it's not connected to some sort of community, can be pretty meaningless. So, I guess that guy and that girl out there were looking for connection, and I guess that's what I'm doing here. So, this is a song about two people trying to find their way home. It's kept me good company on my search, and I hope it keeps you good company on yours."
This patter can be traced to a December 13, 1987 benefit concert for homeless children at Madison Square Garden, where Springsteen introduced the song by saying: "It's about a boy and a girl that thought they wanted to run and keep running and never stop. And at the time I thought that was me and maybe it was. But I woke up one morning and realized that I wanted a home. And nobody wants or deserves to be homeless."
This is the only Springsteen track that drummer Ernest "Boom" Carter played on. He left to play in a jazz band with E Street piano player David Sancious after spending nine months with Bruce.
This song came at the crossroads of Springsteen's career. His first two albums sold poorly, and Columbia Records might have dropped him if he did not produce a hit.
This became an educational tool when it was used on Sesame Street as "Born To Add."
The amusement park Springsteen sings about in the line "Beyond The Palace, hemi-powered drones scream down the boulevard" is listed in the New Jersey Register of Historic Places.
In the line, "hemi-powered drones scream down the boulevard," a "hemi" is the 426 Hemi engine made famous by Chrysler muscle cars. "Drones" in this context are automatons, the young men driving their cars up and down the strip without a thought to the future.
Brian - Ann Arbor, MI
Bruce must have been born to run, because he ran and jumped over the walls of Graceland to meet Elvis in 1976 when he was on tour in Memphis. This was a year after Springsteen made the covers of both Time and Newsweek, but his fame didn't help him - when he got to the door, security intercepted him and escorted him off the grounds. They informed him that Elvis was in Lake Tahoe, which was true.
A live staple, Springsteen performed this at halftime of the Super Bowl in 2009.
Springsteen knew he had to write more mature songs as he got older if he was going to extend his career. He explained in a 2005 interview with National Public Radio: "'Born To Run' was the song of my youth. Now I have to write something else. I became attracted to country music and older blues and folk because they bring the same intensity to adult issues and adult problems. And I thought, this is a lifetime job for me. I want to write songs I can sing at that great advanced age of 40 years old."
Springsteen continued to play this song in concert with the same ferocity as when he debuted it in 1974. He explained to the Radio Times June 27-July 3 2009 that he may have sung this "quite a few times, but if the evening has gone well I experience renewal rather than repetition at the moment I sing it." He added: "This music has not been heard at this moment, in this place, to these faces. That's why we go out there."
In a Season 5 episode of The Sopranos
, the character Christopher Moltisanti quotes the song, saying he was late because "The highway's jammed with broken heroes on a last chance power drive." This could be an in-joke from the writers, as Steven Van Zandt of The E Street Band played Silvio on the series.
Matthew - Livingston, United Kingdom
This was a last-minute addition to Springsteen's 2001 Live In New York City album. He felt it was the missing ingredient on the CD, but the liner notes were already printed. The song had to be included as a hidden bonus track at the end of the first disc.
A page of Bruce Springsteen's early lyrics for this song etched in blue ink on a notepad page sold for $197,000 at an auction in New York on December 5, 2013. At this stage, Springsteen had the line "'Cause tramps like us, baby we were born to run' fully written. Other lyrics visible, including,"this town'll rip the bones from your back" and "it's a suicide trap" were slightly altered on the finished song.
One of the most emotional performances of this song came at The Spectrum in Philadelphia on December 9, 1980, the night after John Lennon was shot and killed. Springsteen opened the show by saying, "If it wasn't for John Lennon, a lot of us would be some place much different tonight. It's a hard world that asks you to live with a lot of things that are unlivable. And it's hard to come out here and play tonight, but there's nothing else to do."
The band then launched into "Born To Run" in a kind of catharsis: Steve Van Zandt had tears in his eyes and Danny Federici hit his keyboard so hard he broke a key. Thirty-three songs later, Springsteen closed the concert with Twist And Shout in tribute to Lennon.
In September 2013, two lanes were inexplicably closed on a ramp to the George Washington Bridge in Fort Lee, New Jersey, in what was later learned was retribution for the mayor of Fort Lee refusing to endorse Governor Chris Christie. In response, Jimmy Fallon dressed up like Bruce Springsteen and sang a reworked version of this song - titled "Gov. Christie Traffic Jam" - on his late night TV show.
Fallon sang a verse that included the lyrics, "They shut down the tollbooths of glory 'cause we didn't endorse Christie. " and "Whoa, maybe this Bridgegate was just payback, it's a bitchslap to the state democrats" before he was joined by the real Bruce Springsteen, who came in with the line, "Governor, let me in, I wanna be your friend, there'll be no partisan divisions."
Springsteen continued with a pointed political barb: "Someday, governor, I don't know when, this will all end, but till then you're killing the working man."
This was especially acute, since Christie has cited Springsteen as his favorite rocker and has talked about growing up listening to Bruce. Their politics diverge, so Springsteen has never supported Christie, but he did hug the governor at a Radio City Music Hall during a benefit for Hurricane Sandy victims in 2012. The "Traffic Jam" was a blatant rebuke to Christie in his darkest hour by his state's most popular entertainer.
Steven Van Zandt was partially responsible for the song's signature guitar line prior to joining the E Street Band for the Born to Run Tour. He recalled his contribution to Uncut magazine during a 2017 interview:
"Bruce and I were just friends at this point. He said I wanna play you my new record. And he played 'Born to Run' for me, with me lying on the floor of the studio. He'd been working on it for months - I mean, literally months on one song, which is incredible now. But he played it from me, and I said, Oh, that's great. I particularly love that minor riff, very Roy Orbison, something The Beatles would do. And he said, 'What minor riff? What do you mean?'
What was happening was he was doing a Duane Eddy style riff, with a bunch of echo on it, and he was bending up to the last note. But you never heard him bending up to the notes, it didn't register in your ear. He said, 'Oh my f---ing God,' and then played it how I heard it for the other guys, and I guess they all started to hear it the way I was, which was the way the whole world was gonna hear it! So they had to redo the guitar part and then the whole f--'ing mix. The mix alone took them a couple of weeks, because in those days there was no automation and there was a lot going on in the song."
There was a movement to make this the official state song of New Jersey.
In the UK, this didn't make the chart until 1987, when a live version recorded at Giants Stadium in New Jersey on August 19, 1985 made #16.
A rather noteworthy cover is by the British group Frankie Goes to Hollywood, which included it on their 1984 debut album, Welcome To The Pleasuredome
. In their homeland, they were the biggest act of the year, with three #1 singles, but America barely noticed. For Pleasuredome
, they covered not just "Born To Run" but two other very American songs as well: "War
" and "Do You Know the Way to San José
On November 10, 1984, the same day the album hit #1 in the UK, they played "Born To Run" on Saturday Night Live
along with the single they were pushing, "Two Tribes
." The Springsteen cover was an oddity for the group, which favored bondage gear, had no saxophone player, and whose lead singer had no romantic interest in anyone named Wendy. Outside of major cities, they got little attention; "Two Tribes" stalled at #43.