Springsteen, the Sadness, and the Madness

Bruce Springsteen’s best-known song is misunderstood — and I’m not talking about “Born in the U.S.A.” Luckily, the new “Springsteen on Broadway” album gives people a peek at why “Born to Run” is so meaningful.

Anyone who knows more than a thing or two about me knows I’m a diehard Bruce Springsteen fan. So, December 14 is a pretty good day: it’s the day the “Springsteen on Broadway” album came out on Spotify (and other services).

I was lucky enough to see “Springsteen on Broadway” twice — once in October 2017 and again last week. And I’m so glad the performance is available for all, because it shines a new light on a song that even non-Springsteen fans have probably heard before.

You see, Springsteen’s most famous song is misunderstood.

I’m not talking about “Born in the U.S.A.” By now, many know that the tune, jingoistic at surface level, is actually a stinging indictment of the country’s treatment of its Vietnam veterans. The haunting version of the song on Broadway should leave no doubts about the true meaning of Springsteen’s 1984 anthem.

Rather, I’m talking about Springsteen’s first hit, “Born to Run.”

The 1975 classic, like “Born in the U.S.A.,” is straightforward at first listen. It’s a love letter from a man to his love interest, Wendy. It’s an anthem for anyone who ever wanted to break out of their “trap” of a town or city. It’s a song for young lovers, a power-rock ballad of exuberance.

Except it’s not.

A Springsteen interview with Vanity Fair in 2016 first opened my eyes to a different meaning of the song, that it’s actually a solemn, emotional, deeply meaningful look at what “real” love is. (Recall Springsteen tells the listener he “want[s] to know if love is real.”)

Springsteen goes to great lengths — in interviews, in the Broadway show, and in his autobiography — to break down the complicated relationship between his father, who struggled with depression and alcohol abuse, and his mother, a bright light in Springsteen’s life who carried the family.

Doug and Adele Springsteen’s support of one another — through this sadness and madness of life — seems like Springsteen’s take on “real” love.

Here’s Annie Leibovitz in Vanity Fair, on the connection between Springsteen’s most famous song and his parents:

I told him that the pact the song’s narrator makes with Wendy — “We can live with the sadness / I’ll love you with all the madness in my soul” — jumped out at me, now that I’d read the book, as the pact that Doug Springsteen made with Adele.

Springsteen smiled. “That was their pact,” he said.

It’s hard to pick up on the meaning of that lyric, though — “We can live with the sadness / I’ll love you with all the madness in my soul” — by listening to the classic original version of the song.

That’s where Broadway comes in. “Born to Run” appears, fittingly, as the final song on the album. It’s an acoustic version — the Broadway show was a solo one — but begins in a joyful and enthusiastic way.

It’s not until the final verse that the 69-year-old Springsteen slows it down, and sings in a solemn, almost mournful, tone.

Well the highway’s jammed with broken heroes/on a last chance power drive./Everybody’s out on the run tonight, but there’s no place left to hide./So together, Wendy, we’ll live with the sadness,/I’ll love with you all the madness in my soul./Someday girl, I don’t know when, we’re gonna get to that place where we really wanna go./And we’ll walk in the sun,/‘til then tramps like us, baby we were born to run.

The song, and the show, ends with Springsteen tapping his guitar in a heartbeat rhythm.

The conclusion of Springsteen’s show, and of the deep self-exploration in his book and his Broadway run, seems to be the answer to the question he asked himself and others in 1975.

Springsteen found out that love is real, but not in the picture-perfect way displayed in other aspects of our pop culture. Instead, it’s the messy, beautiful pact Doug and Adele Springsteen made: to live with the sadness and love with the madness.

I’ve learned that lesson in various ways, large and small, over the years. It’s been the most meaningful lesson about love in my 24 short years on the planet. It took a poet like Springsteen, though, to show me that this love is real.

Writing about policy, politics, baseball, and more. Born/raised in CT. Proud D.C. resident. Raisin Bran Crunch enthusiast. Always tired.