1975 was a relatively quiet and somewhat tedious year. Gerald Ford was the unelected president of the United States after Richard Nixon’s ignominious exit the August before following the exposure of several of his crimes by the media and Congress. The US war against the people of Southeast Asia had ended earlier in the year with a resounding victory by the liberation forces of Vietnam. This had been preceded by another victory in Cambodia by forces who would wreak their own death and destruction on top of that left after years of aerial bombardment by the United States Air Force. In terms of the nationalist project of the US, hype was beginning to build for the bicentennial celebration in 1976. The Red Sox were on their way to winning the American league pennant in advance of what would turn out to be one of major league baseball’s most exciting World Series ever.
I was working a bullshit job as a short order cook at the local Pancake house. Fifty hours a week and bringing home a hundred bucks after taxes and meal deductions. I gambled a few bucks away every Friday night in a friendly poker game with co-workers after I got off of work and sold a little bit of weed to make up my losses. My political activities were down to attending bi-weekly study groups where we discussed Marxist economics and the meaning of the present; that and the occasional labor or anti-racism rally. The local office of the Vietnam Veterans of the War (where I would sometimes hang out stuffing envelopes and answering phones) was experiencing the effects of a national split over communism. My buddies who ran the place were being pressured by the landlord to shut down the office. I ran into them occasionally at a local bar. Mostly, it seemed like everyone I knew was smoking a lot of weed when they could find it and drinking too much when they couldn’t find it. I wanted to get out of my situation, but the way to do so was not clear. Plus, there were a couple women tangentially involved.
Willie Nelson’s album Red Headed Stranger was rewriting what we used to call country and western music. That plaintive melodic voice and nylon-stringed guitar evoked a wide open west I had not been to since I was a child. The machismo usually present in the genre was muted and Willie was a stoner; both of these facts were a seismic change from the alcohol-soaked songs of say, George Jones or Merle Haggard. Bob Dylan was back in the game after releasing Blood On the Tracks in January. This work was almost perfect for the temperament of the people who got Dylan. Lamenting the loss of love and the revolution, calling out the pretenders and usurpers of the throne in the halls of power, and seeking shelter from the storm that was the Sixties, Dylan also provided his listeners with a road map to keep on keepin’ on. Then there was this disc called Blues for Allah from the resurrected Dead. After calling it quits in 1974, the muse (and whatever else it was) that pulled the Grateful Dead together in the first place called the band’s members back into the studio. The result was a pleasurable mix of rock, jazz fusion, and even some Middle Eastern sounds. The lyrics were, like so much of the band’s catalog at the time, a celebration of life and an examination of its myth and meaning. The Rolling Stones were touring the United States again, playing lots of songs from their late 1974 release It’s Only Rock and Roll.
The last week of July I found myself in Washington DC’s Carter Barron Theater with several thousand other folks at one of three concerts by Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. The concerts had been sold out for weeks. In fact, I had stood in line for tickets for hours the day they went on sale and felt lucky that I had scored the maximum number of eight. I probably paid a total of fifty dollars on the set. Several cuts from Springsteen’s soon-to-be-released album Born to Run had been playing on the local FM station WHFS for weeks and the anticipation around the concert was at a peak.
The album Born to Run was released in late August. The desires and emotions expressed in the title song were almost exactly what I felt. Dead-end job, boring suburban town, factories closing down, Richard Nixon still a free man, and nothing but more of the same in the future. I just wanted to get the hell out. It didn’t matter where I went and it didn’t matter if I got there. The road was the thing. I didn’t have a hopped-up Camaro. Hell, I didn’t even have a driver’s license, but I did have a thumb. It became my ticket to another place. The other songs had their place, too. The line from “Backstreets” about getting wasted in the heat described my time off. “She’s the One” expressed a passion one of those women and I shared. “Jungleland” was a movie whose lyrics created a film of a street scene in the urban world of swagger and ennui, much like Dylan’s cut “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts” projected an American western into the listener’s brain. Then, there was the very first song on the album. How does one top “Thunder Road”–a song of resignation, rebellion and hope; love won and lost–except by following it with the series of songs that follow. Arguably, the rest of the album is just a collection of stories detailing the promises and questions raised in the opener.
The mainstream media jumped on the album release. Back when print newsweeklies mattered, both Time and Newsweek had Springsteen on their covers the same week in 1975. The media blitz around Springsteen seemed contrived, to say the least. Despite this, his fans never doubted his authenticity, at least not until he broke up the E Street Band for a few years in the 1980s–a decade of inauthenticity and fraud only too apparent in the advent of MTV and the music video business. And that actor in the White House.