blind spots

Natalie Prass Listens to Bruce Springsteen: "This Sax Solo Just Keeps Going"

Bruce’s career-making 'Born to Run' is considered a rock’n’roll masterpiece, but Natalie Prass had never heard it. Now she likes it. Kinda?

by Josh Terry; photos by Brittany Sowacke
02 October 2018, 8:10am

Welcome to Blind Spots, in which we force some of our favorite artists to finally check out the most famous albums they've never heard.

It’s fitting that so many of the characters in Born to Run were at the end of their rope, looking to leave town and finally reach their dreams. In 1975, Bruce Springsteen was at a similar crossroads. The then 25-year-old songwriter had released two albums, 1973’s Greetings From Asbury Park and The Wild, The Innocent, & The E Street Shuffle, to moderate critical acclaim but disappointing commercial sales. With the possibility of his longtime label Columbia dropping his contract, Springsteen saw his third effort 1975’s Born To Run, like the protagonists of the title track, as his last ditch effort to get to the place he wanted to be.

On the album, Springsteen powered through eight urgent songs about youth, dreams, and getting the hell out of your small town. Though “Born to Run” and the ripping E Street Band origin story “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” were the only two singles, songs like the piano-led epic “Thunder Road,” the big-hearted “Backstreets,” and the sprawling nine-and-a-half minute “Jungleland” became some of the most iconic songs of Springsteen’s now 18 studio album career. Front-to-back, Springsteen’s undying optimism and lifelong tendency to root for the underdog are pervasive. His galvanising charisma is just one of the album’s many charms.

Forty-three years later, Born to Run proved to bring the wide-eyed New Jersey musician more acclaim and success than even he would have imagined. It hit number three on the Billboard album charts, landed Springsteen on the cover of Newsweek and Time, and made the Boss a rock’n’roll powerhouse in a matter of weeks. Since then, it’s been certified Platinum six times, is constantly featured on classic rock radio, and placed 18th in the Rolling Stone 500 Best Albums of All-Time list. Even the ever-humble Springsteen once compared Born to Run to albums and artists like “the Sun Sessions, Highway 61, Sgt. Peppers, the Band, Robert Johnson, Exile on Main Street.”

Like Springsteen, Richmond, Virginia’s Natalie Prass has spent a career giving new vitality to classic American music from the past. Her 2015 self-titled first effort translated her love of Dionne Warwick and Dusty Springfield into one of the most compelling debuts of that year while her latest, 2018’s The Future And The Past takes 90s R&B, jazz, and 80s pop into protest music that feels distinctly of the moment. Despite her nostalgic take on songwriting, she’s never heard Bruce Springsteen.

Because of this, Noisey met up with Prass before her recent show at Chicago’s Lincoln Hall to make her check out his seminal LP Born To Run. “I know he's like blue collar and, super into representing New Jersey,” she says of her pre-listen impression of the Boss. “He also wears a lot of denim and leather and always has like a handkerchief on him. He'll also have a white cutoff t shirt in a lot of the photos I've seen him. I do know Clarence Clemons because he's from Norfolk, Virginia, which is close to where I grew up. There's that tie. I also have met his nephew Jake Clemons that took his place in the band. I just saw him recently. He's so awesome.” Read further for Prass’ track-by-track reaction.

1. “Thunder Road”

Natalie Prass: So it starts with harmonica? Damn, that's bold: piano and harmonica. I don't like the harmonica. It's like my least favourite instrument.

Noisey: Oh no. Worse than bagpipes?
I can actually get down with some bagpipes.

OK. They are one of Noisey's 69 Worst Instruments of All-Time. But so is the harmonica.
This kind of harmonica is like, "Oh, this is in the same key. I'll just blow on this and see what happens."

Totally. This one is called "Thunder Road" and it’s one of the most well known Bruce songs.
His voice is a lot more warble-y than I thought or remember. I know I've heard that "Born in the USA" song and this is really different than my memory of that. It's also funny to think that he has an album called Born to Run and an album called Born in the USA.

Where did you hear Born in the USA?
I don't know. Probably in my dad's station wagon or something back in the day.

Born in the USA came out in 1984 close to a decade after Born to Run. Where Born to Run is his third LP, Born in the USA was his seventh.
Okay so I might say something really controversial, but that piano playing is pretty Billy Joel sounding to me. He's hammering hard here.

I don't think it's controversial. It's a major key piano ballad like a lot of Billy Joel’s tracks. Plus, the two performed together as recently as this summer.
My bassist Dom Angelella was saying earlier that people either like Bruce or Billy.

I could see that but I feel like the the middle of a venn diagram of both Bruce and Billy fans is pretty wide.
Wait, is that glockenspiel?

Yes.
What if Bruce played glockenspiel onstage?

He'd probably make it look really cool for the first time ever and put everything into it.
He's just going off here.

What did you grow up listening to?
I didn't grow up listening to rock. My Dad likes Motown and my mom likes Barbra Streisand and Natalie Cole so that's what was in the house when I was a kid. Then from there in elementary school I liked all the popular R&B songs and then I got into indie rock in high school but it was a lot of bands from Richmond, I grew up in Virginia Beach, like Denali. I also liked Q and Not U from D.C. I don't know, I guess it was kind of just random weird bands, small bands, but I also always really liked Elton John. He's kind of rock, right? But I was never exposed to any of Bruce Springsteen's music.

To give some backstory on the record, he had been hailed as the next Bob Dylan early on in his career and had previously released two other records, his debut Greetings From Asbury Park and his sophomore LP The Wild, The Innocent, & The E Street Shuffle were commercial flops.
Wait, what was the name of that last one?

The Wild, The Innocent, & The E Street Shuffle.
My god.

I know. So Born to Run is his third record and at the time, was kind of his make or break album. He was in his mid-twenties about to be dropped by his label Columbia and just went for it.
Oh my god. He was that young? That always freaks me out when people are so freakishly young and are doing something like this. It's crazy that this is his third record at that point in his life.

Listening to his voice you can't tell that this is a 24 or 25 year old singing.
That's true but he definitely sounds younger than he did on Born in the USA. Now that I think about it, I also have heard something from Nebraska which is pretty folky. If someone hadn't told me that Nebraska song was Bruce, I wouldn't have known it. To me, this sounds like what I imagine Bruce to sound like and just as I'm saying that, here's the saxophone solo. It also sounds like every instrument that was available in the studio was on this song.

The credits list is pretty extensive.
Oh! Max Weinberg. He's still in the band, right? I know Steven Van Zandt too the guitar player. I also know the Brecker Brothers. I did go to Berklee for one year.

It's funny you mention Steve Van Zandt because this song is the reason he officially joined the band. During one of the sessions, they were struggling with the Brecker Brothers horn parts on this song and Van Zandt came up with the arrangement on the spot.
Oh cool. This is very 50s and 60s. I think about this kind of sound when I think about Bruce. I also think about classic cars like Cadillacs and Mustangs and Camaros.

2. "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out"

With this one, it's a song that's about Bruce getting the band together. I love when bands have songs about their own origin story. It starts off with the line, "Teardrops on the city, Bad Scooter searching for his groove." Bruce is Bad Scooter.
That's like his own version of Bob Dylan's self-mythology?

Definitely.
Bruce has a lot of different vocal placements. He's a really dynamic singer. Now that you mention it, I think the one clearest memory of Bruce Springsteen I have is the epic knee-slide he did during his Super Bowl halftime show. That's all I know.

Funnily enough, he did the knee-slide during a song off Born to Run. This very song, "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out."
Was it, really? I didn't recognise the song.

He did a four-song medley when the E Street Band performed in 2009 and two of those songs were off Born To Run. I'm curious to see which songs you've heard already.
I guess I must have heard this one before.

What do you think of this one compared to the first one?
This is a lot drier. They're definitely going for a Motown, throwback, good-old-days sound. The first one was throwing everything out there but this was is more edited and has a lot more space in it. There's still a lot of energy but it's really nostalgic.

All of his records are so nostalgic. He was a young guy with a bunch of old 45s who tried to translate American music of the past into something youthful.
He still does that today? I like that.

3. “Night”

Oh shit. This one really starts out in your face. It really goes in with that hi-hat and Clarence is just wailing.

I've heard this album so many times but Clarence Clemons' playing still really gets me. There's a sax solo towards the end of the LP that hit me hard even when I was prepping for this interview. I'm not even a huge saxophone guy.
There's the glockenspiel again. It's like a cute little fairy is bouncing on top of the track. Bruce to me really sums up New Jersey. I've always liked people from that state. I dated a guy from there a while ago, but I have this deep appreciation for Jersey people. I would go to his parent's house and all his friends that he grew up since he was a baby would come hang out in his basement. We'd play darts and watch movies. I feel like New Jersey dudes have this tough guy thing but they would be super kind who would drop everything on a dime to help someone. That's what this sounds like. I feel like Bruce is a nice dude. He seems like he's that same kind of person looking tough with all the denim but really sweet at heart.

"I feel like New Jersey dudes have this tough guy thing but they would be super kind who would drop everything on a dime to help someone. That's what this sounds like."

You're dead on with that assessment.
Also looking at the album art I realise I know this cover but I thought it'd be the one with his butt on it.

That's Born In The USA. Also, recreating that LP cover is one of the easiest DIY Halloween costumes you could do.
That's hilarious. Look how cute he is on that cover. He's hot.

4. “Backstreets”

Wow, "One soft infested summer, me and Terry became friends/Trying in vain to breathe the fire we was born in." Oh my god, this is long.

There's a reason he was pegged as the next Bob Dylan. He was a really intense writer who cared about the structure of his songs and was also very cinematic with his word choices.
Yeah, this is like a movie. This is like some The Outsiders shit.

The last song on the album is basically West Side Story.
Alright, I actually don't like this one. Honestly my favourite one was probably that second one, production-wise. This melody doesn't bring me in at all. It's a song that you'd put your arm around your bro and scream along to. I don't really like screaming either.

That happens 10,000 times at every Bruce Springsteen show. Also, kind of the point of the song.
This song is just too much for me. Why is there organ with the piano? It's just too much.

One thing I've heard a lot is that people find it a little theatrical if they've never listened to it before.
It is theatrical but not in a Billy Joel way. We listened to a bit of Billy in the beginning of this tour and I couldn't stomach it more than an hour in. I think I'd much rather hang out with Bruce than Billy.

I'd love to hang out with both but I've read some interviews with Billy Joel and he actually seems pretty cool. We made Twin Peaks listen to The Stranger for this series and they did not love it.
Also I didn't ask when the song is playing but what exactly is a "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out"

Bruce has actually been on record saying he has no clue either. He said in a documentary, "I still have no idea what it means. But it's important."
He's just slurping Freezies down in Jersey Beach.

Probably. So yeah, that's side one of the record. It's a very thoughtfully-structured album. The first and last songs on each side kind of bookend each other very nicely.
Yeah, that one definitely sounded a bit like the first one.

5. “Born To Run”

Oh I know this one. This is the most pop song that's happened so far. It kind of sounds like Starship or something a little. Glockenspiel again!

It's everywhere!
The only thing I know is that riff but I'm not sure I remember any lyrics or the chorus or anything.

Not even the "tramps like us, baby we were born to run" line?
Nope not even that.

Interesting. So this song came out well before the record did and was Bruce's way to say he was really going for it this time. He spent six months writing it.
Wait, the entire record or this song?

This one song.
Dang. I respect that a lot. Some songs take a long time.

I listened to an alternate version with strings and a backing choir and this is definitely a better version. It's clear he was a perfectionist writing this one.
That whole story can make you a Bruce fan. Here's Clarence. Whoa, this one is hot. My god. This is really interesting.

What's the longest you've ever taken to write a song?
Definitely not six months. If it's not done in a few days, I'm going to move on. I'd drive myself crazy. I wonder what his process is. I like this key change. Wow. This was on the radio?

This and "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out" were the only singles off the album.
This is the kind of part that you develop later when you play the song live a million times and try to spice it up for the live show.

Even at that point in his career Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band were already first-and-foremost a live band. Before this record had even come out he got that famous Jon Landau review that read, "I have seen rock and roll's future and its name is Bruce Springsteen..." Fun fact: He was opening up for Bonnie Raitt at that show.
I really like that "Born to Run" song. I'm such a sucker for pop music. That would be the one I would play over and over again. But if I could be a total Bruce Springsteen fan and think that this music speaks to me. Like I said, I really like Bruce the guy, but I don't think I would ever put this on.

I'm an outlier who got into Bruce by just starting from the beginning. I knew Born To Run and Born In The USA but it didn't really click until I started with his debut and kept going. His first two records are sentimental favourites for me.
You don't hear this kind of music at all anymore. It's so raw, which is pretty cool.

This album just kind of like blew up. It didn't get number one, it got number three, which is pretty good for 1975. But it did land him on the covers of Time and Newsweek .
Damn. Wonder who the last rock musician to be on the cover of Time was.

It was probably Bono or something.

6. “She’s The One”

So this is a very romantic song, right? It starts with "With her killer graces/And her secret places /That no boy can fill." Wow, he even mentions French cream in here!

It's a bit romantic? I remember a line about her "angel eyes" telling "desperate lies." Can you imagine hearing lyrics like that in 2018?
It's very poetic.

It's obviously beautiful writing but I just can't imagine some of the bands I cover going for it like this.
It's true. We've all gotten so dumb at this point. It's crazy how it shifted, for sure.

This album has always been about Bruce trying to capture youth as much as possible. I remember reading that the Wendy in Born To Run is literally Wendy from Peter Pan because Bruce hung a poster of Peter Pan in his bedroom.
That is a bit on the nose.

7. “Meeting Across The River”

This one is a one of the quieter ones. I think it might end up being your favorite. It's a totally different vibe than the rest of the record.
I like it so far. Is that a Brecker brother?

It is.
This sounds like it could be a Burt Bacharach song but Burt Bacharach would never have trumpet like that on there. This is very musical theatre. I love it. And that part reminded me of Harry Nilsson.

"I wonder if Bruce was writing gay love songs."

The lyrics deal with a criminal meeting another criminal across the bridge where there's a ‘one chance to get it right' kind of story.
Are the characters in this song in love?

I don't think so.
I wonder if Bruce was writing gay love songs.

I've definitely read the theories about "Backstreets" being about a gay relationship, but I don't know if that's true. The genders in the song and the nature of the relationship are ambiguous.
This vibe sounds very “longing for love” to me.

Looking at my phone according to Wikipedia, the lyrics describe a down on his luck, a low level criminal but with one last chance at success for him and his friend Eddie, that involves meeting a man across the river.
Don't blow it, Eddie. There's also a Cherry which is another character. You called it. This is definitely my favourite. The chord changes remind me of Joni Mitchell.


8. "Jungleland."

This is a nine-and-a-half minute song.
Oh, dammit. I love that people just got away with that.

All things considered though this is a fast record.
What does that piano remind me of? It might be Elton John or wait, the Cheers theme song. It sounds so familiar. That "And the Magic Rat drove his sleek machine" is a very Bruce phrasing.

On a random note, do you know that song "Blinded by the Light"? That's a Bruce Springsteen song that Manfred Mann popularised.
What? I didn't know that. I only knew that Bruce wrote that Patti Smith song, "Because The Night." I love "Blinded By The Light." More like, "revved up like a douche, right?" I know it's actually "deuce."

Good to know that it wasn't just me making that joke in high school.
We all did it. Oh, here's where the song blows up. I bet everyone in the audience just loses their shit when they get into this part.

People definitely lose their shit over "Jungleland."
All these middle-aged East Coasters.

Whenever I think of Springsteen fans I think of cool parents, their punk children, and former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.
Right, I forgot he was a Bruce fan!

He's seen over 140 concerts and Bruce has continually repudiated him in interviews and made fun of him on late night TV. Christie sucks, but I can't imagine how I'd handle it as a fan if my favourite artist went public telling me to fuck off. On that note, maybe music journalism isn't the best career move for me.
Christie does suck. A lot. He deserves it. Is it like a sociopathic thing? How do you get so into this man who's so obviously for the working class and then be the opposite of that? Especially when that artist tells you to fuck off.

It's like when Paul Ryan said Rage Against the Machine was one of his favorite bands.
Doesn't Max Weinberg's son play in Slipknot now?

He does. He also briefly played in Against Me!
Clarence Clemons is such a good sax player. I really like this. Isn't Bruce's wife in the band too?

She is.
I love that. Oh yeah, this sax solo just keeps going. His tone is unbelievable.

Can you believe that when this album was done, Bruce hated it? He apparently threw the acetone of the final mix in a hotel pool.
If he's spending six months on writing one song, I'm sure the recording process must've been gruelling. He was probably losing his mind. And back then, I feel like record labels had so much more power. Also, this is nice how they're bringing it back down. I love the Hammond B3 organ here. I haven't been digging it in the rest of the songs but I like when there's room for the B3. Does Bruce play piano?

He does. Most of the album was composed on one.
As someone who writes her songs on piano but doesn't play it live, I relate to that. In this live set up, I'm mostly exploring the whole just being a straight up frontperson. I love the challenge of it. It was awkward at first but I love owning it and being able to connect more.

Totally.
This is definitely West Side Story. Oh man, this almost sounded like Brian Wilson for a second.

Now it sounds like Coldplay with this final wail.
You're totally right. I'm even getting Dark Side of the Moon. Wait, is this how it ends? This record is cool.

Final Verdict:

When I think of Bruce Springsteen, I think of just like that rock music and full production with lots of musicians in the room along with talking about Jersey and American life. Besides the glockenspiel, which was a huge surprise, I also didn't really expect his voice and how many different placements he uses along with his range. He's a great singer and an even better lyricist. You don't see lyrics that take up a whole column like that. I know I said I didn't want to check out his catalog earlier. I think I'd love Nebraska but I'm not too into Bruce's melodies. Sometimes it's a little too powerhouse for me. This is just my dumb first listen and he's clearly a smart person so I'm sure there's more I'm not hearing. I would like to sit with it more and dive in a bit. I'd definitely listen to that "Meeting Across The River" song again.

Josh Terry is a writer based in Chicago. He's on Twitter.

Brittany Sowacke is a photographer who's also in Chicago. More of her work is on Instagram.

This article originally appeared on Noisey US.