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A Song From The Inside Out

Saturday, 5 October 2013

One of the more pleasurable experiences of recent months has been learning to play "Born To Run" by Bruce Springsteen.  I've always known part of it, even parts of it, dating back to 1975-76 when I was in college in Philadelphia and those of us who played our guitars in our dorm rooms and in the stairways felt some obigation, I guess (that doesn't quite capture it), to learn songs from Born To Run on our guitars, even though, I would claim, it is a piano record, not a guitar record.

So we all knew the E-A-B chords to the opening of the song and the verses, with the added notes and takeaways that make it sound kind of like the record.

But when it came time to learn the song as a band for a public performance, we had to master the entire song, or, if not master it, at least get through it.  It was a difficult process.  It's a tough song.

My role was to play the rhythm guitar and to sing it.  Both of those hold different challenges, as you might guess.  As I ultimately grasped the song in my mind, there are 5 different parts to the song--the first part of the verses, the second part of the verses, the chorus, the chords that back the sax solo and get you to the bridge, the bridge itself, and the slight changes in the verse pattern that take the song to its end.  While no one part of the song is particularly difficult, putting all of them together into a coherent song is.

I'm not going to drown you in the minutae of a music theory that I barely understand myself.  Let me just make two general comments: 1) the song gives me a strong appreciation for the songwriting sophistication of Bruce Springsteen (although he largely abandons these complicated structures after the Born To Run album), and, consequently, 2) for Springsteen to get from the chorus to the bridge requires a complication of connecting chords, and these are probably what elevates the song to greatness.

Not to bore you, but most rock songs are built around 2, 3, or at most, 4 chords.  And though they are set in different keys, depending on the band in question, the patterns in which those chord positions are played are pretty similar.  "Born To Run" has about 16 different chords (some of them are variations of major chords) that I can think of in my head.  And how the song gets from the verse/chorus to the bridge is not intuitive to someone like me raised on 3-chord rock.  And though I know hundreds of rock songs and their basic patterns, I have never heard a rock song that moves in the foundational D-G-A-C pattern of the bridge.  Basic rock chords in a whole new way.

To sing the song is even harder.  Even limited singers like me have a "range," as in a series of notes that our throats (because we haven't learned to sing from the diaphragm) are reasonably comfortable singing.  "Born To Run" blows that notion out of the water.  The verses are pretty much built around one middle-of-the road note, but once the song hits "Sprung from cages...," the singer is in a whole new territory and will end up screaming "Woah!" within just a few seconds.  The brdige, while not difficult, is simply in a different place vocally.  

To sing and to play the chords at the same time is a nightmare, albeit a good nightmare, because most of us pretty much know the words and are proud to be singing them.  Still, the song requires the singer/guitarist to be doing two very different things at once, and not two things that are intuitive.  And even though I might know the words, having sung a bunch of Springsteen songs now, I am well aware that he crams as many words as he feels like into any given line, and even if I try to sing it like he does, I'm likely to be both giving up on anything but getting the words spit out and gasping for breath at any given time.

These are not complaints.  Working out "Born To Run" stretched me, stretched the band I play in immeasurably.  There is great joy to be found in standing in a small room with a small group of other people trying to solve a batch of common problems in order to get to a goal.  There is joy to be found in getting to a point where the song sounds somewhat like what it is supposed to sound like, even if you have to brand your version as a kind of "punk" version, punk as in lacking musical sophistication.  And, for me, there is greatest joy in knowing the whole of a song that for nearly four decades I only knew parts of.  Day to day, having that notch on my belt makes my life better.  I'm not kidding.

What is better than an old song become new again?

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