We remember Bruce Springsteen and Clarence Clemons as being both kindred spirits and successful band mates. And the album cover of Born to Run captures the essence of their story as we’ve learned it. Born to Run, profiled here for my series on memorable album covers, endures because the cover expresses the personality of an artist and his band.
Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band famously developed a reputation for being a rollicking, adventurous band of brothers, especially during the group’s marathon concerts that exuded energy and joy. The E Street Band was never a democracy. It was the Boss’s group to run and, later in his career, to disband and regroup depending on his personal musical needs and vision. But especially in the early going, the E Street was essential to Springsteen’s identity — so much so that he wrote about his band mates in “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out.”
And no one in the seven-person band touched him like saxophonist Clemons. The story of their meeting has been told several times. As Clemons told a fan website:
A rainy, windy night it was, and when I opened the door the whole thing flew off its hinges and blew away down the street. The band was on-stage, but staring at me framed in the doorway. And maybe that did make Bruce a little nervous because I just said, “I want to play with your band,” and he said, “Sure, you do anything you want.” The first song we did was an early version of “Spirit in the Night“. Bruce and I looked at each other and didn’t say anything, we just knew. We knew we were the missing links in each other’s lives. He was what I’d been searching for. In one way he was just a scrawny little kid. But he was a visionary. He wanted to follow his dream. So from then on I was part of history.
As reported in Peter Ames Carlin’s recently published biography of Springsteen, Clemons became an integral part of the band’s sound and a musical soul mate, as well. When Clemons died of a stroke in 2011, Springsteen was at his side with a guitar. Later Springsteen said of Clemons, “He was my great friend, my partner, and with Clarence at my side, my band and I were able to tell a story far deeper than those simply contained in our music.
That relationship is perfectly expressed on the cover of Born to Run, which consists of a photo taken by Eric Meola (the image is one of 900 he took). The body English says it all: Springsteen, a Fender Esquire in one hand, leans on Clemons, smiling affectionately at his band mate instead of looking at you. Clemons gives the Boss a sideways glance, his expressive body leaning back comfortable into Springsteen’s as he plays his beloved saxophone. The clean design, consisting of a plain white background and simple lettering, keep your eyes focused on the two men Interestingly, Springsteen has set aside his guitar to admire his band made, whereas Clemons looks like he’s working on Take 37 of a saxophone solo for “Jungleland” — an observation that might be fairly true.
In fact, making the album was anything but a carefree experience. Carlin reports that the recording of the album was “slow, grim, and tortuous.” Clemons “spent 16 hours playing and replaying every not of his ‘Jungleland’ solo in order to satisfy Bruce’s bat-eared attention to sonic detail.” After stripping his songs down and rebuilding them to achieve different sounds he was looking for, and after pushing his band to the extreme, Springsteen was still unhappy with the finished product of “unplayable parts, unfixable mistakes, and unmixable recordings.”
Of course, history remembers Born to Run differently. Rolling Stone magazine ranks Born to Run as one of the Top 20 albums of all time — “timeless record about the labors and glories of aspiring to greatness.” The album is also listed the Library of Congress National Recording Registry of historic recordings.
The cover itself has become beloved, too, for expressing the passion and joy of Springsteen and his most famous of all E Street band members. (In a case of both art and life imitating art, Springsteen and Clemons were known to duplicate the album cover pose onstage during their concerts.) Here’s how Carlin describes it: “For in this picture, Bruce knew, resided the heart of the band: unity, brotherhood, a small fulfillment of the American ideals of strength, equality, and community.”