‘Sad and free’: An appreciation of ‘Night,’ the most underrated song on ‘Born to Run’

The cover of Bruce Springsteen's 'Born to Run' album, released on Aug. 25, 1975.

The cover of Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Born to Run’ album, released on Aug. 25, 1975.

Born to Run, which was released 40 years ago today, has been justly celebrated as a rock ‘n’ roll landmark, and its songs play a huge part in the legend of Bruce Springsteen. But there is one song that maybe, you could argue, has not received the respect it deserves.

That song is “Night,” and it’s always been a particular favorite of mine.

Yes, I know, it’s not as great as “Born to Run” and “Thunder Road,” or as ambitious as “Jungleland” and “Backstreets,” or as distinctive as “She’s the One” and “Meeting Across the River.” It doesn’t tell the mythical story of the E Street Band and have a really cool horn arrangement, the way “Tenth Avenue Freeze-out” does. But it’s great, in its own right, and if didn’t share space on an album with so many other spectacular songs, it might have gotten the attention it deserves.

Clocking in at exactly three minutes, it is the shortest song on Born to Run. It was never released as a single or B-side. It has been played fewer times by Springsteen in concert than any Born to Run song except “Meeting Across the River.” There are no cover versions of it that I can think of.

A best-to-worst ranking of all of Springsteen’s songs, just posted today on NJ.com, ranked it dead last among the eight Born to Run songs.

Thematically, it doesn’t really add anything to the album, though it reinforces what’s there in other songs: The desire to break free from a dead-end working class life, the promise of romance. But while many of the other Born to Run songs sprawls, this one is a succinct blast. Even its title is minimalistic: It’s not “Something in the Night” or “Spirit in the Night” or “Because the Night” or “Prove It All Night” or “Drive All Night” or “Open All Night.” Just “Night.”

It opens with a jolt: a blast from the rhythm section, and a howl from Clarence Clemons’ saxophone. But after just 17 seconds of music, Springsteen starts singing. “You get up every morning at the sound of the bell.” There’s no lying around in bed here. Boom, that alarm sounds — or Clemons’ sax is heard — and you’re up and going.

Second, line: Boom, you’re at work. “You get to work late and the boss man’s giving you hell.”

Third line: Boom, work is over and the sun has set: “Till you’re out on a midnight run/Losing your heart to a beautiful one.”

That’s a lot of time to cover in three lines. This guy is racing through his life, maybe even a little out of control. Indeed, as Springsteen sings a little later, “You’re just a prisoner of your dreams/Holding on for your life.”

And, notice, he’s singing in the second person. “Night” is the only song on Born to Run that stays in the second person throughout. Springsteen isn’t telling a story, or talking about himself, or even using the inclusive first person plural of the “Born to Run” opening (“In the day we sweat it out on the streets of a runaway American dream/At night we ride through mansions of glory in suicide machines”). He’s in your face, telling you about you: “You’re in love with all the wonder it brings/And every muscle in your body sings as the highway ignites/You work 9 to 5 and somehow you survive till the night.”

The closing instrumental is just a tad longer than the opening one: 22 seconds. But I’d like to return now, to two wonderful lines towards the end of the song that bear a little contemplation, and it’s hard to do that as “Night” hurtles forward, to its somewhat ending.

First, “All day, they’re busting you up on the out/But tonight, you’re gonna break on through to the inside.” What an odd thing to say: “break on through to the inside.” But how perfect. Your external self has to deal with the indignities of the real world. But maybe somewhere out there tonight you can connect with your more authentic self, underneath at all.

And then the closer: “You run sad and free until all you can see is the night.” Keep in mind that in the handwritten, original lyrics, Springsteen wrote “wild and free.” He may have made the change primarily to avoid that cliché, but what he came up with was infinitely richer. “Sad and free.” You’re not escaping your inner sadness out there. You’re transcending it. Meaning, it’s still there. But you can be free, too.

An that’s an important theme of Born to Run, in a nutshell. It’s there in “Thunder Road” (“I know you’re lonely for words that I ain’t spoken/But tonight we’ll be free, all the promises’ll be broken”). And it’s there in “Born to Run” (“Together, Wendy, we can live with the sadness”).

And there it is, in “Night,” in three words. “Sad and free.”

(Sept. 13, 2016 Update: Vulture.com has also felt compelled to rank all of Springsteen’s songs, from best to worst. And, once again, “Night” comes in last among the eight songs of the Born to Run album.)

7 thoughts on “‘Sad and free’: An appreciation of ‘Night,’ the most underrated song on ‘Born to Run’

  1. This essay is just like its subject matter: concise and perfect! Thanks for the on-point analysis of a song that always gets the motor going.

  2. Awesome analysis! Such a wonderful day to be sharing so many creative souls who are enjoying their decades long conversation (as Bruce says) with Bruce.

  3. There is at least one cover version of this song, recorded by Graziano Romani. A slower, acoustic, brooding, pounding, emotional, take. Worth seeking out. Included on Graz’s album (a Bruce cover compilation) titled “Soul Crusader”.

  4. I’ve always loved this song. And loved how it opens the New Year’s Eve show (1980) in Long Island. Wonderful article and analysis. You are so spot on, with all of this, but in particular with your analysis of the sad and free” lyric. Great piece!

  5. Used to coach baseball at Florida Atlantic. Bruce played every nite on our PA
    One night we lost the lead in the top of the ninth. i yelled up at the pa guy “We need some help!”
    He played Night as we came in to bat. He cranked it up, almost blew out the speakers!
    We came back and won on a walkoff home run!
    Always loved that song!

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