Why I Always Associate “Born To Run” with Houston

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An oil refinery in Houston

You’ve heard that old cliché that you can always remember where you were when you first heard of a favorite song. It’s a funny twist on how music and place interact with each other — you have very powerful associations with a location because of a song, even though the musicians who wrote and recorded the song have never been to that place and probably never even heard of it.

But music can also draw you to a particular place — think about how many Beatles fans show up in Liverpool to traverse Penny Lane — and it can even connect you to places that are similar to the places depicted in music, even if they’re not the exact places the songwriter had in mind.

When I was 10, I spent endless wintertime hours shivering in the cold in my teenager brother’s room — for some reason it was always cold in his room — playing Beach Boys 45s on his little record player. It should be no surprise that decades later I wound up as the mayor of a surf town in Southern California, even though I was never much of a surfer. It took me a long time, however, to realize that there was probably a connection between the two.

And so it’s also not surprising that in the summer of 2014, when I was preparing to move from San Diego to Houston and leave the beach behind for who knows how long, that I played the hell out of Endless Summer. Think about it: A supposedly mature man in his 50s, listening endlessly to songs of adolescent love written a half-century before by teenagers.

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A surfer in Ventura

Once I got to Houston, connecting through music was a little more difficult, because Houston is Texas and yet somehow it’s not. I landed in Houston on a Tuesday afternoon and went to work on a Wednesday. That Saturday, I went to the Houston Public Library and learned all about the city’s blue-collar history by attending a presentation on the 100th anniversary of the Port of Houston. Then I immediately jumped in the car and drove to Austin to visit my cousin.

The music on the way to Austin was easy: Willie. It put me in the right Austin mood and I had a wonderful visit with my cousin and her family. Then I hopped in the car to drive back, and I was kind of in a quandary. What to play after living in Houston for less than a week?

I started out with Endless Summer, but that didn’t do it for me. Mostly it just made me homesick for California. (Plus, Beach Boys aficionados will remember that Brian Wilson’s first mental breakdown came on a flight to Houston in 1964 — not the association I was looking for.) Then I tried Willie again. And in spite of the fact that Houston is in Texas and Willie is a Texan and he’s even alluded to Houston in some of his songs (“Bloody Mary Morning”), that wasn’t doing it either. Somehow mellow Willie and brash Houston didn’t go together.

Then I thought back to the presentation of the library at the Port of Houston and the city’s proud blue-collar history. Yes, Houston is sophisticated — central Houston “Inside the Loop,” where I now live, is without question Texas’s Manhattan — but it’s also America’s last great blue-collar economy. On the city’s east side there are oil refineries and pipelines, the second-biggest port in the United States, pickup trucks far bigger than anyone would ever need, and working-class neighborhoods of all ethnicities. Think Urban Cowboy. I needed something big, bold, and blue-collar. And then all of a sudden the solution hit me.

Bruce.

All of a sudden I was speeding along I-10 blasting Born To Run louder than I ever had ever played any music in my life.

Now, I’m sure Springsteen never thought for one second about Houston when he wrote the songs on Born To Run. They’re all about working-class life in New Jersey (“At night, we ride through mansions of glory/In suicide machines/Sprung from cages out on Highway 9”.) But as The Boss himself once said, “I don’t know how important the settings are. It’s the idea behind the settings. It could be New Jersey, it could be California, it could be Alaska.” Or it could be Houston.

I played the hell out of Born To Run for weeks in my first apartment in Houston.

Almost seven years later, my feelings about Houston as a place are still complicated. But my feelings about Born To Run are simple. I’m transported back to that visceral, emotional drive on I-10 that day in the fall of 2014. And that’s the magic of how music and place interact.

Author, urban planner & former politician. Hometown: Auburn, NY. Mayor: Ventura, CA. Planning Dir: San Diego. Now Dir of Kinder Inst at Rice U. in Houston.

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