How Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Born to Run’ Cover Photo ‘Popped’
For Bruce Springsteen, the picture of he and Clarence Clemons that comprise the front and back cover of Born to Run is the embodiment of the last verse of his song "Tenth Avenue Freeze Out."
"It's a picture of Scooter and the Big Man, people who we were sometimes," he wrote in his eulogy for the E Street Band saxophonist. "As you can see in this particular photo, Clarence is admiring his muscles and I'm pretending to be nonchalant while leaning upon him. I leaned on Clarence a lot; I made a career out of it in some ways."
The photograph was taken by Eric Meola, who became a Springsteen fan after catching a set at Max's Kansas City in New York a few years earlier. They wound up meeting in the summer of 1974 by chance, sharing the awning at the Plaza Hotel to get out from a rainstorm on the day of a Springsteen concert in Central Park. A friendship was formed, and Meola was hired to take photos for a fee of about $1,500, with no guarantee that it would be the cover.
But there was a problem: Springsteen kept canceling due to sessions for the album running long. After at least four reschedules, Meola finally insisted to manager Mike Appel that the singer show up at his studio on June 20, 1975. Springsteen brought Clemons, and they both had their instruments and some changes of clothing, including a black leather jacket that belonged to Appel.
"There was a six to seven inch difference in their height," Meola recalled, "and Clarence wore a tall black fedora during much of the shoot. I kept several wooden boxes around the studio to adjust for height discrepancies, though for much of the shooting I did not use them. As Clarence riffed on several sequences of notes, I began shooting."
The photographer took about 600 pictures in roughly two hours, most against a white background with others shot on a nearby fire escape. He immediately developed the pictures and found a specific sequence that took up half a roll of film. One in particular stood out, where Springsteen, with an arm perched on Clemons' shoulder, smiles in reaction to what his friend is playing.
”Other things happened but when we saw the contact sheets, that one just sort of popped. Instantly, we knew that was the shot,” Meola said.
Meola sent the image, along with several others, to Columbia Records. While Springsteen had preferred a different pose, art director Tony Berg agreed with Meola. "The reason I went with (the other one) is because it was so charming and so unusual and to get the horn player on the back was revolutionary, to say the least," Berg told Syracuse.com, adding that he liked that Springsteen "was looking off into the gutter and you didn't really know where he was going. It's all in his face, and it's not what he was after (for the cover), not the way he saw himself, but it's the way he really is."
Berg also particularly appreciated that the split between their faces offered a natural place to divide the photograph for a gatefold, with Springsteen on the front and Clemons on the back.
A test pressing was made and sent to critics, with the inside of the gatefold featuring another of Meola's shots. But a change was made before the official release date on Aug. 25: The script font that was used was changed to one that was cleaner.
One of Meola's other photographs from the shoot, of Springsteen from behind with his guitar slung across his back, was used for the cover of Springsteen's 1994 Greatest Hits compilation.