Thunder Road (1975)
He jests at scars, that never felt a wound.
–Romeo in Romeo And Juliet
The first thing the listener hears on Born To Run is the 1975 classic “Thunder Road,” the song that introduced Bruce Springsteen to the world at large, transforming him from cult regional figure to international phenomenon. It’s like being introduced to the business end of a cruise missile.
From the song’s quiet, dreamlike opening, supported by an achy, lonesome harmonica and gently burbling piano, it is big-screen cinematic, begging to be turned into a movie.
The opening lines unfold the script, shot directions, props, and introduce the heroine and hero with a grand flourish. The writer/singer has in mind a soundtrack, as well.
The door is open but the ride ain’t free
We open on:
The screen door slams
Mary’s dress waves
Like a vision she dances across the porch
As the radio plays
Roy Orbison singing for the lonely
Hey that’s me and I want you only…
Quickly the song turns operatic or even Shakespearean in tone (as does much of the Born To Run album), a few deft lyrical strokes half-sung, half-spoken over the soft piano. The porch becomes Juliet’s parapet. The singer becomes a hopeful, world-weary Romeo.
The past is the colossal issue between the singer and Mary. Years have sped by. He looks back on their lost youth – Roy Orbison’s “Only The Lonely,” to which he refers, came out in 1960 and was a “slow dance” standard all through the early and mid 1960s. The lyrics then acknowledge the restrained first injection of re-stoked passion:
So you’re scared and you’re thinking
That maybe we ain’t that young anymore
Show a little faith there’s magic in the night
You ain’t a beauty but hey you’re alright
Oh and that’s alright with me
Scared to do what? Go back and start again? To try to repair a past with full knowledge the past can never be perfectly fixed without cracks appearing in the glued teacup of youth? Even the blunt line about Mary’s looks harks to something bittersweet. Her beauty has faded. The first blush is off the rose, but the lovers’ shared past calls them back to each other.
Beauty isn’t necessary. Affinity is.
It is hard on the heels of that contemplation that “Thunder Road” kicks up a notch as a tranquil syncopated drum and Bruce’s rubber-band guitar licks kick in. The syncopation adds to the sense of time passing established in the first verses. The passion, though, remains subdued. Is there hesitation in Mary’s eyes as she waits on the porch? As the song leaps up yet another level, he becomes more frank. He challenges Mary and her complacency, (and is own), bringing with it religious overtones concerning lost salvation.
You can hide ‘neath your covers
And study your pain
Make crosses from your lovers
Throw roses in the rain
Waste your summer praying in vain
For a savior to rise from these streets
The singer is quick to note that he is not a savior. He’s just a guy with a car that can carry them away again, maybe back to where they started, but definitely away from the current stalemate the lovers experience in their separate lives. The humanity is all too real.
Well now I’m no hero
All the redemption I can offer girl
Is beneath this dirty hood
With a chance to make it good somehow
We come to the joyous release point of the song. The invitation is not simply to fall in love again, but to be free, as free as they were when young. At that moment, musically, the song moves from a moseying white blues boogie to a full-fledged, down-on-bended-knee Rock-N-Roll sacrament. It reminds us that among other things that this is a car song.
Hey what else can we do now?
Except roll down the window
And let the wind blow
Back your hair
Well the night’s busted open
These two lanes will take us anywhere
We got one last chance to make it real
To trade in these wings on some wheels
Climb in back
Heaven’s waiting down on the tracks
Wailing, weeping harmonies at this point are contributed by Steve Van Zandt, (who does not play an instrument on the track), and Mike Appel, (producer of Springsteen’s first two albums who was fired part way through the recording of Born To Run).
The harmonies add strength and urgency to the narrator’s burning invitation. It is here that finally, deep into the song, that tenderly, but insistently, he asks Mary to go down Thunder Road.
We are thrust back into the religious imagery that zigzags through the work. But it is all brought down to earth by the let’s-check-it-out word, “case.”
Oh-oh come take my hand
We’re riding out tonight to case the promised land
Oh-oh Thunder Road oh Thunder Road
Yet another musical and tempo change is in store, one that lends a few notes of derring-do to what is now Springsteen’s own claim on the lover from the past. He’s no longer some scruffy kid who slouched around Freehold and the Jersey Shore. He’s made something of himself, and we glimpse personal class-consciousness come into play. This is no longer a piece of art but an actual individual rising from the streets. Again notions of freedom careen into the story of the past, along with near-religious fervor and unnamed passions:
Well I got this guitar
And I learned how to make it talk
And my car’s out back
If you’re ready to take that long walk
From your front porch to my front seat
The door’s open but the ride it ain’t free
And I know you’re lonely
For words that I ain’t spoken
But tonight we’ll be free
All the promises’ll be broken Click to enlarge album cover:
The young men that Mary has devastated in her girlhood rise phantasmagorically from graves; the rusting hulks of post-industrial New Jersey appear; the past is a ruin but there is always a new tomorrow. Dawn is about to break. It’s time to choose. The wondrous force of pure musical emotion batters the visions home. It is at this exact moment that, as critic/producer John Landau said, Bruce Springsteen became the future of Rock-N-Roll.
There were ghosts in the eyes
Of all the boys you sent away
They haunt this dusty beach road
In the skeleton frames of burned out Chevrolets
They scream your name at night in the street
Your graduation gown lies in rags at their feet
And in the lonely cool before dawn
You hear their engines roaring on
But when you get to the porch they’re gone
On the wind so Mary climb in
It’s a town full of losers
And I’m pulling out of here to win
An instrumental break closes out the song, cueing the movie credits to roll, leaving us to speculate as to what happened with the singer and Mary. Once again, Springsteen reaches his hand out to the past.
The musical coda is a reverential mash-up of Phil Spector’s mid-’60s productions. It’s a big, big sound that rests on a glorious mixture of flashing love lights and the longing for fulfillment that never leaves a human being. It never really can leave us. The Ronettes’ “Be My Baby,” and the mid-song break of The Crystals’ “Da Doo Ron Ron” are immediately recognizable in “Thunder Road.” Bruce and the band even wheeled in the glockenspiel as did Spector. The old-time feeling is thoroughly updated by a stirring, near grandiose guitar that drives the whole finish to an into-the-sunset fadeout.
“Thunder Road” very well may be the greatest Rock-N-Roll song of the 1970s. We can confidently cement it into place as one of the greatest Rock songs of all time.
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- This was the first song, when it was played on stage, during which Springsteen and saxophonist Clarence Clemons worked up their concert shtick of mugging at each other, leaning against one another or bumping into one another while performing.
- Of the religious allusions, Springsteen said in an interview, “Catholic school, Catholic school, Catholic school.”
Also by Bruce Springsteen on SongMango.com:
- The Promised LandHow about a national anthem that’s easy to sing, one that makes you stand up without being told to?
- Hungry HeartWe are all very much alone in the spiritual sense and the soul's hunger is part of our condition as humans.
- I'm Going DownSpringsteen's ability to work within the great Rock tradition but still expand its boundaries is one of his greatest gifts.