It’s rare when a single work of art, much less a single song running less than five minutes, encapsulates the full genius of an artist in one fell swoop. “Thunder Road” is precisely such a work; everything that makes Bruce Springsteen truly great is present and all you need to do is listen.
There is no musician alive today that could cause a controversy over a single word in a beloved song, and yet this is exactly what happened recently when The New York Times’ Maggie Haberman tweeted about Springsteen’s return to Broadway. “A screen door slams, Mary’s dress sways,” she wrote, referencing the opening lines to the immortal opening track of his breakthrough album Born to Run, “Thunder Road.” Twitter was aghast that she mangled the lyrics: First, it’s “the” instead of “a.” Second, a sizable contingent couldn’t agree whether Mary’s dress “sways” or “waves.” Full disclosure, I thought it was “sways.”
The controversy raged for days with celebrities, musicians who covered the song, and just about everyone else weighing in. For example, Melissa Etheridge who once sang it with Springsteen himself insisted she sang “waves” and The Boss didn’t object. Others maintained it was in fact, “sways.” The Los Angeles Times’ Rob Tannenbaum tried to weigh in reasonably, writing, “Springsteen is not one of rock’s great enunciators, and because ‘dress’ ends with a sibilant S, ‘suh-ways’ is difficult to distinguish from ‘suh-waves.’ So the topic is up for debate, right?” Even Springsteen’s guitarist and friend (and Sopranos alum) Steve Van Zandt got roped in, but he shot back with “Oy vey. Get this Bruce lyric shit outta my feed!”
Compounding the mystery were competing versions in Bruce’s own memorabilia and published works. The original album lyrics and all subsequent editions printed “waves” as the correct word choice, as did most lyric websites and Springsteen’s own book, Songs. At the same time, his autobiography, also titled Born to Run, clearly said “sways” as do handwritten lyrics that were auctioned off at Sotheby’s in 2018. The handwritten lyrics, however, were from an earlier version of the song where Mary was Anne. Therefore, it seemed the controversy would continue, indefinitely.
Fortunately, Springsteen’s long time manager and friend, Jon Landau, he who proclaimed “I saw rock and roll’s future and its name is Bruce Springsteen” before they’d even met and well before Springsteen had amounted to much of anything, weighed in and settled matters. “The word is ‘sways,’” Mr. Landau wrote to the editor of The New Yorker, David Remnick. “That’s the way he wrote it in his original notebooks, that’s the way he sang it on ‘Born to Run,’ in 1975, that’s the way he has always sung it at thousands of shows, and that’s the way he sings it right now on Broadway. Any typos in official Bruce material will be corrected. And, by the way, ‘dresses’ do not know how to ‘wave.’”
Regardless of whether you were in the “sways” camp or the “waves” camp, the song remains brilliant, a truly seminal work in a career of seminal works. Personally, I didn’t truly discover Springsteen until college. “Thunder Road” was a critical part of that journey, the second track on his Greatest Hits released on February 27, 1995 when I was a freshman at New York University. I learned to love it there before devouring entire albums. To this day, I believe it’s rare when a single work of art, much less a single song running less than five minutes, encapsulates the full genius of an artist in one fell swoop. A piece where everything is on display, and you can see the scope all in a single shot, as if the essence were somehow distilled to the equivalent of a grain alcohol of art. In my opinion, “Thunder Road” is precisely such a work; everything that makes Bruce Springsteen truly great is present and all you need to do is listen. This doesn’t mean it’s necessarily Springsteen’s best song, though there is certainly a reasonable argument to be made in that regard, only that if you had to pick one song that demonstrated who The Boss is as a singer, songwriter, and performer, in totality and perpetuity, “Thunder Road” has to be high on the list.
Let’s start at the end: “It’s a town full of losers, I’m pulling out of here to win,” Springsteen screams as the outro music swells, rolling on almost like the end credits to your favorite movie. It’s hard not to read this line and the earlier reference to learning how to make a guitar talk, as autobiographical, but thinking beyond the confines of a 1970’s Asbury Park and Freehold, a couple of things jump out. First, the defiance that I’ve always found to be an intrinsic part of Springsteen’s appeal. The character is down on his luck surrounded by others just like him, stuck in some shithole, but literally screaming that there’s a better life somewhere out there. Second, for a song that is ostensibly a man speaking to a lost love, the choice of “I” instead of “we” is striking. Mary is welcome along for the ride, but the speaker is leaving with or without her.
Mary herself is both the subject of the song and the person being spoken to. The speaker sees her on the porch, “like a vision she dances” as the radio plays Roy Orbison, aptly “singing for the lonely.” The details of their prior relationship are murky, but the speaker reveals enough to suggest, like a future Mary in the “The River,” they met in high school and have since parted ways despite his repeated efforts to reignite the romance. So, the speaker pleads his lonely case like Orbison himself, “Hey that’s me and I want you only, Don’t turn my home again, I just can’t face myself alone again.” Interestingly, the speaker’s affection for Mary seems as much about him as it does her. This isn’t Shakespeare comparing a woman to a summer’s day and finding her more lovely and temperate. This is a man alone, feeling his age, “maybe we ain’t that young anymore,” hoping there’s some spark left, “Show a little faith there’s magic in the night,” aware of both Mary and his own limitations, “You ain’t a beauty but hey you’re alright, Oh and that’s alright with me.”
The speaker believes Mary is also quite lonely and hurt, the victim of many a failed romance, saying “You can hide ‘neath your covers and study your pain” even “make crosses from your lovers” or “waste your summer praying in vain for a savior to rise from these streets.” As is often the case in Springsteen’s universe, this savior will never arise, and, even should hope appear somewhere, somehow, it’s certainly not the speaker himself. Of his own limitations, he feels them deeply, declaring flat out, “I’m no hero that’s understood,” as if both he and the world at large knows this sad fact. All is not lost, however, redemption lies “beneath this dirty hood” and, if there’s a highway out of the town, there’s a chance to escape, to “make it good somehow.”
Here, it’s tough to tell if the speaker truly believes it or if he simply embarks on a flight of fancy. In “Sherry Darling” five years later, Springsteen would sing, “I got some beer and the highway’s free.” The highway is an escape, but most people ride it out of town and then right back in. Still, the world outside this town full of losers is depicted as an oasis of opportunity in whether or not they actually make it. The night’s “busting open” and “these two lanes will take” them “anywhere,” even to some place beyond a mere location on a map. Time is short, however. The pair have “one last chance to make it real,” though we have cause to doubt that given they’ve been there before, and heaven itself is “waiting down on the tracks.” Tonight is their final opportunity to “case the promise land,” “lying out there like a killer in the sun.”
Unfortunately, she still hasn’t taken him up on his offer yet, even as he’s been serenading her from the porch, so once again the speaker repeats his pleas. His “car’s out back if you’re ready to take that long walk.” Once more, he says he knows she’s as lonely as he is. Also, he’s let her down before, perhaps not even telling Mary he loves her, “I know you’re lonely for words that I ain’t spoken.” Still, tonight they’ll be free, “all the promises will be broken” even though the ride itself “ain’t free.”
Adding to the notion that escape might not be so easy, the speaker spirals off tangent into laments about Mary’s other lovers. For the second time in the song, these other men take center stage, in an even more prominent and dramatic fashion. In fact, they’re presence is so ubiquitous and inescapable they’re ghosts. First, pining for her just like the speaker, as in “ there were ghosts in the eyes of all the boys you sent away.” Then, literally haunting her, “They haunt this dusty beach road” and “scream your name at night in the streets,” only to disappear with the dawn, when she can “hear their engines roaring on.” At the same time, one key line makes it completely unclear whether or not Mary is actually the one that rejected these other suitors, or if they rejected her: “But when you get to the porch they’re gone on the wind.” Are they pulling out of town without her as well?
We’ll never know for sure as we aren’t granted any access to Mary’s direct thoughts. The best we can do is piece it together from the speaker’s comments. Is he projecting his loneliness onto her while in reality she has no shortage of suitors? Or are they both lonely because she felt none of them were a suitable match? Or did they actually reject her and the speaker remains her best shot at romance? All are possible, some mix is likely. We can’t say for sure, nor do we learn if she takes the offer.
“Thunder Road” also marks peak Springsteen “gothification” of American imagery, where traditional American tropes, cars, highways, and more are transformed into a wildly imaginative landscape, part cinema and part myth. In Springsteen’s vision, Mary “makes crosses” from her lovers, and “throws roses in the rain,” wasting her summer “praying in vain.” A “savior” can arise from the street and “redemption” can be found beneath dirty car hoods. There are “ghosts” in boys’ eyes; they “haunt this dusty beach road in the skeleton frames of burned-out Chevrolets.” They scream at night in the streets, graduation gowns lie in rags at their feet. The lexicon of American teenage and young adult life would never be the same: The characters might be pathetically lonely, losers with very little chance to make it in this world, but the landscape they inhibit is vast and mythic, the actions they take imbued with huge significance, even if they may be the only people aware of it. In addition to supplying catchy, dramatic lyrics, this serves another purpose, alluding to the fact that each of us feels like we are the hero in our own drama, capturing the idea that our words and actions don’t seem mundane or rote to us. We are all myths and legends in our own mind.
This self-referential grandiosity is also reflected in the music itself. The song begins with an almost crying harmonica and light piano. The piano alone accompanies the first verse describing Mary on the porch and the speaker’s plea that she “not run back inside.” The band only kicks in, widening the space, after “You ain’t a beauty, but hey you’re alright and that’s alright with me.” From there, the guitar begins propelling the song along tightly intertwined with the piano, like lovers themselves. The music picks up even more steam with “Hey what else can we do now, Except roll down the window and let the wind blow back your hair,” as if the night truly is “busting open.” At this point, the ballad has turned full rocker, drums, piano, guitar, and bass continuing until the music almost skips a beat for a different riff under “In the lonely cool before dawn,” before returning to a more triumphant version of the main melody during the extended dramatic outro.
In summary, what more can you ask for? A town full of losers? Check! A lost love? Check! A down on his luck protagonist? Check? A musical progression from ballad to soulful rocker? Check! Poignant, memorable, complex lyrics? Check! Jersey shore, car-crazy, almost gothically imbued imagery? Check! Cinematic scope with high a highly personalized story? Check! Not bad considering Springsteen claimed he stole the title from a Robert Mitchum movie and the vocal sound from Roy Orbison, even apologizing to Roy, but this recent reaction made it clear “Thunder Road” is officially The Boss’s own, forevermore.
THUNDER ROAD BY BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN
The screen door slams, Mary’s dress sways
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
Don’t turn me home again
I just can’t face myself alone again
Don’t run back inside, darling you know just what I’m here for
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
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
Well now I’m no hero, that’s understood
All the redemption I can offer, girl, is beneath this dirty hood
With a chance to make it good somehow
Hey what else can we do now
Except roll down the window and let the wind blow back your hair
Well the night’s busting 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
Oh oh come take my hand
Riding out tonight to case the promised land
Oh oh oh oh Thunder Road, oh Thunder Road, oh Thunder Road
Lying out there like a killer in the sun
Hey I know it’s late, we can make it if we run
Oh oh oh oh Thunder Road, sit tight, take hold, Thunder Road
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
Tonight we’ll be free, all the promises will be broken
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, I’m pulling out of here to win