Beyond ‘waves’ vs. ‘sways’: A close look at the lyrics of ‘Thunder Road’

THUNDER ROAD LYRICS

The cover of Bruce Springsteen’s 1975 “Born to Run” album, which begins with “Thunder Road.”

The recent debates about whether Bruce Springsteen sings “waves” or “sways” in “Thunder Road” — including a New Yorker article that should settle the question forever — didn’t do much for me. It’s not a very interesting issue, in my opinion. But they did start me thinking about “Thunder Road,” and some of the song’s lyrical mysteries.

The 1975 song is, on one level, pretty simple. The narrator is asking a woman to take a chance on him and find something more exciting than their “town full of losers” can offer. But there are a lot of intriguing lyrical twists along the way.

It’s one of Springsteen’s greatest songs, unquestionably. So let’s take a closer look.

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

Pretty self-explanatory. Lonely guy wants girl to come take a ride with him, and comes calling at her house. Is is just a ride, or a date, or some greater adventure? Or all of the above? We don’t really know, and it doesn’t matter. Nor does it matter if the dress “sways” or “waves.” The words are synonymous here.

The fact that she’s dancing to the music on the radio makes it seem like she’s happy to see our hero. But not so fast.

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 all right
Oh, and that’s all right with me

Her participation in this adventure is not a given. She’s got some doubts and is, in fact, reluctant, to some degree, to trust the narrator.

I think it also should be said, at this point, that the narrator is not actually saying all these things to Mary. I imagine what he actually says is, “Hey, wanna go for a ride?,” or something like that. He’s not going to tell her, for instance, that she “ain’t a beauty.” Indeed, little in this song sounds like something one human being would say to another. But it’s what he’s thinking, or has thought. It’s the subtext to the encounter.

“Maybe we ain’t that young anymore” is intriguing. Why would Springsteen sing that she’s thinking that? I take it to mean that he senses she feels she’s looking for something more in her life: to become a fully realized person. In his 1991 book, “Songs,” Springsteen tied the line to the end of the Vietnam War (which had just happened) and wrote that the song had “quite a sense of dread and uncertainty about the future and who you were, where you were going, where the whole country was going.”

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

Depression has frequently been a theme in Springsteen’s work. This is a great depiction of the depression that Mary is suffering from (and/or that the narrator is projecting onto her, from his own depression). In two striking images, she’s so depressed that thoughts of her former lovers have come to represent a kind of cross (a symbol of suffering) for her … so depressed that the beauty of roses is lost on her and she throws them away, like they’re garbage.

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

“To trade in these wings on some wheels”: This is an important phrase. Springsteen called an early version of the song “Wings for Wheels,” and gave a 2005 documentary about the album that contains “Thunder Road” the title, “Wings for Wheels: The Making of Born to Run.” Wings for Wheels was also a working title for Born to Run itself. But its meaning is not necessarily obvious. Humans don’t have wings, do they?

Some handwritten lyrics to an early version of “Thunder Road.”

The answer, I think, lies in handwritten lyrics to an early version of the song. Springsteen writes “You can trade in your angel wings for a set of hot wheels.” The wings in “Thunder Road” are a symbol of Mary’s youth and innocence.

As in the “you’re thinking that maybe we ain’t that young anymore” line, he feels that Mary wants more from life — the full innocence-to-experience spectrum. It’s a bold offer, but “Thunder Road” is a big, bold, dramatic song.

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

There are a few interesting phrases here. “Case the promised land” is one. “Case” is an unconventional word to use. Something like “reach” would be more expected. But “case” — as in a couple of thieves casing a joint before robbing it — brings up the idea that this journey is taking them where people don’t usually dare go. There’s something unknown about where they’re going. They can’t just go there; they’ve got to explore it, together.

“A killer in the sun” is another phrase that takes a bit of thinking. He’s not singing about an actual killer, of course. I think it’s just a metaphor for the immense — and also dangerous — power that’s sitting out there, in some form, on Thunder Road, for those who look for it.

I should probably mention here that while Springsteen has said that a poster for the 1958 Robert Mitchum movie “Thunder Road” inspired the name of the song, he had not actually seen the film when he wrote it. The words “Thunder Road” just resonated as an almost mythical, life-changing place where he wanted to go.

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

Here’s a paradox: The ride “ain’t free,” the narrator sings. There’s some kind of symbolic price you pay for this journey. Yet “tonight we’ll be free.” You have to give up freedom to get freedom.

“All the promises will be broken”: Though it’s tempting to tie this phrase to the dark “Thunder Road” sequel “The Promise,” in which Springsteen sings “When the promise is broken/You go on living, but it steals something from down in your soul,” I think it’s better to look at it in a more straightforward way, as something akin to “all bets are off” and nothing more.

“My car’s out back”: A minor point, but I had initially envisioned the action as the singer driving up in front of the house, and Mary coming out of the house to greet him. But I guess he parks in back and walks around to the front.

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

The narrative turns nightmarish, in an almost surreal way, as the music peaks. The graduation gown in rags is, I think, a symbol of the other suitors’ disrespect for Mary, with the gown representing her accomplishments and potential, and her adulthood in general.

“Porch” is used for the third time in the song. This is significant. Mary spends the whole song in the porch. She’s not in her house anymore. But she’s not in the car yet, either. She can go either way.

So, Mary climb in
It’s a town full of losers, I’m pulling out of here to win

Springsteen makes the point about Mary’s not being in the car yet even clearer here. Her participation is still a question mark at the end of the song. “I’m pulling out of here to win,” he sings, not “we’re pulling out of here to win.”

He’s asking for Mary to come with him, and it’s intensely important to him that she does. But he’s still enough of a lone wolf that if she won’t come, he’ll go to Thunder Road himself.

While the opening of the song represents a sort of musical invitation, the outro, Springsteen has said, is supposed to represent the sound of the drive he’s proposing to make, and all it represents.

“Something is opening up,” Springsteen said of the song during his 2005 “VH1 Storytellers” special. “What I hoped it would be was the sense of a larger life, greater experience, sense of fun, the sense that your personal exploration and possibilities were all lying somewhere inside of you.”
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Thanks for reading this far. If you think I have misinterpreted anything, or have any other thoughts to add, please let me know in the Comments section below.

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9 thoughts on “Beyond ‘waves’ vs. ‘sways’: A close look at the lyrics of ‘Thunder Road’

  1. Very interesting read, Jay. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. Especially, in deflecting the inane debate over sways/waves.
    I never tied in the depression theme, which with presently understanding Bruce’s life long struggles seems so obvious.
    Have you ever seen the film “Thunder Road” with Robert Mitchum? Mitchum returns from war, forced to make a dishonest living doing what he knows best, running moonshine. I think underlying theme of escape to a better life run through that too.
    Thanks again!

  2. As I’m certain you’re aware Jay, he now sings (on Broadway), There were ghosts in the eyes of all the MEN you sent away…

  3. Great, in-depth deconstruction of the song, Jay!

    Re: “My car’s out back…” is because the famous little house that Bruce wrote the song (and the others from BTR), in Long Branch, has its driveway in back of the house!

  4. Aloha Jay,

    A couple of observations to share. To the question of his use of the word “case.” About 20 years ago (I remember discussing how clearly we could see the Twin Towers in Manhattan, so it was pre-911) I was visiting my parents in NJ. They had a membership at the same beach club as Bruce and on visits there I’d often see Bruce and his family. On one occasion I swam out to a large raft that the club owners anchored at the outside ropes demarcating the area the lifeguards would allow you to swim. I was alone on the raft for a few minutes when Bruce swam out and joined me. We were exchanging pleasantries and admiring the NYC skyline visible in the distance (it was a gorgeous, clear, summer day with only afternoon clouds forming to the west). After a couple of minutes a young boy (I’d estimate 10-12 years old) swam out and joined us on the raft. The boy said hello to Bruce and then began questioning him about the meaning of the word “case” in his song Thunder Road. Bruce and I exchanged side glances and Bruce responded to the boy that it was like in the old gangster movies when they’d check out a place the were planning to rob, they’d “case the joint.” So if there was any question about his use of that phrase, that should shed light.

    In regards to the “graduation gown lying in rags at their feet line, I’ve always interpreted that, as well as the rest of the song’s context, as Mary recently having graduated from high school and the safe environment that it provided. Bruce’s character, the “greaser” type versus the varsity types that Mary had dated during school, is trying to lure her away from the safe but boring defined course of that life to join him on an adventure, breaking from the fixed path that small town life might offer, that the open road promises.

  5. Really smart and interesting reading, Jay.
    Bruce keeps writing this “C’mon, baby” song over and over again, from Rosalita to Sherry Darlin to Nebraska. That’s what makes TR so rich. Not only can Mary go either way off the porch–back inside or to the front seat and the road–but that road trip, too, can go any number of ways, too.

    One little thing. I had a new understanding of the song when I heard the live solo version of Thunder Road (link below.) Starting with “there were ghosts in the eyes of all the boys you sent away” the tone of the live solo version diverges radically from the studio recording even though the lyrics are the same.
    The album version it’s almost all about the music, about the buildup to that big getaway. Calling them “losers” almost seems dismissive and a way to set up the hope of their “win.”
    “We’re better than them and we won’t make the mistakes they did,” is what our narrator seems to be saying to Mary as part of his sales pitch.

    On the Live version it’s much more nuanced. This town does something to you. These guys weren’t just “losers” so much as victims of fate and circumstance. (like, say, the narrator in The River)
    The slower more delicate reading of that line adds both a sweetness and a darkness to the song that takes it a notch above, say, Rosalia.

    Mary and the narrator, they’re escaping more than just boredom.

    To me, it foreshadows Racing in the Street. That guy who comes home from work and washes up could be an earlier version of our narrator, and his “baby…who stares off alone into the night, with the eyes of one who hates for just being born” could be Mary, just a little further down the road.
    That quieter version of the last line reminds me of the end of Racing which lays it out much more explicitly. What’s at stake here, Mary, is our *souls.*

    “For all the shut down strangers and hot rod angels rumbling through this promised land, tonight my baby and me we’re going to ride to the sea and wash these sins off our hands.”

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YgRC8n2zuHY

  6. All around great analysis. Regarding “you ain’t a beauty . . . ,” I read an interpretation somewhere that the line demonstrates his familiarity with Mary. It reads like an inside joke. I always hear it that way now, as something he does (or at least would) actually say to her and probably already has. Whether intended or not (I’m not convinced intent is the best measure for evaluating interpretations, anyway), I like the interpretation because it says so much about their relationship and in so few words.

  7. This has long been my favorite song and was actually part of a poetry class I took in college. As a female, the transition from innocence to experience is not just a sexual or relationship one – during this time in history, women were finally allowed to make choices and do things legally they had not before.

    So you have the past for both Mary and the narrator of the Vietnam War, the vets coming home to protests and chaos, women able to choose their life path beyond marriage and kids – and you also have the loss of faith (crosses from your lovers, all the redemption I can offer).

    It’s a new America being created by the younger generation the narrator wants to seek hope, adventure, love – as opposed to the gloominess of the racial and political upheaval around them in the town of losers. Before, Mary had no choice. She was stuck in the house, so he’s offering her more than she has ever been offered (I envision the graduation gown in rags as a worthless education because the ghosts in the eyes of the men she turned away only wanted a wife, kids, etc) This is a change in the American Dream of the 50’s and 60’s that Bruce grew up in, to seek out something better, leave the depression and traditional roles behind – Mary has a choice, and he does too. He has made up his mind to try to be better.

  8. This is an incredibly romantic poem that can be put to raging or quiet music yet carries the same great power either way. The poem is a psychologically brilliant pick up line.
    The narrator and Mary would probably not be considered the ‘perfect couple.’ Yet the narrator believes Mary can be convinced to come away with him.
    The first verse sets the scene between the narrator and Mary. The next verses are all about the narrator and what he wants and can do. He is appealing to his strengths and weaknesses. But the last verse, the narrator takes Mary’s perspective to call out her failings and losses. “all the boys you sent away” and the “when you get to the porch they’re gone.” He basically is saying I am the only one left that really gets you. Very few poems or songs can seemlessly switch the narration like Springsteen does here.

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