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?
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.”
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.
We need your help!
CONTRIBUTE TO NJARTS.NET
Since launching in September 2014, NJArts.net, a 501(c)(3) organization, has become one of the most important media outlets for the Garden State arts scene. And it has always offered its content without a subscription fee, or a paywall. Its continued existence depends on support from members of that scene, and the state’s arts lovers. Please consider making a contribution of $20, or any other amount, to NJArts.net via PayPal, or by sending a check made out to NJArts.net to 11 Skytop Terrace, Montclair, NJ 07043.