‘We’re pulling out of here to win’: Further thoughts on Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Thunder Road’

springsteen thunder road last line

JOEL BERNSTEIN

Bruce Springsteen performs at one of the “No Nukes” concerts in 1979.

The new film and recording of Bruce Springsteen performing with the E Street Band at the “No Nukes” concerts at Madison Square Garden in 1979 includes “Thunder Road” (listen below). In it, he sings the last line as “We’re pulling out of here to win.”

This inspired me to do a little research.

You see, in July, I had taken a close look at the lyrics of “Thunder Road” in an NJArts.net post. And I remembered that he closes the song, on the version that is on his 1975 Born to Run album, with “I’m pulling out of here to win.” I actually made a big deal about the line in that post. But now he’s singing it differently?

So I listened to all the live versions of “Thunder Road” that I could find on YouTube and Spotify. I listened to about 40, overall, from all phases of his career. And I found that he did, indeed, sing “I’m pulling out of here to win” for several years after Born to Run, but then changed to “We’re pulling out of here to win,” and has stuck to that ever since. The first example I could find of “We’re” was Dec. 16, 1978, at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco — one of the last shows he did before “No Nukes.” And I could find no “I’m” after that.

Why is this significant?

Well, first of all, you can easily see that line as the climactic moment of a song that is almost universally acknowledged as one of his greatest artistic achievements. Throughout “Thunder Road,” he’s asking Mary to come with him for a ride. And what was originally a statement of his individualism — I take “I’m pulling out of here to win” to mean he’s going, whether or not she chooses to join him — becomes a vision of where he feels he and she (and by extension, the audience) can go, together.

At concerts, even before he made the lyrical change, “I’m pulling out of here to win” was a moment of joyous release. (In all-out rock versions of the song, at least; he has also performed “Thunder Road” as a somber ballad.) With the change to “We’re,” it became even more celebratory.

And, of course, this reflected the change in his outlook on life around the time of his 1980 album The River (which he was in the middle of recording when he performed at “No Nukes”). Turning 30 (on the day after his second “No Nukes” appearance), he was becoming more concerned with connections to other people — lovers, friends, family, and society at large — and less of a lone wolf.

This doesn’t really change the meaning of the song, for me. But it does reflect a major shift in Springsteen, as an artist and a person. (This is not, like the infamous “sways” vs. “waves” argument, a trivial thing.)

As you listen to and/or watch the sensational “No Nukes” performances, you may want to keep in mind: This represents not just a peak moment for him and the E Street Band as a concert act, but a moment of great change in his life. He wasn’t there yet: He continued to evolve throughout the ’80s. But the seeds were there, at least. There is a lot of symbolic meaning in leaving behind that “I’m.”

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