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Thunder Road: The Song That Made Springsteen an International Phenomenon

Thunder Road (1975)
Bruce Springsteen And The E Street Band
Album: Born To Run
composed by Bruce Springsteen

He jests at scars, that never felt a wound. 

– Romeo in Romeo And Juliet

As history tells us, Greetings From Asbury Park and The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle preceded Bruce Springsteen’s breakout album, Born To Run. The first thing the listener hears on the album is the 1975 classic “Thunder Road,” the song that introduced Bruce Springsteen to the world at large, transforming him from cult figure to international phenomenon. It’s like being introduced to a cruise missile.

From the song’s quiet, dreamlike opening, supported by an achy-breaky 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, the heroine and hero. The writer/singer has in mind a soundtrack, as well. 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 in 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.

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.

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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 
That’s understood 
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 plea.

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 on down 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:

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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 

The tumultuous ending of “Thunder Road” has few parallels in Rock music. That is why there is an impulse to use cinema, opera and Shakespeare as comparative forms.

The young men that Mary has devastated in her girlhood rise from phantasmagoric 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 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. 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 brought in the glockenspiel as did Spector. The old-time feeling is thoroughly updated by a stirring, nearly 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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