Friday Fun: Boss Top Ten, #4--"Thunder Road"

"Thunder Road" (off of Born to Run (1975))
Concert Footage: Air Canada Center, Toronto (Canada), 2016

The three iconic songs off of Born to Run are "Born to Run," "Jungleland," and "Thunder Road."  I go back and forth on which of those I like the best.  Musically, "Jungleland" is the most memorable because of the saxophone solo, originally performed by the legendary Clarence Clemons a/k/a "The Big Man."  "Born to Run" is the most anthemic song, despite not being particularly positive ("It's a death trap, it's a suicide rap, we've got to get out while we're young," etc.)  In the end, I decided to go with "Thunder Road," mostly because I realized that I can rattle off every word of the song out of reflex.

Most of Springsteen songs are storytelling songs, but "Thunder Road" is maybe the ultimate storytelling song.  It has no chorus or bridge, just a continuous narrative.  It begins by setting a scene with sights and sounds:

A screen door slams, 
Mary's dress sways
Like a vision she dances across the porch 
As the radio plays
Roy Orbison's 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.

From there it goes on to tell a story of a man making an offer to a woman to flee this town and embrace a new adventure.  It's a promise of adventure, of freedom.  Like most of these sorts of promises, it is short on the details of where this couple would be heading or doing.  It also has no real indication that Mary is particularly interested in this offer--maybe our narrator is truly spitting in the wind.  None of that ambiguity, I think, takes away from the basic impact of the song.  Everyone dreams of running off on an adventure.

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.

It occurred to me, listening to "Thunder Road" for the up-teenth time, that the song basically has the same plot and meaning as Tennyson's poem "Ulysses."  It may be dreams of oared ships sailing for the Pillars of Hercules to the tunes of harp music, as opposed to guitars and Chevrolets in "Thunder Road," it is still the same basic dream.  

Come, my friends,
’Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths        
Of all the western stars until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’     
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

As I mentioned earlier, though, this dream is long on bold ideas and short on concrete realities.  It is probably a terrible idea for Mary to get into the car with our narrator.  She's probably better off sticking with her predicable life.

But none of those staid, predictable arguments take away from the basic romantic appeal embodied in "Thunder Road."  We can just as easily imagine Mary jumping in the back of the car and taking off into the night, consequences be damned.

All of that nuance and romanticism is captured in a relatively short, straight-forward song.  That's why it is here on this list.


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