Andrew J. Beck on Bruce Springsteen’s “Thunder Road”
I’ve read enough of Nick Hornby’s Songbook, the McSweeny’s spinoffs, and similar kinds of pieces to know how any personal tribute to a rock song is supposed to unfold. The narrator begins by describing some details from the life of an oppressed, alienated, or heartbroken younger self. Younger self then encounters new song. Song speaks to narrator’s oppression, alienation, or heartbreak. Song’s epiphany inspires younger self to change course, or offers crucial insight, or provides immediate emotional ballast. There have been such songs in my life.
“Thunder Road” isn’t one of them.
I actually have no idea when I first heard this wistful, first track on Bruce Springsteen’s now iconic album, Born to Run. Springsteen released the album in August 1975, when I was eight years old, and the track’s opening harmonica and pensive lyrics have always seemed to have been part of life’s wallpaper. Although my parents weren’t Springsteen fans, I must have encountered the song that year somewhere — in the neighborhood carpool, or at a friend’s house, or during any one of frequent, random encounters with FM radio. And how could anyone not hear the song since 1975? “Thunder Road” is listed on many critics’ All Time Top Ten lists, and its radio (over-)play rivals that of anything else from the pantheon of American big-stadium, rock gods.
But it wasn’t until 1989, a few months out of college and while working for a year at a small Midwestern daily newspaper, that I purchased Born to Run. I picked it up from a bin of used cassette tapes, half-hoping it would improve my after-work banter with a couple transplanted, New Jersey-born reporters. They were, it might go without saying, devoted Springsteen fans, and their Happy Hour discussions often turned to what I thought were trivial minutiae about “The Boss.” So, “if you can’t beat ‘em . . .” was my thinking, and these two East Coasters were generally clever and insightful enough for me to take seriously their pop culture interests. Born to Run then got some play on my car stereo, but it took a back seat to a mix of The Grateful Dead’s Shakedown Street, The Meat Puppets’ Up on the Sun, Smashing Pumpkins’ first album, Light into Dark, and Steely Dan’s The Best of Steely Dan. A musical cocktail, shaped largely by the interests of former college roommates and a high school friend, and designed to keep me amused and awake that winter — and give me a sense of connection — while driving the snow-banked roads of northern Indiana. (I was a sports reporter, covering among other regional contests a long season of high school basketball: small beer, perhaps, for an outsider, but nothing less than a religious awakening every winter for native Hoosiers.)
If there was any song I identified with on Born to Run that year, it was the title track. The connection may seem like a stretch, but La Porte, Indiana, where the paper was located, could not have been too different to those similar-sized Jersey towns that haunt many Springsteen albums. There was in La Porte a long history of blue collar stability before global economic changes uprooted its foundation: for most of the century, the Berkel Company had made meat grinders and slicers for the nation and the world, even giving the local high school sports teams their nickname, “The Slicers,” before Berkel’s factories and much of the industry moved overseas in the ‘70s and ‘80s . More specifically, the aspiring emotional energy of the song, “Born to Run” seemed to reflect what I felt at the time in La Porte: a young man, big dreams, and an overinflated assessment of his own talent, collectively exceeding what he saw as his claustrophobic environment. I may not have openly called La Porte a “death trap” or a “suicide rap,” but after writing my second story of the winter about a local who had almost bowled a 300 at La Porte Lanes, the line, “we gotta get out while were young,” resonated with urgency. That I didn’t even receive a byline for one of the stories only added to a sense of being wronged. My angst was one of frustration at being relegated to small town anonymity not — as in “Thunder Road” — despair and regret at lost opportunities. Life was still ahead of me, not yet in the rearview mirror.
And so I left. No broken heroes jamming the highway, just a straight, unhindered interstate to Chicago one bright, Sunday morning. My old college friends were in Chicago, and I thought my future in a Promised Land was, too. What happened next I guess is what most people would just call “life.” My girlfriend of more than two years left me, I struggled for almost a year to find meaningful work — Chicago’s shoulders may be broad but they can also be cold — and I found the rent in the Wrigleyville neighborhood with my two gainfully employed roommates more than I could afford. I moved to a less desirable place on the southside with a friend who was in grad school. Things continued to spiral downward, and I eventually ended up moving back home to my folks’ house in California: hitting the proverbial eject button-with-neon-parachute-of-shame, available to most middle class kids. I landed in a haven of free laundry and home-cooked meals.
The rest of the story is too dull to recount in detail, but here are the rosy generals: I got back on my feet, ended up fighting hard for a smart and beautiful new girl, who — 21 years later — still inspires me and makes me deeply happy, secured a grad school degree, built a career in the New York book publishing world, and am now helping raise two wonderful, inquisitive children. That’s the Christmas card version — and none of it is less than true. The reality version would include family shouting matches audible from the sidewalk, an always-old beater of a car, the sting of being passed over for promotions, and the wear and tear any long-term relationship will inflict on the dreams of its principle partners. It would include other crap, too; crap that will go un-cataloged here. None of this is less than true, either.
“Thunder Road” speaks to the complex and pregnant beauty of the reality version. Because the song is seemingly ubiquitous, its lines have revealed slowly over the years — like water wearing away stone — the imperfect but meaningful patterns of how life has settled. The narrator lists for Mary, the woman sizing him up from her front porch, some of her lost opportunities and then speaks the unvarnished truth, “maybe we ain’t that young, anymore.” The last two words of that line are drawn out slowly to emphasize their importance but are then blindsided by the staccato-like delivery of the next sentence: “Show a little faith, there’s magic in the night.” His suggestion is motivated by embers of hope, as is the whole song. Not an easy or cheap hope — not the platitudes offered at a commencement ceremony (“your graduation gown lies in rags at their feet”) nor the sugary promises made by Mary’s past lovers, whom she’s turned away. This singer admits he’s neither her savior nor a hero, but steals a thought from Tolstoy — “if you look for perfection, you’ll never be content” — to chide her in his Jersey slang: “the door’s open, but the ride ain’t free.” His offer is built on what these two now know damn well about life — that it’s rough and imperfect — and that anything they make will need to be built from its crooked timber.
It’s a sentiment that’s at the heart of many religious ideas, and others have commented on the explicitly Christian themes and images driving the song. Springsteen clearly chose lines like, “make crosses from your lovers” and “heaven’s waiting on down the tracks,” deliberately and repeatedly. For me, Springsteen’s most memorable biblical reference comes immediately after Mary’s accepted the offer: the narrator sings, “We’re riding out tonight to case the promised land,” evoking two nameless spies from the Hebrew Bible. They’re sent out to “case” the city of Jericho in the land of Canaan. I imagine them as dirty and without much rank, not a tandem plucked from Joshua’s elite corps of warriors. They know they need to stay thick as thieves if their mission is going to be successful. The two don’t receive a byline in Israel’s narrative, but their story suggests powerfully what may be at stake tonight for Mary and her new partner.
Ronald Reagan once quipped, “I didn’t leave the Democratic Party, the Democratic Party left me,” a politically expedient line for Reagan, and a type of reasoning many have trotted out to justify dissolving all types of commitments. This idea in reverse, however, must also be true: I didn’t find this song (or worldview); it just slowly found me. The immensely popular “Thunder Road” has been such a song in my life, grafting on to what I’ve learned and felt to be real, slowly, after nearly five decades of living. Springsteen, who was 24 when Born to Run was released, called it, “the album where I left behind my adolescent definitions of love and freedom,” making him especially precocious in a culture that still seems to cleave to, and thrive on, such adolescent definitions. But we make the road by walking, as Paolo Freire rendered the Spanish poet Antonio Machado, or in the case of “Thunder Road,” by turning in these wings on some wheels. Either way, “Thunder Road” helped teach me that a life on the ground — rather than one aimed aloft at idealized, notions of what life might be — seems to be the only promised land worth living in.