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  • Raymond Obstfeld

Poem #8: Bruce Springsteen's Thunder Road

Updated: Jul 21



Logline

Bruce Springsteen’s “Thunder Road” conveys the urgency of youth desperate to leave the confines of small town America in search of a future they forge on their own terms.


Thunder Road

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

Don't turn me home again

I just can't face myself alone again

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


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

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 on down the tracks

Oh oh come take my hand

Riding out tonight to case the promised land

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 Thunder Road, sit tight take hold

Thunder Road


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

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 a town full of losers

And I'm pulling out of here to win.


Why This Poem Song


I realize songs aren’t technically poems but, just as some poems can be put to music, so can some songs be appreciated just for the poetic power of their lyrics. Plus, songs have the ability to reach many more people and therefore have a greater effect on them and our culture than poems. Probably more people listen to “Thunder Road” in one year than all the people worldwide who have read a poem that same year.


Some of our best songs are just as good as some of our best poems. Joni Mitchell and Paul Simon have written songs that are just as skillfully written, moving, and insightful as our most revered poems. I’ll probably include a couple of them in this blog sometime in the future. Here’s some poetry heresy to chew on: I like a couple specific lines in Joni Mitchell’s adaptation of William Butler Yeats’ “Second Coming” better than I like Yeats’ lines. Yeats writes:


The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.


Those lines rock me whenever I read them. But Mitchell writes:


The best lack conviction Given some time to think And the worst are full of passion Without mercy.


Both are brilliant, but Mitchell’s sharpens Yeats’ original idea and makes it have a more poignant punch when she swaps his slightly vaguer “passionate intensity” with “passion without mercy.” Mitchell for the win. (Poetry purists may begin your outraged attacks on me now.)


Having just sang the praises of Joni Mitchell and Paul Simon’s genius, why then did I choose for my first song in a poetry blog to be Bruce Springsteen’s “Thunder Road”? Because this song, which was released in 1975, epitomizes the essence of the homegrown American Dream: blue-collar kid breaks free from the small town expectations and limitations to strike out on his own, placing all his faith in his artistic ability and drive rather than in the conventional wisdom of those who never tried or who gave up early. I’m reminded of the scene in American Graffiti in which the teacher, Mr. Wolfe, admits that he left his small town for college but returned after one semester: “Decided I wasn’t the competitive type. I don’t know…maybe I was scared.” This traditional version of the American Dream is about overcoming fear to boldly and forcefully claim your imagined destiny. [In truth, it’s not just an American Dream, but international. Watch The Commitments in which a bunch of Dublin teens form a band with the hopes of rising “above the shite” of diminished social expectations.]


Paul Simon’s “My Little Town” delves into the same themes with more grace and deeper intellect, but “Thunder Road” gets under the skin and seeps into the blood and rallies something inside. It’s a Pied Piper call to action unlike any other song. It’s not sardonic, snarky, or sarcastic—it’s petal-to-the-metal commitment to get the hell out of town and never look back.


[note #1: There are several versions of Springsteen performing this song on YouTube. It’s interesting to see how his performances evolve over time. Early live performances are raw, raspy, and energetic. Over the years, he slows it down a little and is more introspective, less intense. This link is just the song: https://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=springsteen+%22thunder+road%22]


[note #2: To put this song in cultural perspective, it’s listed No. 86 on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. In 2004, WXPN ranked the song as No. 1 on its list of “885 All-Time Greatest Songs.” One of my favorite novelists, Nick Hornby (About a Boy, High Fidelity), who is also an acclaimed music critic, featured “Thunder Road” as one of the greatest songs ever written in his collection of essays, Songbook.]


What This Poem Song Means to Me


I grew up in the small town of Williamsport, Pennsylvania (with a population of around 50,000 in my youth). The rumor around town was that Williamsport had more churches per capita than any other city in the U.S. I don’t know if that was true but it sure felt true. The pious weight infused the air like thick humidity. It was a bastion of hard-core conservativism, racism, misogyny, and anti-Semitism. It didn’t help my childhood that my parents owned Obstfeld’s Jewish Delicatessen & Bakery that featured a huge blue Star of David. As a result, I spent much of my school days in fights with classmates who called me “dirty Jew” and other unimaginative epithets. As I’ve mentioned in previous blog entries, my parents’ deli was routinely defaced with swastikas, bullets were fired through the windows (when we were closed), and eventually the store was firebombed, gutting the entire business (which my parents rebuilt).


So, despite its Hallmark appearance, I wasn’t exactly fond of the town. The biggest lesson I learned growing up was how many people enabled the violence and hate simply by not saying anything. After the third time I was suspended from school for fighting (once with knives), my parents appealed to the principal who sympathetically assured them he would put an end to the anti-Semitic bullying. Nothing happened. In fact, I encountered several teachers who also called me Jew-boy. Ironically, I was equally made fun of for writing poetry, which I’d started to have published while in high school. To most of the guys in my school, writing poetry meant I was gay. However, to most of the girls, it was cool and mysterious. Which kept me writing it.


I was also the editor of our high school newspaper for which I wrote weekly editorials. Each week, I was called into the principal’s office and told they would not run my editorial because it was too controversial: End the War. Give 18-Year-Olds the Vote. Less Emphasis on High School Sports. I argued back, cited legal cases, appealed to the Constitution—the usual classroom lawyer ploys. I always lost because I had no leverage and the principal rightly feared for his job if my classmates’ parents read my words. But over the months, I wore the principal down and he started to allow me run some of my editorials. Which many of my fellow students labeled “Communist propaganda.”


But the townspeople and their offspring weren’t my only antagonists. My parents, immigrants from Germany, were worse. They had deliberately moved to this small town from New York City in order to raise their children away from big city violence and crime. They worked in factories until they’d saved enough to buy the deli and they kept it open 24/7 at first, trading 12-hour shifts. By the time my brother (five years older) and I were born, they were open 6 a.m. until 9 p.m. My brother and I were raised in the business (which we referred to as “The Store”). Sometimes my mother would cook a meal just for the family and we’d sit down to eat it and a customer would come in, say how delicious it looked, and they would sell my meal out from under me.


Worse, were the hours. Because my parents were there, my brother and I had to be there. After school, we took a bus to the store to work until it closed. We worked weekends all day. During the summers, we worked 80 hours a week for an allowance of $3 a week—plus tips. Some customers who were close friends with my parents complained to them that this was child abuse, but my mother, who had grown up in Germany during World War II, and my father, who had barely avoided joining relatives in concentration camps, couldn’t comprehend what they were saying. Their children had it good.


My father was a mean man who demanded unquestioning obedience. If he hadn’t been a Jew in Germany, he would have been a Nazi. He was barely literate so he never read a book or a newspaper. But he was unwavering in his belief that he was always right. When I started to disagree with him, using facts and logic to support my opinions, the result was sometimes violent. He would attack me, throw something at me, or punish me. My mother was an artist who had many talents. She was also an avid reader, which pissed off my dad to no end. He refused to allow her to buy a set of encyclopedias because he didn’t want her to be too smart, as he proudly stated with a chuckle. My mother taught me a love for books, films, and music. But when I hit high school, she had gone to the dark side.


We argued constantly about politics. The Vietnam War was raging and I was put in the Selective Service lottery. I wasn’t sure what I would do if my number was called: go to Canada or go to jail. I knew going to Vietnam was out of the question. I was toying with going to jail under the romantic notion that it would prove that I was acting out of principle rather than fear. Oh, but I was afraid. Then one night at one of my parents’ parties, there was a discussion about the war. Our store was close to the college campus where I would join the protest marches. Many regular customers were college professors, some were liberals who also protested the war. They were frequent guests at my parents’ parties. The discussion got heated and my mother announced, “This country has given this family everything and if they want my sons, then I’m willing to give them.” I jumped into to argue that she didn’t have the right to “give” us, but she was adamant that her sons were obligated to go if she wanted us to. That statement was the start of a serious break between us that never fully healed during her lifetime.


Life in my small town was unbearable. I was fighting a war on two fronts: the prejudice of the general population and the imprisonment I felt at home. More irony: I had determined I was an atheist by the time I was 12, which meant even the Jews didn’t have my back. I had run away from home several times since I was 12, each time being brought back. The last time I was 16 and found a roommate to stay with who was a college student. My parents threatened to have him arrested for harboring a minor so I returned home again.


The final straw was during my freshman year in college. I graduated at 17 and had been accepted to Oxford University and Temple University. But my parents refused to pay any money for college unless I stayed in Williamsport and attended Lycoming College, the local school near our store. That way I could work in the store when I wasn’t in class. We fought terribly. They promised that if I worked in the store for one year, they would pay for my college wherever I wanted to go. I was in that store almost every minute I wasn’t in class. I ran for class president but when I had to go to the college to deliver my speech to the student body, my father would not let me leave work to do so, even though we had no customers.


I went ahead and applied to other colleges, particularly an experimental college in California, Johnston College, I’d read about in Time magazine. No grades, students were part of the process in selecting which classes would be offered, creative majors were available, and much more. It embodied freedom, the opposite of my life then. Lycoming College demanded students attend chapel (which I never did) and when you went to the girls’ dorm to pick up a date, they had a receptionist who called up to the rooms: “You have a gentleman caller.” It was a throwback to the past even in 1970.


I was accepted to Johnston College and it was the only thing that made life bearable. I was also publishing poetry in magazines and giving readings at the campus coffee house. I marked off the days on the calendar until I would leave. Then, around April, a few months before I was to leave, my parents informed me that they wanted me to stay another year. They would not pay for college unless I agreed. (By the way, they weren’t paying for Lycoming College; I had scholarships and loans.) I nearly spontaneously combusted. I told them I was going anyway. I would find a way to pay on my own. They insisted I was not going. And so it went for about a month before one day I walked out of the store, tossing my apron on the counter (just like Sammy in John Updike’s “A&P” though I hadn’t yet read that story). I moved in with my girlfriend and her roommate, got a job in a bakery factory, and finished my classes at Lycoming College. I made it to California and Johnston College and felt like I could breathe freely for the first time.


For many years afterward, even after reconciling with my parents, I had nightmares of being trapped in Williamsport. In my dreams, I stood in the middle of Market Street, which was the main street out of town as well as the street my parents’ store was on. I had no wallet, no money, no credit cards—no way out. I would wake up sweating. Eventually, I would have that same dream, but now I would have money and credit cards with limitless credit, and I would smile, knowing I could leave anytime I wanted.


My story is far from unique. Many kids have had a similar experience, some much worse. But the theme of escaping the confines of low expectations and illogical thinking reverberates in the minds and bodies of thousands of young adults everywhere. Art is meant to articulate our frustrations, to illuminate a path of escape, and spark enough courage for us to act. “Thunder Road” is such art. Though the song came out after I’d left home and endured years of poverty as I put myself through college and graduate school, when I heard it, I felt all the old stirrings, the conviction that I could forge my own future through sheer will power.


[note #1: Now that I’m older, I’ve reconnected with some of my classmates through Facebook and reunions—though none of the villains of my youth. Many never left Williamsport. I’m often disappointed to read their political posts and social commentaries that echo the same narrow prejudices of our cloistered youth that mimic their parents. Those who left Williamsport seemed to have bloomed and thrived. Of course, that’s an easy generalization—there are exceptions. Some days I imagine moving back to Williamsport (or some similar small town) with fantasies of those movie small towns where everyone is quirky but loveable. But then a dark fear sets in that I will end up standing in the middle of Market Street with no money, no credit cards, and no way out.]


[note #2: Ironically, though I was physically and mentally attacked because of my association with Judaism, it especially pains me to realize that, though my personal struggle made me whole-heartedly embrace the civil rights movement, I was still a homophobe and misogynist as a young teen living in Williamsport. I was too blind to see the connection between the biases I faced and my own biases. This is the zombification that one fears from living in a small town: that over time you will lose the desire to question the prejudices you were brought up believing and just give in to the hive mind.


All the Biography You Need to Know for This Poem Song


Bruce Springsteen’s (b. 1949) songs epitomize blue-collar economic and social struggles of having limited options for the future based on limited education and the pressures of the community to conform to their way of thinking. His third album, Born to Run (1975), catapulted him to mainstream success, which he has enjoyed ever since. He’s earned 20 Grammy Awards, two Golden Globes, and Academy Award, and a Tony Award. In 2016, he was given the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama. He’s number 23 on Rolling Stone’s list of the Greatest Artists of All Time.


Line-by-Line Musings


Thunder Road (title)


Buckle up, poetry lovers. This is the most intense analysis of a title I’ve done. And for free. Though you may decide afterward that the price was still too high.


In concerts, Springsteen sometimes mentions that he got the idea for the title from the Robert Mitchum movie (1958) of the same name about moonshiners (a film he had not seen). In the film, Mitchum fights to keep his bootlegging business going despite pressure from both the government and the mob. Much of the action focuses on everyone chasing each other down a backwoods road called Thunder Road because of the thunderous roar of the engines. This is all part of the American mythology built around the automobile, especially muscle cars. Kids in the ‘50s and ‘60s grew up reading hot rod magazines and dreaming of fixing up some old clunker into a cherry rod, then cruising the streets for all to admire. At least that’s how they’re portrayed in the movies. The car maketh the man.


No need to delve into the obvious sexual symbolism of penises, power, and potency that are overly mentioned when talking about men and cars, especially sports cars. More important is the car as a symbol of metamorphosis and maturation. The car doesn’t just transport you from one place to another, it transforms you from one person to another. The car is freedom to go where you want, when you want, as fast as you want—the essence of the American Dream. This is the idea behind the genre of “road trip” stories in which one or two or a group of people drive from one place to another, encountering people and obstacles along the way, learning more about themselves with each rolling mile.


“Thunder Road” also suggests a godlike independence. Thor is the Norse god of thunder and lightning: with our souped-up engines and heavy foot on the gas, we are godlike in being able to not just choose our own paths, bur roar down those paths at ungodly speeds. The best part is we (meaning Detroit at its peak) made the cars so we forged the vehicles of our freedom.


Of course, that’s the mythology and symbolism. Many works of literature point out that ripping down the road with the roof down and the radio blaring is just an illusion of freedom. The kids in American Graffiti drive around all night in their cars, giddy with their sense of teenage freedom, completely unaware that they are driving in the same circles that they will stay in for the rest of their lives. In fact, it’s the illusion of being free that keeps them from ever actually breaking out into real freedom. [Freedom meaning being able to make choices somewhat free of all the influences and pressures of parents, tradition, peers, society, etc.] The loveable but delusional Italian street gang in The Wanderers love to sing their theme song (Dion’s “The Wanderer”): “Oh well I roam from town to town/I go through life without a care.” However, they don’t roam. They are stuck in Brooklyn under the heavy thumbs of their parents, church, and community. At the end, only two of them escape. By car. On a road trip to California.


Also dispelling the myth is Tracy Chapman’s song “Fast Car,” in which a young Black girl and her boyfriend try to escape the misery of their lives in his car. She believes it’s possible because of the sensation of movement and hope driving brings her:


So I remember we were driving, driving in your car Speed so fast, I felt like I was drunk City lights lay out before us And your arm felt nice wrapped 'round my shoulder And I-I, had a feeling that I belonged I-I had a feeling I could be someone, be someone, be someone

Unfortunately, when they arrive at their new location and have children, her boyfriend is still tethered to their old lives and the habits of that environment. Finally, she tells him to take his “fast car” and leave, forever dispelling the myth (maybe commenting that it’s certainly not a viable myth for African Americans).


Finally, and maybe most important, is the more universal thematic meaning of the title, similar to that of Stephen Crane’s famous shorty story “Open Boat.” Hold on, because we’re going to get a bit “literary,” but it’s necessary to understand the real meaning of the myth and of the song. Below is a HUGELY simplified explanation (but if you read it you’re going to feel a lot smarter and better about yourself):


People’s belief systems (meaning all religion and philosophy) can be distilled into two: Orthodox or Naturalism. All literature also falls into one of these two thematic categories.


Orthodox follows four tenants:

1. Belief in a god (or gods) who cares about humanity.

2. Belief in a Divine Plan that will benefit humanity but which humanity does not have access to.

3. Because they can’t access the Divine Plan, believers take a Leap of Faith by following the teachings laid out for them in a sacred book or books or even in oral songs and stories handed down through generations. Crucial: The teachings must be followed verbatim without question and without interpretation that allows alteration. To change the teaching would show a lack of faith (after all, how can a human know better what a god wants than the god itself). The point of faith here is that we can’t know what is Good or Evil because we can’t understand The Plan. What we think with our human perception is Good may in fact be Evil. So, follow the teachings as they are presented. No substitutions. Important: This is where most people go wrong in contradicting what they say they believe. For example, if you believe the Bible is the word of God that presents His commandments or teachings, if you change anything you show lack of faith and are establishing yourself as godlike with superior knowledge to your God. Over the centuries, people have chosen to disregard certain teachings while embracing others and modifying others—all to fit the current social climate. Once you modify one teaching, then all teachings are open to modification and no one has the moral high ground. Still, people will consider themselves believers and people of faith even though they have proven a lack of faith. This desire to change teachings to accommodate is why there are 200 sects of Christianity in the US and 45,000 sects globally.

4. Following the teachings without alteration will result in Reward, which is a Boon and/or Good Death.

a. The Boon means the material comforts of good job, money, relationships. Or as Sam Spade says in Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, “The stuff that dreams are made of.” However, adherents aren’t always rewarded with material gain because that is not the point of following the teachings—spiritual satisfaction is.

b. Good Death is the ultimate reward. Because physical death is inevitable, you can have either a Bad Death (dying isolated, unloved, filled with regrets) or a Good Death (loved, admired, appreciated, knowing you lived the life you wanted to). For many religions, that Good Death also means living on after death in a state of happiness.


Naturalism takes the opposite approach to achieving the same ends. It also has four tenants:

1. There is no god or gods. If super powerful beings did exist, and if they had a hand in Creation, they don’t care about us or what we do.

2. There is no Divine Plan. Humanity is on its own to plan and execute those plans.

3. There are no universal teachings. Each person is responsible for formulating their own teachings for life, their own code of conduct. However, most followers of Naturalism (whether under some of its more formal names such as Existentialism or Taoism or Zen Buddhism or just people who consider themselves non-religious) agree that it’s important that your teachings should ultimately benefit humanity. You act as you would want others to act. It’ not an excuse to act without any moral standards. In fact, it’s a call to act even more morally because you can’t use the excuse that many Orthodox followers use when breaking their teachings: “I’m only human.”

4. Following your teachings will result in Reward, which is a Boon and/or Good Death. Same explanation as for Orthodox.


The issue that Naturalism has with Orthodox is that many of the Orthodox adherents aren’t true believers but merely followers of convention and tradition. They really know nothing about their own religion and merely try to act the part, the way a child puts on a soldier uniform but still is not a soldier. Two tests will determine faith versus convention (in this example we’ll use Christianity):

1. Have you read the entire Bible? If you believe that the Bible is the word of God with all His teachings, then you definitely would read it yourself. The most powerful being in the universe gives you a reading assignment to save your eternal soul and you pass? That indicates someone who doesn’t really believe but wants to fit in with others.

2. Treating the Bible as a guide to good manners rather than being a good person. This means picking and choosing which verses to follow based on personal preference rather than on God’s will. For example, in Matthew 5:38-42, Jesus says in his Sermon on the Mount: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.” This is the core of Jesus’ teachings, the soul of being a Christian: First, he rejects the Old Testament teaching on an eye for an eye in favor of turning the other cheek. He means that we shouldn’t focus on defending the things of this material world because it is transitory, impermanent. But if we act in favor of the material body over our spiritual soul, we are causing damage to the soul, which is permanent. Yet, Christians wanting to defend the death penalty often quote the “eye for an eye,” even though Jesus rejected that teaching. That’s why he says we should give the tunic and cloak—they are material things and defending them is at the peril of our eternal souls. But how many Christians actually follow his teaching? The question isn’t whether or not you should follow that teaching, it's whether or not you can abandon it and still call yourself a true Christian. Or just a kid in Christian robes.


The relevance of all this blathering is that Crane’s “Open Boat” title is meant to show us that the survivors of the shipwreck in the lifeboat live in a Naturalistic world—that we all live in an “open boat” exposed to the elements. Nature doesn’t care about us, we are no more important than any other creature, therefore we are responsible for forming our own teachings in learning how to live with that knowledge and still form a society that is safe, nurturing, and allows us all to thrive. “Thunder Road” is a road we travel in which we are exposed to the elements as if in an open boat. There is thunder and lightning and mortal danger to us, so we have to choose our own teachings in order to not just survive, but to thrive. [This may all seem like a load of academic bullshit right now, but as we go through the lyrics line by line, you’ll see why it’s so important.]


Was Springsteen aware of all these meanings and nuances when he chose the title? That’s what students always ask whenever we explore the deeper meanings of any work. Here’s the answer every literature teacher should give: It doesn’t matter. First, because we can’t know everything that he was thinking and even when writers talk about the process of writing they often misremember or even lie. Second, writing is a balance of the conscious and unconscious. You select the words that best convey the swirling mass of complex thoughts. Mostly, you’re in control. But sometimes what influences those choices isn’t immediately apparent to you. You may be unconsciously referencing other things you’ve read, seen, heard, or even overheard, to complete your work. Meaning is derived from the pattern woven into the work. And, as you will see, the pattern (or motifs) that consistently appear support the above interpretations.


The screen door slams

We start with the loud sound of the door slamming because this is a wake-up call that she’s been “sleeping” in a romantic Orthodox illusion about her life.


The slam also tells us that she’s rushed out to see him because she cares about him. He’s not here to win her affections (he already has them), but to win her over from Orthodox to Naturalism by convincing her it’s time to leave.


Mary's dress waves

You can’t have a better representation of the Orthodox than naming her Mary (after the Virgin Mary of the New Testament). She is meant to embody someone who accepts the conventional teachings about God, society, the role of women, etc.

[Important: Although Springsteen uses religious imagery throughout to identify Mary’s Orthodox beliefs, he’s not specifically addressing religion. Mary represents the conventional conservative beliefs that she’s never questioned, even though they’ve been destructive to her life by chaining her to her decaying town. The villain here isn’t religion but those who follow anything blindly—whether religion or politics or traditions—without ever questioning them. Drones in a mental hive are living zombies.]


Notice that the first thing he mentions isn’t Mary waving, but her dress. It suggests a ghostlike lack of substance. She’s fading along with her romantic notions for her future: True Love and a “fabulous” life. The waving dress also adds a sensual and sexual element that defines her. Is that her main worth to society—or every woman’s?


[There’s controversy as to whether the word is “waves” or “sways.” Either way, the meaning doesn’t change. Read about the controversy here: https://www.usatoday.com/story/entertainment/music/2021/07/18/bruce-springsteen-thunder-road-lyric-mystery-over-dress-over/8010052002/]



Like a vision she dances across the porch

He refers to her as a “vision” which, to continue from the previous line, makes her lack substance. Is she a vision to him of a possible future away from the town and its confines? Or is she a vision of femininity as defined by the Orthodoxy which she cultivates as her hope for her future?


She dances because she’s happy to see him, but it also echoes the traditional ideal of a woman as dancer.

As the radio plays
Roy Orbison playing for the lonely

The radio is playing Roy Orbison’s song, “Only the Lonely.” This introduces the concept of art as a window to the Truth. The song is about someone who laments his loneliness caused by heartbreak. Mary dances across the porch to the song, not realizing it is her own theme song. How can she be lonely when she has him? Because he can’t stay in this town and continue to feel his own identity slipping away and any hope for his future. Art gives people insight into their dilemmas, but they must then have the courage to act on that insight.


Hey that's me and I want you only

Here the narrator admits he’s lonely—despite their relationship. Instead of dancing to the song and ignoring its meaning, he recognizes the truth and realizes if he doesn’t act soon, he will lose the will to act and become the same as the people he hates (“a town full of losers”). Also, when a character admits unflattering truths about themselves, it’s a technique the writer uses to show that this is a reliable narrator who is giving us an accurate representation of the facts. We can trust his interpretation of events.


Don't turn me home again
I just can't face myself alone again

The repeating of again twice tells us he’s been through this with her before—and he’s failed to leave. That creates suspense about whether or not he’ll be able to leave this time. It also reinforces that he’s willing to share his flaws with us, which makes him more sympathetic.


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

She’s scared because if she chose him, she’d be admitting that her previous “faith” in the Orthodox was wrong and that she’s stuck in a dead-end existence. Her comfort zone is in embracing the beliefs that everyone else has, the ones she was raised with, that her family and friends hold. It is the threshold of maturation, when we reject ideas that we were brainwashed with, and seek out our own answers. That journey may bring us back again to those same beliefs, but even if it does, it’s because we chose them, not because we’re afraid to be excommunicated from our community for not following their beliefs.


His admission that they aren’t “that young anymore” is really startling because this kind of song/story of leaving the stagnant small town behind usually features young protagonists fresh out of high school (The Wanderers, American Graffiti, etc.). But this couple has already failed before to leave. She’s more cautious now, with more to lose. She doesn’t have the careless optimism of youth. She’s already started to turn into one of the townspeople, like the scene in the original Invasion of the Bodysnatchers when his girlfriend nods off and wakes up as an alien.


Show a little faith, there's magic in the night

The introduction of Faith here is crucial. As discussed earlier, both Orthodox and Naturalism require a Leap of Faith because both acknowledge the limitations of rational thought (the limitation is that since we as humans can never have all the information necessary to make the correct decision, we have to make a leap of faith and choose based on what we can know). Orthodox says the leap of faith is to follow God’s teachings; Naturalism says the leap of faith is to follow your own teachings while accepting the burden that you are always choosing based only on available information.


The faith the narrator is referring to is a Naturalistic faith in themselves. They don’t need a higher authority or being. In choosing to make that leap of faith in their own ability to choose good and evil, they are leaving behind the false Garden of Eden, which is a prison of servitude to a hive mentality.


The “magic” occurs when they make the leap of faith: they have transcended the mere rational into that balance of rational and intuition necessary in the Naturalistic world.


You ain't a beauty, but hey you're alright
Oh and that's alright with me

This is a shocking and subversive line. Usually, the suitor tries convincing the woman by describing her beauty. Not his guy. He’s making a case for why she can trust him. He’s honest, even painfully honest. But more important, he’s not interested in her physical beauty. He doesn’t keep coming back to her because of her superficial attractiveness, but out of real love.


You can hide `neath your covers
And study your pain

His honesty is on full display here when he accuses her of hiding from the realities of life, especially from taking any risks to make a better life. Instead, she studies her pain in an impotent and narcissistic obsession. She romanticizes her pain as if she’s a heroine in a gothic novel (think Jane Eyre). But this is self-inflicted pain, caused by inaction. Her calcification has begun and is inevitable without action.


In literature, there’s always a point in the story in which the protagonist has insight into their life. All the biases and defenses have fallen away and they can see who they really are and what choices they have. This is the moment of Insight into Action, when the protagonist has the opportunity to choose the correct path to be happy. However, the window for action is brief because all the pressure from the external world as well as from their own insecurities is pushing that window closed. Stories end with the protagonist either acting on their insight by choosing a path to happiness, or their fear makes them fail to act and the window closes and they return to their illusions and self-deceptions.


Here the Man is trying to convey his insight to the Woman and telling her if they don’t leave, she will forever be hiding under covers (making excuses for why she settled).


Make crosses from your lovers
Throw roses in the rain
Waste your summer praying in vain
For a savior to rise from these streets

These four lines emphasize her Orthodox beliefs in God, a plan, and universal ideas of good and evil. “Throw roses in the rain” is ritualizing her romantic and childish notions of love. Rain is generally a symbol for rebirth, to be baptized into someone new and fully aware. But in her case the ritual fetishizes her failed romances.


“Make crosses from your lovers” is her romanticizing her bad relationships into crosses upon which she is crucified. This puts all the blame on them rather than her taking any responsibility either for her choice in men or in her unrealistic expectations from the relationships. They all fail because they can never live up to her idealization.


“Waste your summer praying in vain” is to squander her youth looking to a supernatural being to supply her with love rather than to take control herself.


“For a savior to rise” is the classic idea of romance novels and fairy tales in which the woman is “saved” by the man. At the same time, it’s an indictment of all the Orthodox townspeople (and anyone else) who believes in an Orthodox philosophy in which an external supernatural being—like Jesus—has to save you because you are incapable of doing it yourself through your own choices.


Well now I'm no hero
That's understood

Again, the protagonist establishes himself as a reliable narrator because he admits he’s not trying to be a hero or a savior. He’s just a guy, but one with the courage to reject Orthodox beliefs and take charge of his own future. Ironically, by offering to take her along—and preaching his Naturalistic dogma—he’s providing the opportunity for her to be her own savior.


All the redemption I can offer, girl
Is beneath this dirty hood

Redemption isn’t bestowed from above, it’s earned through one’s actions. Even if they failed, they are redeemed by trying.


I really like the image of redemption being linked to the car. The car is human-made, a creation of human imagination. Therefore, the car—meaning human ingenuity and effort—is the key to salvation. Not a supernatural being.


The “dirty hood” is a reminder that all matter is of the earth and therefore unclean (dirty) and imperfect. But that’s what we have to work with so we can get on with forging our futures and salvation with what’s at hand, or wait for external forces. [This is a good time to remind you that this is not a condemnation of religion. Yes, people who believe in various religions also forge their futures and work toward their own salvation. He’s talking about a certain mindset of people who merely follow without thinking, who claim faith but are pitiless, who lack compassion or tolerance or curiosity. They are the living dead who stagger through life wanting to eat the brains of others to remove their free will so everyone is brainless.]


With a chance to make it good somehow

With “chance” he’s acknowledging that he doesn’t know whether driving away will actually turn out to wonderful. But, as humans, we can never have enough information to make a choice that doesn’t involve chance, so the best we can do is make an educated guess. That’s what we do anytime we enter a relationship or even get married—we make a leap of faith that there’s a chance to make it good. He’s not promising success, just that failure is inevitable if they do nothing.


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

These lines embrace the sensuality of life: the wind blowing back her hair, the night “busting open” like an orgasm. Part of abandoning the Orthodox rules is to be able to accept that sensuality is good and fulfilling. The trip itself is rewarding because they will have defined who they are simply by making the choice to go on the journey.


The road is only two lanes, but for people of will and determination, those lanes—human made as they are—will take them anywhere.


We got one last chance to make it real
To trade in these wings on some wheels

“Chance” repeats his claim that he doesn’t have all the answers. It rejects Orthodox certainty that if you follow these teachings you will be rewarded. The reward is in making the choice. But “one last” tells us if they don’t go this time (remember, this isn’t the first time he’s approached her), they will never go.


He hammers home the theme: “trade in these wings” is to reject the Orthodox notions of how one should behave and follow the teachings in order to earn the wings of an angel. He’s referring to her romantic ideals of being the Good Girl society expects. Trading the wings for wheels is to jettison the false notions of salvation for something you can control and take responsibility for: the wheels of a car.


Climb in back
Heaven's waiting on down the tracks

He’s making it clear that heaven is something we create for ourselves, not something someone else rewards us with for following their rules.


Oh oh come take my hand
Riding out tonight to case the promised land

To “case” is what thieves do when they check out a place they’re going to rob. He’s just emphasizing that we’re all sinners but we are still able to find our own paradise. They are not born with grace, but earn it through their own actions.


Oh oh Thunder Road, oh Thunder Road
oh Thunder Road
Lying out there like a killer in the sun

The action takes place during the night (“riding out tonight”) because night is symbolic of romanticism, not seeing things clearly as they really are but interpreting them as we wish them to be. The sun is symbolic of seeing the harsh realities of life. The road is a killer in the sun: filled with dangers and uncertainty. He isn’t sugar-coating their journey ahead, which makes it all the more an act of love rather than seduction.


Hey I know it's late we can make it if we run

When he says “it’s late” he isn’t referring just to the time of day but also the time in their lives. He already mentioned earlier that they “aren’t that young anymore.” They must act before it’s too late and they’ve settled for failure.


Oh Thunder Road, sit tight take hold
Thunder Road

Well I got this guitar
And I learned how to make it talk

This establishes the narrator as a musician. Clearly he can make the guitar talk because it’s telling us the story. More to the point, he took an inanimate object and gave it the ability to “talk,” which is a godlike ability. He is the god of his own life and expresses his teachings through his art hoping to inspire others to seek their own salvation.


And my car's out back
If you're ready to take that long walk

The “long walk” isn’t physical, but rather emotional and spiritual. It’s a long walk for her to reject her romantic ideals and make a leap of faith to go with him.


From your front porch to my front seat
The door's open but the ride it ain't free

“The door’s open” because she’s free to make her own choices but the ride “ain’t free” because once you accept the responsibility of living by your own teachings, you have to be constantly vigilant about making the right choices.


And I know you're lonely
For words that I ain't spoken

Perhaps he hasn’t said the words “I love you” or “Let’s get married” because her notions of love are corrupted by her storybook romanticism. Instead, he’s demonstrating true love by trying to save her with stark truths and inviting her to go with him. These are the words she needs to hear.


But tonight we'll be free
All the promises'll be broken

He’s telling her that they will be free once they reject the false promises of the Orthodox teachings.


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

He’s giving her one final reality check in these lines. All the boys she sent away—like him—because they didn’t match her unrealistic romantic notions of love haunt her. They’re burned-out cars can’t go anywhere. Her graduation dress, a symbol of hope for the future, is in rags as are all her destroyed dreams.


On the wind, so Mary climb in
It's a town full of losers
And I'm pulling out of here to win.

The final lines always give me goose bumps because I remember that triumphant feeling when I was eighteen and leaving Williamsport forever. I had no money, few clothes, and no support from home. But I was never more filled with hope and confidence. Sure, calling them a town full of losers is harsh, but it’s a wake-up call to Mary that if they don’t go—don’t even try—then they will be losers.


Do they actually leave? The song doesn’t say: it ends with his final plea. But the passion that is conveyed in the song suggests that he is persuasive enough to convince her. The fact that the listener is moved by his passion makes it a commentary on the power of art to persuade and motivate. Mary represents the listeners, who hopefully will be inspired by the song to abandon romantic ideals of the Orthodox to take control of their lives.


Why I Hate the Theme of This Sequel

Springsteen wrote a sequel to “Thunder Road” called “The Promise” which, like Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car,” is about the lost innocence, disillusionment, and crashing of romantic notions. There’s some irony in the lyrics seemingly portraying the narrator from “Thunder Road” discovering that, despite his whole pitch to her about her illusions and romanticism, he ends up in the same place: selling his car to survive, compromising on his dreams.


I once heard a bestselling author tell a group of aspiring writers that if they want to be taken seriously, they need to write tragedy. The protagonist must be worse off at the end for it to be considered “literature.” Of course, she realized that wasn’t always true, but it feels true. Springsteen’s sequel seems to pander to this idea. (There’s debate that the disillusionment in this song had to do with a lawsuit over his Born to Run album. Go to https://www.springsteenlyrics.com/lyrics.php?song=thepromise for details of the lawsuit as well as for the lyrics for “The Promise”.) The problem for me is that I don’t want to hear some rock star millionaire write about this guy’s dreams turning to crap when his clearly didn’t. The promises he made to her in “Thunder Road” actually happened for Bruce, so having them not happen for the fictional character is a contrivance looking for literary depth. I wouldn’t mind that except it now casts a dark shadow on “Thunder Road,” which isn’t deserved. True, it doesn’t matter whether or not he ever becomes a rock star—the victory is in leaving and forging his own path. Still, it’s a cheap and corny device.




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