If you ask Bruce Springsteen‘s fans what his best song is, you’ll get many different answers. But if you ask them which they are more emotionally attached to, many will answer Thunder Road, the opening song of his legendary album, Born To Run. Its unmistakeable melody, based on a piano theme, its significant lyrics, imbued with life and hope, the magic that has always accompanied its live performances, have made Thunder Road the heart song for many lovers of Springsteen‘s music. Thunder Road borrowed its name from an old 1958 film, directed by Arthur Ripley but written and produced by Robert Mitchum, who also was its protagonist. However, the song had a troubled genesis, to the point that it should have been published at first with another title: Wings For Wheels.
WHEELS AND WINGS
The core of Thunder Road was born in a version that Springsteen had decided to call Wings For Wheels, a title taken from one of the most significant verses of the song: “I’m gonna trade in your wings for wheels“. Actually, two other drafts of songs from that period, Chrissie’s Song and Walking In The Street, had helped form Wings For Wheels and, indirectly, the definitive Thunder Road. The sounds of Wings For Wheels recalled those of The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle and showed, both in the instrumental choices and in the vocal interpretation, Van Morrison‘s revealing influence. In that version, and especially in the instrumental coda, the reference to Hispanic sounds was also strong, in the wake of other songs of that period, first of all Rosalita (Come Out Tonight). A stylistic choice confirmed by the Latin name that Springsteen had given to the female character: Angelina. Jon Landau, then Springsteen‘s new manager and co-producer of the album, had a strong influence on the passage towards the definitive Thunder Road. He convinced Bruce to shift the sound of the song towards less chaotic arrangements and a more defined rock, also exploiting the arrival of Max Weinberg on drums and Roy Bittan on piano.
FROM SANDY AND ROSIE TO MARY
The question is: why trade wings for wheels? The protagonist of Thunder Road turns to Mary to propose an escape from a place that is unable to keep the promise of a dream. A dream of victory, as the boy declares in the triumphant final verse. A promise already present in 4th Of July, Asbury Park (Sandy) and Rosalita (Come Out Tonight). In the first, the protagonist turned to Sandy, urging her to leave an Asbury Park that only allowed a routine life, with no outlets. In the second the protagonist, with the promise of rock, intended to snatch Rosie from the already written destiny of a family that imprisoned her. Thunder Road became the defining moment of that escape project. No longer mere intentions, no longer an idea, but a definitive proposal that materialized in the short journey that separated the door of the girl’s house from the car door of the protagonist/narrator.
On the other hand, Thunder Road has always been seen in parallel with the contemporary Born To Run, which actually represents a sort of twin song. Both offer a girl the possibility of running away from places that limit her perspectives. In Born To Run you see a town that rips the bones from your back, where you risk your life on suicide cars in highways clogged by kids who drive on their last chance. In Thunder Road we see a town full of losers, in which the boys left by Mary are scattered in the wind, after setting fire to their Chevrolets. The protagonists of both songs ask those girls, Wendy and Mary, to get into the car and leave. The points of arrival are the sun in the first one and the promised land in the second one, both symbols of a realization in life.
In the messages conveyed by the two songs, however, there are some differences, albeit subtle. In Born To Run we find more solemnity in the prospect of one day walking in the sun, experiencing the highest love, a love that is defined as wild and mad. The ultimate goal in Born To Run is escape for love. In Thunder Road, instead, the theme of love remains more hidden. While Wendy is the girl with whom the protagonist is madly in love (“I’ll love you with all the madness in my soul”), Mary seems more simply the girl next door with whom the protagonist wants to embark on an escape journey, leaving a town full of losers, where the boys seem to just adapt to a life as supporting actors. Born To Run still remains one step behind in the idea of escape. There is a promise, but in the meantime those guys must accept to run and take risks. In Thunder Road everything is ready: it’s just needed for Mary to get into the boy’s car. A sort of “if you’re ready, let’s go. Now!”
WE KNOW MARY
Another difference between the two songs is the depth in the description of the female figure. In Born To Run Springsteen describes the protagonist’s love for Wendy, but tells us nothing about the girl. We don’t know anything about her, except what the young man offers her. In Thunder Road, on the other hand, we have a series of descriptive elements that depict Mary, a girl with a difficult present and a messy love life. She hides under her covers in pain, trying to forget the boys she was with and throwing the roses they had given her in the rain. Mary, however, lives in hope and dream. The element of hope is in waiting for a saviour The dream is all in the song’s stunning first image, in which she dances across the porch like a vision to the music of Roy Orbison, dreaming of a future different from her bleak present. We also know that Mary is not a magazine beauty, but a simple neighborhood girl. She is even a graduate, but evidently with few prospects. We understand this from the fact that her university gown was torn up by the boys who chased her and who are still looking for her.
Just as the subsequent album Darkness On The Edge Of Town will come to expose the lies inherent in the dreams of Born To Run, in the same way a song written in the period of Darkness, even if not included in the album, will represent the dramatic sequel to Thunder Road. It’s The Promise, which also mentions Thunder Road in its lyrics. Just the element of the promise is central in the comparison between the two songs. In both the “broken promises” are mentioned. But while in Thunder Road the term broken takes on the more positive meaning of maintained, in The Promise that term takes on the more negative meaning of something that has been torn, therefore not maintained. The Promise, in fact, tells the story of young men who, after that youthful escape, collided with the failures of their projects and found themselves facing a much harsher reality.
Bruce Springsteen has often recalled that Thunder Road was chosen as Born To Run opening track because it represented an invitation to move. The choice to start the song with a musical introduction of piano and harmonica followed this meaning. A sweet beginning that heralded the start of a new day, of something that was about to begin. Even when the rhythmic base, performed by Max Weinberg and Garry Tallent, enters with its fast pace, Bittan‘s piano remains central in dictating the melody, to the point that in the recording it remains decidedly higher in volume. After all, Bittan embroiders scales and harmonic passages that embellish a song already destined to become a legend. Even the only guitar present, played by Springsteen himself, is not limited to the rhythmic accompaniment but performs various inserts and riffs. On closer inspection Thunder Road is much more complex than the beautiful melodic song it might seem. The numerous drum breaks and piano and guitar riffs make it a song that is anything but standard. The structure of the song is also particular. It is not the classic verse-refrain-bridge sequence of the rock ballad, but a succession of different variations on the theme. Bruce‘s voice, still inspired by Van Morrison‘s style but with a more mature body than the first two albums, is accompanied in some parts by Stevie Van Zandt‘s backing vocals. At the end of the song, a solemn instrumental coda, which has become one of the most important moments in Springsteen‘s entire discography and live concerts, sees Roy Bittan‘s piano overlapped by Springsteen‘s guitar and then also by Clarence Clemons‘s saxophone.
Many live versions
The original version of Thunder Road represented, with a few variations, live full band performance on most of Springsteen‘s tours with the E Street Band. A song often played in the middle of the setlists, in a certain period combined with Racing In The Street. Then, over time, Thunder Road was moved to the end of the setlists, to close the concerts, in significantly slower and even more solemn versions. The final saxophone solo, which no longer immediately entered the instrumental coda but only after a first round of guitar, piano and organ, also achieved the meaning of the deep union between Springsteen and Clemons, who, starting from opposite ends of the stage, united in a hug (and often in a kiss), as symbol of interracial friendship. Thunder Road was also proposed live in two alternative versions. In the first, Bruce‘s vocals and harmonica part were accompanied only by Bittan‘s piano and Danny Federici‘s glockenspiel (particularly on the Born To Run tour, as can be heard both in Live ’75-’85 and in the recording of the Hammersmith concert in London in 1975). In the second version Bruce accompanied himself on acoustic guitar and harmonica, not only on solo tours, but also when he played it as a last encore, after the band stepped off the stage at the end of the concerts.
Read Also: The E Street Shuffle, 4th Of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)
Next Review: 30 October 2023 – Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out
Please, comment here this article and share it on your Social profile and groups!