Cover photo by Eric Meola
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 all right
Oh and that's all right 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
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 come take my hand
We're riding out tonight to case the promised land
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
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 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.
On August 25th 1975, the day the album Born To Run was released, I must have been at my family's summer home on the Jersey Shore, in that odd, wonderful, lovely beach town called Ocean Grove, which was as little as one footstep and as many as a million miles away from Asbury Park next door. I wish I could say -- it's silly, but I really do wish this -- that I can remember the first time Thunder Road was ever played on the radio. I do remember the first time I heard it, however. It was about a week later, back in our apartment in The Bronx, in the late afternoon just before supper. It was hot and the windows were open, and I was in my bedroom listening to WNEW-FM. The DJ, almost certainly Scott Muni (click this link, really do) with his definitive FM baritone, introduced the song. In fact I think he introduced and played the whole album. (They did that all the time with new albums on WNEW. If you were really into Rock in the 70s in the New York area, WNEW was the temple and Muni the high priest.)
The first thing that got my attention was the fact that this guy Springsteen was from the Jersey Shore, from Asbury Park in fact*, where I used to spend every evening walking the boardwalk with my friends and girlfriend or in the Casino playing pinball. So I was already listening closely.
Then came the languor of the opening bars of Thunder Road, which caught for me the laziness and the longing of the end of a summer day, only to quicken into that marvelous first image -- the bang shut of a wooden screen door, the swirl of a skirt, the swift grace of the girl, the specific song about loneliness on the radio as she crosses the porch towards you, towards me, with my yearning and fear of disappointment. This wasn't like a vision. It was a vision.
No doubt I looked around with a wild surmise.
I saw things that had always been there before, but that I had never seen. Here were ordinary people trying to be the heroes of their own lives, but learning too late how hard it is even to be large enough for life in a world of tears.
It made me think of the books I read as a boy, in which the heroes would always overcome somehow. Not so here. You could fail. The one you longed for could turn you away, could abandon you, could break you.
It made me think of The Bronx where I was growing up and where I saw one of my brothers living a life that -- minus the cars -- could have come out of this world. It was a life I came to live, too.
It made me think of Asbury Park, where Ocean and Kingsley Avenues on summer nights -- the Circuit they called it -- were like some dark American Graffiti, and where only about five years earlier there had been race riots. I was next door in Ocean Grove during those riots. I suppose I was as aware of them as any ten year old white kid not from Asbury Park could have been. Even then something told me that Asbury's best days were behind her.
But just as this song was about people whose hopes were frayed by sorrow and error, and probably hopeless, it was also about people who knew that that vision which came dancing across the porch towards them on a summer's evening was the only thing that was ever worth the risk of failure. Hope plays on a dark stage.
Maybe that's why forty years on Thunder Road remains my favorite song.
*Yes, I know he's really from Freehold, but I didn't know that then.