Random Erik

Ramblings on Cartoons, Music, Pop Culture and Whatever

Looking for Thunder Road

When I first heard Thunder Road, I liked it a lot, but I didn’t feel I’d hit a crucial place in my musical life. The ignorance of youth. I was a young teen listening to the Eagles, Jimmy Buffett and Peter, Paul and Mary (that last one a throwback to albums my parents had played since I was an infant). Musically speaking, it wasn’t anything particularly interesting or deep.

Maybe I heard it when my brother played the album, or maybe it was on the radio. But I’m sure it caught my attention: A solo harmonica followed by bell clear piano. And then that sad sandpaper voice came in:

The screen door slams
Mary’s dress waves
Like a vision she dances across the porch
As the radio plays

I’d heard Bruce Springsteen before this, I’m sure, but it obviously hadn’t meant much to a boy who’d been listening to the musical equivalent of junk food. Those lines, though, sung slowly and sadly, struck a chord. Mostly, I thought it was pretty, and when the song built to a sudden release of energy with the cry of “roll down the window and let the wind blow back your hair,” I could feel the excitement and heartfelt joy of the moment.

But it was repeated exposure that built the song to its place in my life. And it was my growing older, understanding better the emotions and longings behind those lyrics. Song lyrics may not be poetry, but I think Springsteen came as close as any songwriter with this ode to youthful love and yearning for freedom.

And those opening lines affected my early dating experiences. Pulling up in the car, watching a girl come out onto to her porch to meet me, I looked for the feeling evoked by those lyrics. It always led to disappointment: that magical feeling from the song didn’t overwhelm me when these girls appeared. So often they were in jeans. Where were the soft, summery dresses that would catch the breezes and flutter around their legs?

It was the lines that followed directly after that hit me directly:

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

I was a lonely teenager, as so many of us were. And to be honest, this part of the song spoke, and speaks, more truly to me than any other part. There weren’t that many times that I watched a girl cross the porch to my car. There were lots when I was on my own and not enjoying the company.

The song also captures that feeling of freedom that a car gives you, especially when you’re young and naive. The ability to “trade in these wings on some wheels.” The loss of innocence is part of gaining freedom, a truth that goes back to Adam and Eve. On the drive to work, I often felt that urge to turn onto I-95 instead, to simply hit the highway without much thought about my destination. A dutiful kid to the end, it remained a fantasy. On the same album, the title song Born to Run addresses these feelings as well, but in my opinion it does so without the same deep understanding of the joys and pitfalls such a run for freedom creates. Even now, I can conjure up a clear image, driving to an evening shift at the pharmacy, the twilight just fading to night and my car crossing the bridge over that huge interstate highway. I was on the razor thin line between responsibility and freedom, and I now regret not making a run for it at least once.

When Springsteen performs this song live, he plays it slowly and sadly throughout. No sudden explosion of energy, just the same quiet tone. It adds a new layer. And though I thought that this was the choice of an older, wiser performer, watching the 1975 concert film that comes with the Born to Run box set revealed that he’s been doing that almost from the beginning. And there is a sadness as you get older, and the youthful energy and idealism fade. The consequences of your choices become clearer, sometimes with a tinge of regret attached. A few years later, the title track to Springsteen’s The River features an unnamed narrator and a girl named Mary. She may not be the girl who, dress waving, ran out to get in the car. I imagine, though, that she is. But the man is remembering picking up Mary and driving her down to the river for the evening. Now they’re married, the result of a young pregnancy, but he still has his memories:

But I remember us riding in my brother’s car
Her body tan and wet down at the reservoir
At night on them banks I’d lie awake
And pull her close just to feel each breath she’d take
Now those memories come back to haunt me
they haunt me like a curse
Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true
Or is it something worse

Hey, I’m almost 40, I’ve done very well for myself, I have a wonderful wife and the sweetest dog on the planet and I get to draw and teach kids how to do fun stuff. I have a Vespa to race around town and out to the lake. I’m as happy as I’ve ever been. But then Thunder Road comes on the radio or on my iPod, and I’m a lonely teenager once again, hopeful about the future, worried about my choices and just wishing for the freedom to hit the highway and roll down the windows. It’s a bittersweet moment every single time.

But oh, the bitter makes the sweet that much better, and I’m happy and singing along for those four minutes.

And now I have the memory of jumping in the VW Bug with Maggie in February of 2000 and outrunning a blizzard on I-95. Those closing lines of the song were in my head as we began our search for a place to settle and start a new life:

So Mary climb in
It’s a town full of losers
We’re pulling out of here to win

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