When I first really heard Springsteen’s “Thunder Road” I thought it strictly an anthem for the disaffected and despairing youth of the tail-end of the car culture that began in the 50s and ended in the late 70s. I didn’t think about it in those terms, I just knew it spoke to me in much the way that “Born to Run” did. I spent my late teens on Main Street, cruising, listening to music, talking with other cruisers, and occasionally racing. While it wasn’t “American Graffiti,” it also wasn’t that far off. Both of these songs speak to the idea of escape and holding onto love, the same as Meat Loaf’s epic “Bat Out of Hell” and The Animal’s “We’ve Got to Get Out of this Place.”
(This is all starting to go in a different direction than I intended. Who’s in control here?)
There’s a natural linking of these songs: teenage angst and experience. Once “Bat Out of Hell” is mentioned, it’s natural to think of the much better known song from that album of the same name, “Paradise by the Dashboard Lights” which fits naturally between “Only the Good Die Young” (Billy Joel) and the Springsteen’s “The River.” Young love, young lust, and the costs (everlasting torment, pregnancy, and marriage (or is that redundant?)). There are other songs that fit here, but these are all tied to my youth, its soundtrack, so to speak. All of these songs were created about the same moment of time. “The “Born to Run” album was released in 1975, Billy Joel’s “The Stranger” and “Bat Out of Hell” were both released in 1977. “The River” was released in 1980. The movie “American Graffitti” was released in 1973. It all seems to fit together in that decade.
“Born to Run” is full of energy. It’s a restless song, full of the unbridled and unbounded energy of youth. It’s the endless American road trip.
I’ll love you with all the madness in my soul
Someday girl I don’t know when were gonna get to that place
Where we really want to go and well walk in the sun
But till then tramps like us baby we were born to run
We’re just going to go, and keep going, until we find our Promised Land, that place where we’ll walk in the sun. It’s gloriously triumphant, despite a complete lack of anything to be triumphant about it. The triumph is simply that of being young. “We can make our future, it’s not too late.” In his lyrics, Springsteen promises a madly passionate love, escape from the darkness, and endless movement (and thus, newness).
When I was in high school and college, “Thunder Road” seemed clearly a song about people my age because of the line in the final stanza, “Your graduation gown lies in rags at their feet” I always felt that date-stamped the song. I listen to it now and I wonder, at least I want to wonder, could this be song that also looks back at youth? An old man looking back and saying to his wife, “it’s not too late for us.” He sees the look she gives and says,
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
It’s something that reminds me of “Pink Houses” by John Mellencamp.
And there’s a woman in the kitchen cleaning’ up evening slop
And he looks at her and says:
“Hey darling, I can remember when you could stop a clock”
Far from sweetly romantic, and maybe brutally honest, neither seem to be the type of line to spark a night of passion. Which is where the stories in these songs diverge. “Thunder Road” has much more in common with “Only the Good Die Young.”
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 ain’t 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?
Come out Virginia, don’t let ’em wait
You Catholic girls start much too late
Aw but sooner or later it comes down to faith
Oh I might as well be the one
Well, they showed you a statue, told you to pray
They built you a temple and locked you away
Aw, but they never told you the price that you pay
For things that you might have done
(Only the Good Die Young)
I hear these songs regularly as they fit on a variety of playlists. It sometimes surprises me that the various algorithms (e.g. Amazon Music) put these songs together. It works though, and I think it is right. I don’t think it is sound of the songs, maybe it is simply the time they came out, but with a channel focused around a specific artist with a body of work that spans decades, that seems a bit of a stretch. The commonality of themes,the parallels are pretty clear – a boy trying to talk a girl into sex. “Thunder Road” differs in that redemption is offered, albeit an ersatz redemption. Is it possible the algorithms can work at that level, to identify abstract themes from song lyrics?
If so, it would be pretty cool and I think I am going to trade in wings for wheels and get on out of here. It’s probably much simpler than that. Time, place, genre of the artists, all gets grouped together and spit out. Or, with Amazon, it’s simply based on purchasing records – people who bought this artist’s music also bought music from these artists. That’s kind of cool as well, as it means there might be a few more people like me, as far as musical interests go.
Now the season’s over and I feel it getting cold
I wish I could take you to some sandy beach where we’d never grow old
Ah but baby you know that’s just jive
But tonight’s bustin’ open and I’m alive
Oh do (baby) what you can to make me feel like a man
But this 442’s gonna overheat
Make up your mind girl, I gotta get her back out on the street
I know you’re lonely like me, oh so don’t fake it
And maybe I can’t lay the stars at your feet
But I got this old car and she’s pretty tough to beat
There’s plenty of room in my front seat
Oh if you think you can make it, climb in (so christine climb in)
This is town full of losers and baby I was born to win
-Bruce Springsteen, “Wings for Wheels” (what later became “Thunder Road”)