I took a road trip with “Born to Run” yesterday. It’s the 41st anniversary of Bruce’s groundbreaking album, and there’s no better way to experience it than by blasting it in your car, with the windows open and the wind blowing back your hair. Cars and tunnels and backstreets and highways are just as central to the LP’s cast of characters as the losers and loners and tramps.
My trip to the South Hills of Pittsburgh lasted the entire length of the album. From Rt. 22 East and the harmonica opening of “Thunder Road,” right down to the closing “Jungleland” howl on Mt. Lebanon Boulevard, I kept feeling like I had to pull over and talk about it to somebody, or at least scribble down my now-grown-up reactions to an album I first heard at age 15. But I was flying solo and had a date to keep. So I rode on, with eyes burning, hoping my best words and ideas would hang around in my brain till I could get home and put them all on paper.
There’s so much to say about the sound of the music on “Born to Run.” But writing about music is like dancing about architecture, someone once said. You just can’t do it justice. So, I’ll stick with the lyrics, because words are something I know a little about. In particular, I want to unravel my thoughts on the LP’s wistful opening song, named for the title of a movie Bruce had never actually seen at the time: the 1958 Robert Mitchum film “Thunder Road.”
Here are my favorite words from a song jammed full of lyrics painted in motor oil on a canvas of desperation. The boy from Freehold was giving the boy from Hibbing a run for his money with this one.
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.
Oh, Mary with the waving dress! Only the lonely know the heartaches she’s been through. She’s on the porch of her beachfront shack-fortress, part Boo Radley, part Greta Garbo. All of them myths. Out ahead is a killer in the sun….a road that brings the greaser boys in their muscle cars to worship at her altar, night after starless night. She can hear them out in the mist, screaming her name. But when she throws open the screen door and runs outside, they’re gone in the salty wind. Could it be they only exist in her mind? Doesn’t matter. They’re not what she wants, anyway. They can’t take her any farther than the end of that dark road. So she waits, in her thin shapeless cotton dress, throwing roses in the rain, ready for a savior to rise from the streets. What are the chances of ever finding him? Slim. It’s a town full of losers, after all. But unlike all her imaginary losers, one is real, and he gives her her best and final offer: come down from your front porch, climb into my front seat, untie your hair, and let these two lanes take us away to some kind of paradise, way past the tracks. Trade in your wings for my wheels. I may not be what you want, but maybe I’m just a little bit of what you need — at least until the screen door slams and locks you in your loneliness again.
Growing up – not a beauty, but bordering on alright – there were no boys roaring away from my front porch, rejected and lovelorn, their engines blazing with anger. (I didn’t even have a porch). There were no ghosts calling my name at night. The only savior that would rise from my streets would come in the form of a round piece of vinyl on a cheap Sears record player. Like Mary, I whiled away far too many hours, hiding ‘neath my covers and studying my pain, cursing my town full of losers, feeling restless and bored and imagining that life was better someplace else. Sure, I had loving parents, decent grades, a few loyal friends, and a rock-n-roll I.V. drip by my bed. But still I longed for the day I’d shed my graduation gown at the feet of the small-town snobs and the unenlightened. Somewhere in the back of my mind I knew it was gonna be an eternity before I traded in my training-wheels for wings.
But the day would finally come when I pulled out of town – not to win, whatever that means – just to get out. I never wanted to be top of the list, king of the hill, A-number-1. I never wanted the boys or the cars. No, I wanted to find meaning and artistic expression and fulfilling work and, ultimately, self-acceptance. And eventually, in the lonely cool before or after many a dawn, I started to get a little closer to casing that promised land. It took many years of throwing roses in the mud to realize that what I thought I wanted was there all along. I walked out the back door, climbed into the front seat, and found someone already sitting there: me….with my redemption purring gently beneath the hood.
Bruce’s working title for “Thunder Road” was “Wings for Wheels.” He originally wrote the “skeleton frames” lyric as “skeletons found by exhumed shallow graves.” Doesn’t have quite the same ring, does it? Good thing he lightened it up a bit. Now, sit back and take a journey down the two-lane with Mary and her dreamer-greaser boyfriend as they grab one last chance to make it real.
© Dana Spiardi, August 28, 2015