I’m not young any more, at least not in the teenage sense, and I’m not from small-town America. I wasn’t raised with a crackly second-hand radio playing oldies in the background, I was never fated to take a soul-destroying job with the town’s only real employer, and I never really had a dream in which a Chevy was the archetype of freedom and escape.
Maybe all those things are particular to the States, a mythic landscape of cars and jukeboxes and highways stretching far into the horizon, where you escape under cover of night, driving away from your destiny past strange roadside attractions and travelling salesmen selling snake oil and lightning rods.
It’s a storybook world, of course, and one that’s fairly alien to me, coming from the UK and driving a Vauxhall Corsa. But it’s somehow attractive, and may explain, at least partly, why my favourite song is my favourite song.
Thunder Road was released in 1975, the opening track of Springsteen’s Born to Run album. Now, I’m one of those people who likes music but has no pretensions of being a fan; I can’t recite liner notes, I don’t have an opinion on the vinyl vs CD vs MP3 debate. But some songs just stick with me; Thunder Road, the story of an anonymous suitor trying to convince his girlfriend to leave town with him, is one of them. A big part of that is because it’s so evocative, the first few lines describing familiar sounds (doors slamming, Roy Orbison’s Only the Lonely playing on the radio) and enchanted sights (“Like a vision she dance across the porch…”) before presenting a dystopian future for the two of them – worn down by a town that doesn’t give a damn about their dreams or achievements. There’s a way out, but they have to leave, now, because tonight is their last chance, the sort of night where time conspires to stand still just long enough for Mary to be serenaded into a better future than she’d ever find in this deadbeat town. The song starts with a piano and harmonica, gradually building and becoming more insistant, and by the time the sax kicks in you’re just about ready to case the Promised Land yourself.
(Then again, I also love Badly Drawn Boy’s cover version, which somehow makes it all sound more British – to me, the narrator is a teenager on a Council estate somewhere, trying to win back his girlfriend by the use of a second-hand Casio keyboard and a car with the P-Plates still attached. It’s smaller and less epic but the story still works.)
Ultimately the song is about hope, and maybe even redemption: no matter your circumstances, there’s an escape route. Life can be better, tomorrow can be different, you’ve just got to cut loose the things that are holding you back. It’s late, but you can still make it if you run. That’s a powerful message, one I guess we all need to hear at various times, when we’re feeling lost, trapped, worn down.
There’s a follow-up song, less hopeful, called The Promise. I must have heard it but I’m avoiding a re-listen. I don’t want to know what happens next; I don’t need to know that, one day, Mary and the song’s narrator will be struggling with divorce or redundancy or cancer. Sure, that’s reality, happily ever afters are often left behind in the dust, and yet…
For me Thunder Road ends with them driving away forever, streetlights giving way to stars, car always moving through that liminal zone between the edge of town and the open road, happy endings forever up for grabs. And I’ll look out the window tonight, offer up a prayer for the Big Man and wonder if, somewhere out there in a small town a continent away, Mary is standing on her doorstep, deciding whether to stay or go.
I hope she gets in the car.