Saturday, May 5, 2018

When Mary Climbed In...

Bruce Springsteen's "Thunder Road" isn't just a song you listen to – it's one you watch in your mind — a sonic piece of cinema the budding songwriter produced, wrote and directed to show in the theater of your imagination. It even takes its name from a 1958 Arthur Ripley crime drama, Thunder Road – a drive-in vehicle for Robert Mitchum. Comparing Springsteen to pioneer filmmaker John Ford, Drive-By Truckers singer, "Tramp" Patterson Hood described the song as Springsteen's Stagecoach, in that it "announced his artistic arrival; that he's the 'real deal'."

As the needle falls onto the LP's A-side, the dreamy tickle of pianist Roy Bittan's ivories chime in contrast to the yearning howl of a harmonica that sounds like the creak of a screen door in slow motion.



As the tempo quickens to a bouncy lilt, the harmonica exits the scene and we meet our nameless narrator and Mary, who for the time being suffices as his Juliet. (She's not a beauty but, hey, she's all right.) This is how Springsteen lets us know that it's not about love but about the refuge of the road, about the romance of a two-lane highway to anywhere. 

We can't help but feel like voyeurs as Bruce projects his vision of Mary dancing across a porch on the movie screen of our mind's eye, or as we watch the couple's automotive chariot – their burned out Chevrolet vanish into the sunset.  The couple takes their destiny into their own hands because their town's full of losers, and they're pulling out to win. By the time they do, we're not watching, but riding along with them. It's rock's answer to the best American poets; it's Whitman for the common man and indeed the greatest example of American poetry in the 2nd half of the 20th Century. It's easy to read into it, but is it really that deep? "Thunder Road" is simply a song about getting the hell out - out of school, out of town, out of your parents' house; it's about freedom. Springsteen's masterpiece is a universal theme in a culturally specific setting. Could have been your hometown instead.