I’m reading (and loving) Jefferson Cowie’s Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class, and one of my favorite things about it is how Cowie, a labor historian by trade, deftly dips into cultural criticism and reads the films and music of the 70s as well as the political and labor struggles.
I’m in the midst of his excellent reading of Darkness on the Edge of Town, which is a record that I love by an artist that I adore, and in my head I find myself picking a fight with his description of “Thunder Road” (and all of Born to Run) as uncritical depictions of the desire of the working-class man to escape his hometown.
For me, I always read “Thunder Road” as a bit of desperation, as the last hope of a guy who knows this hope too probably won’t work. I’ve been a runner all my life, I think, and this song resonates with me in a way that many more “political” Springsteen songs don’t. I never read that record straight, in other words, but rather as a performance of the bravado of a certain kind of youth that’s staring down the barrel of a hard life of work.
Because lines like “So you’re scared and you’re thinking that maybe we ain’t that young anymore” load “Thunder Road” with equivocation; it’s full of fragile bravado. Even if you read the “not a hero” of the song as a representation of Bruce himself (a thing you’d be unwise to do considering he’s one of the best narrative songwriters ever), the thing that has given Springsteen staying power is that he knows just how fragile his own success is, just how rare, and just how little separates him from the people he left behind.
But I’m realizing too that I’m an 80s baby; that I didn’t hear Born to Run when it came out and didn’t even experience the whole album until sometime in the early 2000s I started to dig into Springsteen along with the Americana/alt-country of Lucero and Cory Branan. My memories of “Thunder Road” begin with a Best of Springsteen album that my mother and I bought on a road trip as something we could agree to listen to, and thus I always heard that song bleeding into “Badlands” and especially “The River” (from the double album of the same name from the year of my birth, 1980).
Because “The River” is the flipside of “Thunder Road,” it’s what happens after the guy and the girl “ride out of that valley down to where the fields were green” and realize that there’s nothing out there waiting for them except more hard work, “a union card and a wedding coat.”
I always read the “heaven waiting down on the tracks” through the lens of the question asked by 1980 Bruce: “Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true?”
(A digression that doesn’t fit with anything else I’m working on, but it’s been quite a while since I’ve felt inspired to write something purely for the pleasure of it.)