I can remember listening to this song and loving it in 1975; I can remember listening to this song and loving it almost as much quite recently, a few months ago. (And, yes, I was in a car, although I probably wasn't driving, and I certainly wasn't driving down any turnpike or highway or freeway, and the wind wasn't blowing through my hair, because I possess neither a convertible nor hair. It's not that version of Springsteen.) So I've loved this song for a quarter of a century now, and I've heard it more than anything else, with the possible exception of...Who am I kidding? There are no other contenders. See, what I was going to do there was soften the blow, slip in something black and/or cool (possibly 'Let's Get It On,' which I think is the best pop record ever made, and which would easily make it into my top 20 most-played-songs list, but not at number 2. Number 2--and I'm trying to be honest here--would probably be something like (White Man) In Hammersmith Palais' by The Clash, but it would be way, way behind. Let's say I've played 'Thunder Road' fifteen hundred times (just over once a week for twenty-five years, which sounds about right, if one takes into account the repeat plays in the first couple of years); ' (White Man)...' would have clocked up something like five hundred plays. In other words, there's no real competition.
It's weird to me how 'Thunder Road' has survived when so many other, arguably better songs--Maggie May,' Hey Jude,' God Save the Queen,' Stir It Up,' So Tired of Being Alone,' You're a Big Girl Now'--have become less compelling as I've got older. It's not as if I can't see the flaws: 'Thunder Road' is overwrought, both lyrically (as Prefab Sprout pointed out, there's more to life than cars and girls, and surely the word redemption is to be avoided like the plague when you're writing songs about redemption) and musically--after all, this four and three-quarter minutes provided Jim Steinman and Meatloaf with a whole career. It's also po-faced, in a way that Springsteen himself isn't, and if the doomed romanticism wasn't corny in 1975, then it certainly is now.
But sometimes, very occasionally, songs and books and films and pictures express who you are, perfectly. And they don't do this in words or images, necessarily; the connection is a lot less direct and more complicated than that. When I was first beginning to write seriously, I read Anne Tyler's Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, and suddenly knew what I was, and what I wanted to be, for better or for worse. It's a process something like falling in love. You don't necessarily choose the best person, or the wisest, or the most beautiful; there's something else going on. There was a part of me that would rather have fallen for Updike, or Kerouac, or DeLillo--for someone masculine, at least, maybe somebody a little more opaque, and certainly someone who uses more swearwords--and, though I have admired those writers, at various stages in my life, admiration is a very different thing from the kind of transference I'm talking about. I'm talking about understanding--or at least feeling like I understand--every artistic decision, every impulse, the soul of both the work and its creator. 'This is me,' I wanted to say when I read Tyler's rich, sad, lovely novel. ' I'm not a character, I'm nothing like the author, I haven't had the experiences she writes about. But even so, this is what I feel like, inside. This is what I would sound like, if ever I were to find a voice.' And I did find a voice, eventually, and it was mine, not hers; but nevertheless, so powerful was the process of identification that I still don't feel as though I've expressed myself as well, as completely, as Tyler did on my behalf then.
So, even though I'm not American, no longer young, hate cars, and can recognize why so many people find Springsteen bombastic and histrionic (but not why they find him macho or jingoistic or dumb--that kind of ignorant judgment has plagued Springsteen for a huge part of his career, and is made by smart people who are actually a lot dumber than he has ever been), 'Thunder Road' somehow manages to speak for me. This is partly--and perhaps shamingly--because a lot of Springsteen's songs from this period are about becoming famous, or at least achieving some kind of public validation through his art: What else are we supposed to think when the last line of the song is I'm pulling out of here to win,' other than that he has won, simply by virtue of playing the song, night after night after night, to an ever-increasing crowd of people? (And what else are we supposed to think when in ' Rosalita' he sings, with a touching, funny, and innocent glee, Cause the record company, Rosie, just gave me a big advance,' other than that the record company has just given him a big advance?) It's never objectionable or obnoxious, this dream of fame, because it derives from a restless and uncontrollable artistic urge--he knows he has talent to burn, and the proper reward for this, he seems to suggest, would be the financial wherewithal to fulfill it--rather than an interest in celebrity for its own sake. Hosting a TV quiz show, or assassinating a president, wouldn't scratch the itch at all.
And, of course--don't let anyone tell you otherwise--if you have dreams of becoming a writer, then there are murky, mucky visions of fame attached to these dreams, too; 'Thunder Road' was my answer to every rejection letter I received, and every doubt expressed by friends or relatives. They lived in towns for losers, I told myself, and I, like Bruce, was pulling out of there to win. (These towns, incidentally, were Cambridge--full of loser doctors and lawyers and academics--and London--full of loser successes of every description--but never mind. This was the material I had to work with, and work with it I did.)
It helped a great deal that, as time went by, and there was no sign of me pulling out of anywhere to do anything very much, and certainly not with the speed implied in the song, 'Thunder Road" made reference to age, thus accommodating this lack of forward momentum. 'So you're scared and you're thinking that maybe we ain't that young anymore,' Bruce sang, and that line worked for me even when I had begun to doubt whether there was any magic in the night: I continued thinking I wasn't that young anymore for a long, long time--decades, in fact--and even today I choose to interpret it as a wistful observation of middle age, rather than the sharp fear that comes on in late youth.
It also helped that, sometime in the early to mid-eighties, I came across another version of the song, a bootleg studio recording of Springsteen alone with an acoustic guitar (it's on War and Roses, the Born to Run outtakes bootleg); he reimagines 'Thunder Road' as a haunting, exhausted hymn to the past, to lost love and missed opportunities and self-delusion and bad luck and failure, and that worked pretty well for me, too. In fact, when I try to hear that last line of the song in my head, it's the acoustic version that comes first. It's slow, and mournful, and utterly convincing: an artist who can persuade you of the truth of what he is singing with either version is an artist who is capable of an awful lot.
There are other bootleg versions that I play and love. One of the great things about the song as it appears on Born to Run is that those first few bars, on wheezy harmonica and achingly pretty piano, actually sound like they refer to something that has already happened before the beginning of the record, something momentous and sad but not destructive of all hope; as 'Thunder Road' is the first track on side one of Born to Run, the album begins, in effect, with its own closing credits. In performance at the end of the seventies, during the Darkness on the Edge of Town tour, Springsteen maximized this effect by seguing into 'Thunder Road' out of one of his bleakest, most desperate songs, 'Racing in the Street,' and the harmonica that marks the transformation of one song into the other feels like a sudden and glorious hint of spring after a long, withering winter. On the bootlegs of those seventies shows, 'Thunder Road' can finally provide the salvation that its position on Born to Run denied it.
Maybe the reason 'Thunder Road' has sustained for me is that, despite its energy and volume and fast cars and hair, it somehow manages to sound elegiac, and the older I get the more I can hear that. When it comes down to it, I suppose that I, too, believe that life is momentous and sad but not destructive of all hope, and maybe that makes me a self-dramatizing depressive, or maybe it makes me a happy idiot, but either way 'Thunder Road' knows how I feel and who I am, and that, in the end, is one of the consolations of art.
A few years ago, I started to sell a lot of books, at first only in the U.K., and then later in other countries, too, and to my intense bewilderment found that I had somehow become part of the literary and cultural mainstream. It wasn't something I had expected, or was prepared for. Although I could see no reason why anyone would feel excluded from my work--it wasn't like it was difficult, or experimental--my books still seemed to me to be quirky and small-scale. But suddenly all sorts of people, people I didn't know or like or respect, had opinions about me and my work, which overnight seemed to go from being fresh and original to cliched and ubiquitous, without a word of it having changed. And I was shown this horrible reflection of myself and what I did, a funfair hall-of-mirrors reflection, all squidged up and distorted--me, but not me. It wasn't like I was given a particularly hard time, and certainly other people, some of whom I know, have experienced much worse. But even so, it becomes in those circumstances very hard to hang on to the idea of what you want to do.
And yet Springsteen somehow managed to find a way through. His name is still taken in vain frequently (a year or so ago I read a newspaper piece attacking Tony Blair for his love of Bruce, an indication, apparently, of the prime minister's incorrigible philistinism), and for some, the hall-of-mirrors reflection is the only Springsteen they can see. He went from being rock 'n' roll's future to a lumpy, flag-waving, stadium-rocking meathead in the space of a few months, again with nothing much having changed, beyond the level of his popularity. Anyway, his strength of purpose, and the way he has survived the assault on his sense of self, seem to me exemplary; sometimes it's hard to remember that a lot of people liking what you do doesn't necessarily mean that what you do is of no value whatsoever. Indeed, sometimes it might even suggest the opposite.