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Yes, Thunder Road is a MASTERPIECE

July 22, 2011

Some day, before I’m done, I would like to create a work of art as great as “Thunder Road.”

Yes, that “Thunder Road.” The one by Bruce Springsteen. The first cut off Born to Run. Everyone agrees that it’s one of the all-time great rock songs. I say it’s a masterpiece. A great work of art. Full stop.

A work of art is something you can experience many times and take something different away from it each time. It takes you out of yourself. Most of all it inspires. Whenever I hear “Thunder Road” I don’t just want to hear it again, I want to try to do something brilliant myself—write a great play, paint a magnificent picture, bake a fantastic cake or just hug someone and pass along the joy of the song.

What is it that gives “Thunder Road” the transcendent effect of great art?  Three things: the words, the music and the performance. They are all perfect.

The Words: The Lyric of “Thunder Road” stands on its own as a poem. It meets Coleridge’s definition of poetry in that it is a depiction of emotions: It is the tumult of feelings that occur when the singer, the hero of the song, comes for Mary and convinces her to leave (elope?) with him. The parade of emotions include: is his joy at seeing Mary, her sadness, the disappointment and yearning that they share, his anxiety, her apprehension, shares fear and finally hope. As the coda fades, you believe their love will last.

Springsteen sets the location of this little love story with the first words, “The screen door slams.” Instantly you picture a slightly run down house or cottage. Weathered shake walls, peeling white porch railing, weathered boards under Mary’s dancing feet. A gentile house, a place that’s fixed up and nice would have doors that close softly.

The verses are sprinkled with religious imagery: She is Mary, a saint with healing powers. (But which Mary? The virgin or the fallen?). She is a “vision.” She lacks “faith” but is “praying… for a savior to rise.” He offers “redemption,” “heaven” and the “promised land” (a song and creed on Darkness on the Edge of Town). The religious references contribute to your belief in their love is real, redemptive and lasting.

To contrast the spiritual light there are supernatural, deathly dark images, especially in the penultimate stanza. There are

ghosts in the eyes of all the boys you sent away
They haunt this dusty beach road
Like 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
And in the lonely cool before dawn
You hear their engines roaring on
When you get to the porch, they’re gone
On the wind…

This vision of midnight phantoms is as lush as any 19th century art song.

Their love scene takes place at night, because only in the night can the characters face their yearning that is like a “killer in the sun.”

The Music: Note right off that “Thunder Road” is not in the standard pop song verse-chorus-bridge form. The lack of formality makes it feel made up at the moment, like the singer’s plea to Mary.

The music portrays and heightens the emotions of the lyrics. It starts with a harmonica solo. That is the singer taking a deep breath and gathering up his courage to approach Mary. The folksy harmonica also lets us know that this is a story about ordinary people. A piano takes up the tune and continues for several bars alone—no guitar, no bass, no drums. The piano accompaniment under the singer is florid, baroque, rock ‘n roll by Handel. It might be telling us the hero is an old fashioned romantic—or maybe its just a depiction of Mary dancing in her swaying dress.

The piano portion ends when he sings “you ain’t a beauty, but hey, you’re all right.” She’s hasn’t been turned off by his ‘compliment’ so the singer feels his confidence surge, the tempo of the vocal accelerates and the rest of the band joins him. With their backing he asks her come away.

When he sings “let the wind blow back your hair” the music does just that. A Phil Specter-ish wall of sound comes up, and backing vocals kick in. And then the really miraculous thing happens: the glockenspiel! Those bright, metallic notes that sparkle like flashes of light. It’s in the mix, but you don’t really hear it until it accents the syllables of an-y-where. From there it dances above the rest of the ensemble like a guiding spirit lifting souls out of fear.

From the next stanza the instruments play in ensemble, each giving its bit of support to the singer’s plea. At the end of the “ghostly” verse, the musicians drop away leaving just the electric guitar and piano—representing the pleading hero and the hesitating beloved—and everything hangs for a moment waiting for her. But she does get in the car. What else can the explosion from the Big Man’s horn mean? The full-throated saxophone riff is the consummation of the love scene. It is as stunning and satisfying as the long awaited resolving chord that joins Tristan and Isolde in love-death. Except Mary lives!

The Performance: Bruce wrote the song, but credit for its brilliance has to be shared with the producer and the singular ensemble that brings it to life. Max Weinberg, Steve Van Zandt, Roy Bittan, Gary Talent, Clarence Clemons and producer Jon Landau. Driving into the sunrise is Clarence and Bruce dueting on sax and piano with infectious exuberance. One of the many examples of the joy every musician puts into his performance.

In addition to his very solid and serious keyboard work, Bruce gives a specific vocal performance full of nuance. He is telling a story and uses his voice to convey some of what the words do not say. He makes careful artistic choices. I’ll cite two:

  1. The way he sings “you ain’t a beauty, but hey, you’re all right,” without a pause. He shows us that the character is a bit immature and so caught up in the moment that he doesn’t know what he’s saying. (Most of the cover versions have a pause by way of explanation or apology).
  2. The stanza that begins “there were ghosts” modulates up ½ or 1 ½ tones and puts a slight strain on his voice that adds a wisp of desperation to the pleading quality of the vocal.

This is not to say that the album version is the be-all end-all. “Thunder Road” has been covered by numerous artists in different styles and it always holds up.

And that’s my case for “Thunder Road” as a masterpiece. One of those rare examples of the boundless possibilities of the human mind, like the Taj Mahal and Fallingwater, to do the extraordinary.

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