22. Thunder Road / The Promise / Racing In The Street – Bruce Springsteen
“A reckoning with the adult world; a life of limitations and compromises… but also a life of (kind of) just resilience and commitment to life. To the breath in your lungs. How do I keep faith to these things ? How do I honour these things ?”
If writing these posts – writing full stop – is about anything for me then I guess it’s about trying to address Springsteen’s questions above. It’s the questions that I’ve spent much of my adult life trying to answer and the ones that have particularly vexed me in the past five months: where’s the balance between doing what you feel you want to do and what you think you should do ?
The conceit in threading these three songs together is mine. They’re not sequenced in this order anywhere officially but thematically they fit and, recently, I’ve taken to spinning a narrative across them. It may not be the “correct” narrative but it’s the story that the songs tell to me at this point in my life. Those three songs, spanning two albums and three years; a Great American Novel in 15 minutes. That span of two albums, of course, technically covering a third, the set of songs compiled as “The Promise” that, slightly astonishingly, didn’t make the cut for “Darkness On The Edge Of Town” and only officially surfaced thirty years later as part of its anniversary box set release.
The order is important. Opening with the defiant optimism of “Thunder Road” – it’s a town full of losers, we’re pulling outta here to win – followed by the blunt rebuttal of “The Promise” – everyday it just gets harder to live this dream I’m believing in – and closing with “Racing…” which allows for a glimpse of some degree of reconciliation with what life has delivered – tonight my baby and me, we’re going to ride to the sea and wash these sins off our hands.
Max Weinberg sums up the journey Springsteen’s characters (and, by extension, Springsteen himself) make:
“On Born To Run you had the characters saying “baby we were born to run – we’re gonna get out”. In the ensuing three years between Born To Run and Darkness it was made painfully clear: you can’t just run away”
You could make the case to rejig the order with “The Promise” closing the sequence, its yearning, mournful thunder road refrain echoing back to the call of the open highway in “Thunder Road” itself; escape and freedom replaced with despair. That though would be a pretty bleak read and it’s interesting that Springsteen didn’t find room for “The Promise” on “Darkness…”; effectively you could see “Racing In The Street” as the song that picks up the journey of the lovers we meet in “Thunder Road” and it offers hope in its glorious extended coda where “The Promise” offers none. Springsteen almost always offers hope and redemption. It’s perhaps also telling that when he toured Darkness he completely flipped my order, following “Racing…” with “Thunder Road”; a second chance for his jaded lovers ?
“Thunder Road” opens “Born To Run” and is a song I’ve known by heart since I was about 16. I vividly remember sitting in my History A level – the actual exam – having written everything I was going to write about the Reformation and having twenty minutes to spare. So I wrote out the lyrics to “Thunder Road” for no other reason than I could. I didn’t submit the lyrics. My resultant grade suggests that I might as well have done.
It deals, like much of “Born To Run”, in the idea of escape, breaking out of a small town, a small life, for something brighter. Life is still enticing in “Thunder Road”, full of promise, with magic in the night and these two lanes (that) will take us anywhere. There’s a confidence, a certainty, to the male character in the song urging Mary to pick up and leave with him. There’s no doubts here other than the inference that Mary is reluctant – so you’re scared and you’re thinking that maybe we ain’t that young anymore. An unshakeable belief that heading out on Thunder Road with the windows rolled down, wind blowing in their hair, will lead to some fabled promised land.
“Thunder Road” is a brilliantly constructed song. Solo piano picking out those opening notes, harmonica blowing in the background and Springsteen still in a lyrical phase that’s overtly poetic, overtly cinematic:
The screen door slams, Mary’s dress sways
Like a vision she dances across the porch as the radio plays
Roy Orbison singing for the lonely
Hey that’s me and I want you only
First four lines and you’re in that scene, there’s a picture in your head, there’s movement, there’s sound, and there’s suddenly two people that you want to know more about. Past those four lines and the song progressively builds and builds, more and more instrumentation joining our protagonist’s exhortations to Mary to come away with him before the band all come in right on roll down the window and let the wind blow back your hair – as if the music literally signals that sensation of release in the act. From there it’s full throttle through to the climactic it’s a town full of losers, a heartbeat of a pause, and then the joyous outro as our lovers drive off into the sunset.
“The Promise”, recorded during the sessions that led to “Darkness On The Edge Of Town”, didn’t officially surface in the version I reference here until the 30th anniversary boxset for “Darkness” came out in 2010 (32nd anniversary not presumably having quite the same ring) although there is a stripped back take on “Tracks”.
It’s pretty hard not to hear “The Promise” as the extension to the story started in “Thunder Road”, largely, of course, because its chorus specifically references that place. In Springsteen’s words it’s “about fighting and not winning” and lyrically the song is brutally stark: inside I felt I was carrying the broken spirits of all the other ones who lost; all my life I fought that fight – the fight you can never win; something in your heart goes cold; there’s something dying down on the highway tonight. The burning certainty of “Thunder Road” is utterly gone here.
Musically “The Promise” is glorious: rising and swelling piano, guitars, strings and layered harmonies. It’s rich and beautiful and achingly sad. It is utterly astonishing that a song as good as this – good enough for many artists to hang an entire career on – was left on the shelf (as a recording) for the best part of thirty years.
I usually make it to the verse about “I built that Challenger by myself but I needed money and so I sold it” before the song breaks me. It’s a hoary old criticism leveled at Springsteen that he deals too heavily in metaphors relating to cars and highways but if you can’t empathise with the destruction of someone’s dream wrapped up in those lines then you must have a steelier heart than mine. That section gets me every single time. I’m fine… I’m fine… No, I’m a broken man. On a very personal level it also came to represent how I felt about the fact that I’d stopped writing. Had somehow become, in my head, a writer who didn’t write. Of course, a writer who doesn’t write isn’t a writer at all. It’s delusional. Dreams. However, a writer who doesn’t write might never have to face up to being not good enough and, for a long time, that was perhaps the unspoken truth I hid behind.
And then there’s “Racing In The Street”. In my contrived sequence this brings our little story to a close – an ambiguous close but a close nonetheless. The song stands easily on its own, it’s self contained, and largely wraps up the expression of that journey from hope down to despair and then back towards a glimpse of new possibilities that I’ve been trying to articulate across the three songs. The truth is that each of the three should fill a place in this list as, without question, these are three of my favourite songs and “Racing In The Street”, if you pushed me, is probably what I consider to be the finest song ever written. It’s a masterpiece. I get that these things are inevitably subjective but that’s the one I return to again and again and again.
The bulk of “Racing…” is quiet, sober, reflective. The story of a guy looking back on his youth spent racing cars up and down the strip with his buddy; a release from the drudge of working. Eventually he meets a girl, they settle down, life turns a little sour (she cries herself to sleep at night; all her pretty dreams are torn – stares off alone into the night with the eyes of one who hates for just being born). Somewhere in their lives they’ve lost their way, he’s become one of those guys that just gives up living, starts dying little by little, piece by piece. It’s heart breaking in how ordinary it is. No dramatic event, just an implied slow erosion of the dreams that brought them together and a realisation that life isn’t as simple as blowing away other racers on a warm summer’s night. Or a realisation that maybe that was as good as life got.
If that was the end then we’re back in the same place as “The Promise”, have told the same story twice: bitter, disillusioned and washed up. But that isn’t how “Racing…” ends. The song turns when it’s at its darkest – it does what Springsteen at his best does which is to offer up redemption and hope when faced with life at its worst. So there at the end, with a nod to the other hopeful dreamers and travellers on the road, the characters in “Racing…” take another trip:
For all the shut down strangers and hot rod angels
Rumbling though this promised land
Tonight my baby and me, we’re gonna ride to the sea
And wash these sins from our hands
Tonight, tonight, the highway’s bright
Out of our way, mister, you best keep
Cause summer’s here and the time is right for going racing in the street
The piano then plays the main melody line unaccompanied before each instrument is reintroduced, beginning with – to my ears at least – an optimistic organ figure and then the song stretches out into an extended coda. That most glorious, beautiful coda. To me it always sounds like they’re watching the sunrise, the first rays of a new morning offering up, even if only briefly, a new set of possibilities on a new horizon.
There’s a documentary that was included as part of the “Darkness” boxset about the making of the record (you can see find it cut into small pieces on Youtube if you care to look). In it Springsteen describes the fundamentals of what the songs from Darkness are about and, in so doing, cuts right to the heart of why that entire record speaks so loudly to me:
So you had to lose your illusions while, at the same time, holding on to some sort of possibilities. But more so your illusions of adult life and a life without limitations which I think everyone dreams of and imagines at a certain point. The song that needs to be sung is the song about, well, how do you deal with those things and move on to a creative life, a spiritual life, a satisfying life, and a life where you can make your way through the day and sleep at night ? That’s what most of those songs are about.
It’s a difficult journey from the fuck-you exuberance of pulling outta here to win to the quieter contemplation of the compromises required in an adult life, a life with responsibility. In many respects I’m extremely lucky. The compromises I’ve made weren’t ones about relationships – I’m not literally experiencing the journey to disillusionment that Springsteen’s lovers are – or the people I’ve been fortunate enough to spend my life with. No, they were about how I spend my time. How and where I invest my energy. Whether I give free expression to myself. Whether I spend my moments committed to something that I believe in and care about. Or whether I punch the clock and pick up the pay cheque.
Springsteen from the documentary again:
“Life is no longer wide open. Adult life is a life of a lot of compromise… and that’s necessary, there’s a lot of things you should be compromising on. And there’s some essential things where you don’t want to compromise. So figuring those things out…
What’s the part of life you need to compromise to, whatever it may be, pay your bills, get along, to feed your kids, to make your way in the world ? And then what’s the part of life where there’s a part of yourself you can’t compromise… or you lose yourself ?
The answer to that is probably the key to everything. And the answer to that still eludes me.