About six or seven years ago, I was working construction with my father. It was probably summer time. We were renovating a 19th century mansion on the big hill overlooking my childhood town. It was not an easy job. There were nasty days full of the worst grease, grime and grit you can imagine. There were days where we felt like nothing was getting done and the job would never end. There were days when I wished I were anywhere else but there. And, of course, there were days that I’ll never forget—quality time with my pop learning his craft.
During that summer the University of Pennsylvania radio station was playing the 885 greatest songs of all time (as voted on by listeners) to go along with their call sign of 88.5 FM. We love this station and it never left the radio. We listened during our breaks, our work hours and turned it up to extremes whenever our favorites came on the air. During the few weeks it lasted, my Dad and I and the three other co-workers, whom I’ve known all my life and feel like family, would argue and speculate on what could possibly be called the greatest song from an indisputably great radio station.
We all knew that the Beatles, Zeppelin, Who, Stones, Dylan, Hendrix, Pearl Jam, Nirvana, and Clapton would be represented. It was always a pleasant surprise to hear each song with its subjectively ranked number, but when it got down to the top ten we had invested lots of time into those songs and were angry if it didn’t match our taste. Finally, number one came, and it was announced as: Bruce Springsteen’s “Thunder Road”.
We were all shocked when “Like a Rolling Stone” came at number two, which is a classic to anyone’s flavor of music, but this was even more shocking. Bruce ‘The Boss’ Springsteen is an adopted son of Philly, a blue-collar, hard working, Jersey Shore, cheese steak on lunch break kinda guy. He sold out around 40 consecutive visits over 30 years to the Philadelphia area. I knew that may have influenced the listening public, but I just didn’t understand that choice for number 1–until now.
I have listened to more Bruce since being in Korea than in my whole life. After you’ve been working for a living for enough time, with enough bosses harassing you, failed relationships, tough life lessons, paying bills, unrequited loves and bad days to fill in the otherwise daily beauty of existence, you hear new things in tough, old songs. I believe his words and understand the feeling of wanting to get on the road without even knowing where it is you want to drive.
Thunder Road plays on my shuffling iPod and brings a smile every time. It doesn’t have the nostalgic poignancy of “Glory Days” or the idyllic dreams of “Born to Run” or even the jingoistic pride of “Born in the U.S.A.”, but it has a rambling romance, self-confidence, and my favorite line “you ain’t a beauty but hey, you’re alright…” It deserves its place at number one. Put aside your VH1 and Top 40 accepted wisdom of what a number one song is, and you might agree that this one is poetry in motion.
The screen door slams, Mary’s dress waves
Like a vision she dances across the porch
As the radio plays, Roy Orbison’s singing for the lonely
Hey that’s me and I want you only don’t turn me home again
I just can’t face myself alone again don’t run back inside
Darling you know just what I’m here for,
So you’re scared and you’re thinking that maybe we ain’t that young anymore
Show a little faith there’s magic in the night, you ain’t a beauty but hey you’re alright—oh and that’s alright with me
You can hide ‘neath your covers and study your pain
Make crosses from your lovers throw roses in the rain
Waste your summer praying in vain for a savior to rise from these streets
Well now I’m no hero that’s understood all the redemption I can offer girl
Is beneath this dirty hood with a chance to make it good somehow
Hey what else can we do now? except roll down the window
And let the wind blow back your hair well the night’s busting open
These two lanes will take us anywhere we got one last chance to make it real
To trade in these wings on some wheels climb in back
Heaven’s waiting on down the tracks come take my hand
We’re riding out tonight to case the promised land
Thunder Road oh Thunder Road
Lying out there like a killer in the sun I know it’s late we can make it if we run
Oh Thunder Road sit tight take hold
Well I got this guitar and I learned how to make it talk
And my car’s out back if you’re ready to take that long walk
From your front porch to my front seat the door’s open but the ride it ain’t free
And I know you’re lonely for words that I ain’t spoken
But tonight we’ll be free all the promises’ll be broken
There were ghosts in the eyes of all the boys you sent away
They haunt this dusty beach road in 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 but when you get to the porch they’re gone on the wind so Mary climb in
It’s town full of losers and I’m pulling out of here to win