A few months ago I was struck dumb when I noticed the similarities between Bruce Springsteen’s Thunder Road and The River. Released 5 years apart, the two songs stand as companions which tell the story of a teenage romance and the event which shatters it.
In short, Thunder Road (1975) is written from the perspective of a teenage boy (roughly 17) as he waits in his car and prepares to take Mary on their first date. The River, also told from the male’s perspective, describes a romance that turns sour after the narrator impregnates the girl. The first and foremost clue to the linkage between these two songs is characters. As common in Springsteen’s music, the girl has been given the name Mary. The first verse of The River (1980) seems to summarize the events of Thunder Road:
“I come from down in the valley
where mister when you’re young
They bring you up to do like your daddy done
Me and Mary we met in high school
when she was just seventeen
We’d ride out of this valley down to where the fields were green”
This verse makes several references to the lyrics of Thunder Road. For example, we know that Mary has recently graduated from high school “you’re scared and you’re thinking maybe we ain’t that young anymore . . . your graduation gown lies in rags at their feet.” Similarly, we know that the narrator doesn’t think highly of the town he comes from “It’s a town full of losers and I’m pulling out of here to win.” The main character may escape this town of losers by driving to the river with Mary.
Less vital, but noteworthy, are the ghastly personifications that appear towards the end of both songs. For example, in Thunder Road:
“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.”
And The River:
“Now those memories come back to haunt me/They haunt me like a curse.”
It isn’t far-fetched to wonder if Springsteen might have intentionally given the two songs the same initials.
The final linkage between these two songs actually comes from a third song. This song, finally released in 2010 and serving as the title-track for B-Sides from the Darkness on the Edge of Town (1978) album , is titled The Promise. This song seemingly serves as Springsteen’s transition to the darker side of Thunder Road. In fact, The Promise mentions Thunder Road six times:
“Thunder Road, Baby you were so right/ Thunder Road, something dying down on the highway tonight . . . Thunder Road is for lost lovers and all the fixed games/Thunder Road is for the tires rushing by in the rain/ Thunder Road me and Billy we’d always sing/ Thunder Road, take it all and throw it all away.”
Clearly, Springsteen doesn’t feel the same cheer as he did when he originally wrote Thunder Road. The Promise was the first song Springsteen wrote after recording the Born To Run (1975) album. As Darkness On The Edge Of Town serves as Springsteen’s first album dedicated to the human struggle, it is no surprise he opened this era of songwriting by revisiting an old song. I am unsure on the exact date that The River was written, but I know at least half of the tracks from the album of the same title were originally recorded for the Darkness album.
As noted by Springsteen blogger Sarah Wexler in her analysis of Gypsy Biker (2007), Springsteen repeats lines to establish a connection between his works. Thunder Road contains the line “Tonight we’ll be free/ all the promises will be broken.” Similarly, The Promise contains the chorus “When the promise was broken I cashed in a few of my dreams.” This promise seems to also be broken in the third verse of The River as well; “Now all them things that seemed so important/ Well mister they vanished right into the air.”
Although I don’t see The Promise as sharing characters with Thunder Road/The River, I strongly believe it serves as a very clear linkage between two of Springsteen’s finest works. All in all, I believe that this overlap of characters and inter-woven plot-lines stand as proof of Springsteen’s lyrical genius. I haven’t found any songs written after The River that continue this story, but then again I am not very familiar with most of the songs on The Ghost of Tom Joad and Devils & Dust. Springsteen continues to re-visit old songs even in his newer works. Springsteen’s most recently recorded album, Working On A Dream (2010), included the track The Last Carnival which revisited and concluded Wild Bill’s Circus Story from The Wild, The Innocent, and the E. Street Shuffle (1973). With a new album rumored to be due out in 2011, fans can hope that Springsteen may give us the next segment of the Thunder Road/The River story.