#1: “Hey, you’re all right”

Part one of an irregular series on songs I love. Today, ‘Thunder Road’ by Bruce Springsteen.

Mary “ain’t a beauty”; I can imagine many women smile ruefully, self-deprecatingly, at this lyric, the same way I do (I wrote about my similar adolescent reaction to a line in ‘Chelsea Hotel #2’ in my reflection on the death of Leonard Cohen last year). Reportedly, America’s own sweetheart Actual Movie Star Julia Roberts is one of them, which perhaps goes to show how deeply internalised feminine insecurity about appearance can be. Additionally, Mary “ain’t that young anymore,” but she dances “like a vision”, and hey — she’s all right. Per the last stanza, she’s also a graduate who habitually sends boys away (although perhaps not before giving them a ride first— she’s had lovers, plural).

To hear Bruce tell it, Mary spends a lot of time moping over old romances with an almost religious fervour (“you can […] study your pain, make crosses from your lovers”), and “praying in vain for a saviour to rise from these streets,” although whether that’s personal saviour or a general one is less clear. Either way, that’s not Bruce — he’s “no hero” — but damn it, Mary, he wants to shake the dust of this crummy little town off his feet and see the world, and he knows you’re scared, but you’ve got “one last chance to make it real,” you can “make it good somehow”, so “climb in back” (this later gets upgraded to the front seat, perhaps to sweeten the deal) and let’s go, we’re going to Heaven, or the Promised Land, or anywhere, as long as it’s far away from this “town full of losers”.

I think even the staunchest fan of the Boss would have to admit that his Wendys and Marys and Janes can come across as interchangeable ciphers, but there’s something a little more fleshed-out about this faded, reluctant Mary than some of the others. This is, ostensibly, a seduction song — “don’t turn me home,” Bruce serenades her, “I want you only,” as he tries, like a low-rent Romeo, to persuade Mary to turn off her radio, climb down from her front porch and get into his car — but there’s more than a touch of desperation to it: “the lonely — hey, that’s me,” he admits, and “I just can’t face myself alone again”. There’s a sense that what’s being offered here is less a love for the ages, and more a chance for two lost souls to find something together on the road.

Mary, please step off your porch. Don’t get trapped underneath your covers with thoughts of the past. Don’t spend another night listening to the roaring engines and shouts of boys who don’t stick around until morning. Climb in. Let the wind blow back your hair. Show a little faith, there’s magic in the night — he ain’t a hero, but hey, he’s all right. I know it’s late, but we can make it if we run. Sit tight. Take hold. Thunder Road.

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