In his opening essay in Songbook, Nick Hornby explains his tendency not to associate songs with a specific time or place thus:
'[I]f you love a song, love it enough for it to accompany you throughout the different stages of your life, then any specific memory is rubbed away by use. If I'd heard "Thunder Road" in some girl's bedroom in 1975, decided that it was okay, and had never seen the girl or listened to the song much again, then hearing it now would probably bring back the smell of her underarm deoderant.'
To a certain degree, I can see his point: there are many, many songs that don't particularly mean much to me that can instantly bring me back to a specific moment. Pat Benetar's 'Hit Me With Your Best Shot' reminds me of lip-synching to the 45 of same in Tammy Kennison's bedroom, using cans of hairspray as microphones; anything by Blondie makes me think of sitting in Greg's room with our first record player, listening to Best of Blondie on repeat; 'When Doves Cry' will be forever associated with the warm summer night, windows open, when I heard the song for the first time on RI-104.
But there are just as many--if not more--songs that both serve as mile-markers in my life and have come along with me for the ride, growing and changing and turning right along with me. 'Thunder Road' (Hornby's most listened-to song) is foremost among them.
I can't remember the very first time I heard it--Mom and Dad had given me the Springsteen live box set for Christmas the year it came out (1985?), so I must've heard TR sometime that winter, at least--and it's entirely possible that I didn't love it at first. But I know that it soon became the sort of song I could listen to ad nauseum without the nausea, and I have an incredibly sharp memory of playing it over and over again on the portable tape deck in Gommy and Poppa's travel trailer, moored in the yard at Twin Chimneys, the following summer.
I can't recall who was there with me (likely Heather, and possibly Greg), but I know I spent the better part of an hour listening, rewinding, listening, rewinding, and all the while aching as only a girl in her early teens can. I ached for someone to want me only; I ached to be summoned from a porch to a waiting car that would drive me somewhere, anywhere; I ached for the day when I might have both a group of boys I'd sent away and a graduation gown to lie in rags at their feet.
I still think of that night (muggy, so many crickets, a nightgown feeling like entirely too much clothing), that trailer, those aches every time I hear the song. But now I also think of all the associations that have come since: the sadnesses somehow soothed by those harmonica strains and Springsteen's growling, soaring voice; the miles driven with the song on my stereo (still only cassette); the confusing but shakingly pleasant realization two years ago that I'd met a man who could not only quote TR right back to me, but also had his own interpretations of it.
And having put several years and a good deal of experience between the girl in her grandparents' backyard and my current self, I've changed the way I hear the song. It's no longer just a plea to escape ('it's a town full of losers/and we're pulling out of here to win'); it's also a reminder, sometimes wistful, of what we had and gave up, often for good ('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/from your room, you hear their engines roar on/but when you get to the porch they're gone/on the wind').
It suggests that there's value in romanticism ('well show a little faith/there's magic in the night'), but also sets limits on that value('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').
But more than anything, I think, TR still resonates with me (quite possibly now more than ever) because of the balance it strikes between resignation and hope (true, in fact, of much of Springsteen's work). There's so much uncertainty, so much imperfection, so much that could be so wrong: 'Don't turn me home again/I just can't face myself alone'; 'So you're scared and you're thinking that/maybe we ain't that young anymore'; ''All the redemption I can offer, girl,/is beneath this dirty hood'.
But throughout the song all of that is slowly balanced, and then ultimately overshadowed (if only by the smallest of margins) by all that might (and perhaps can) just be right:
'...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 down on the tracks.'
While I can't be sure I've similarly got the location of heaven pinpointed, and I don't know whether it's waiting, I do think there's a chance to make it good somehow--be it what it may.
The ride's not free (is it ever?), but the door is open. What's waiting inside (and beyond) still seems promising.