Have you ever listened to one of your favorite songs and all of a sudden you feel like you’re hearing it for the first time? You hear things you never heard – or that you never consciously attended to – and the song is new again.
After work this afternoon, I felt so completely drained that I dropped onto my back on the bed and turned on some music. The playlist lately has included a lot of Meat Loaf (rest his soul), Journey, and Rolling Stones. As I approach the big six-oh, my soul is yearning for a bit of my youth again, and I find that in music. For some reason, today I needed The Boss, Springsteen.
Bruce Springsteen’s album Born to Run came out in 1975. Though I’m sure I heard tracks from it on the radio, I was thirteen years old and deeply into the Bay City Rollers (though I secretly listened also to Yes and Deep Purple from my brothers’ record collection). Seventy-five was the year I joined my next older brother at the local junior/senior high school. We walked to school but not together. He walked far ahead of me every day. It was okay, though, because just knowing he was there made me feel better. He was so much cooler than I was. I just wanted to be like him.
The Springsteen record that really got my attention was Darkness on the Edge of Town, released in 1978. It was a darker, moodier record, perfect for my teenage angst. It was only later that I paid any heed to Born to Run, with its theme of yearning and wistfulness.
I could say the crowd I ran with didn’t pay much attention to Springsteen, but I have to provide some context there. The “crowd I ran with” in 1978 consisted mostly of teenage boys. I always seemed to get along with the boys better than with the girls. They were my pals. (Girls scared me a little.) Seventy-eight was a strange year. My family had moved from Houston to south Georgia over the summer of 1977, and by late summer of 1978, I sort of had a boyfriend/best friend who was a guitar player, naturally, and I hung out with him and his bandmates. I’d had my first kiss and my first joint. I sang in the choir and played in the stage band. The rebellion in me was growing. My parents split up and life got even worse than it was before. By early 1979, I left home and went to live with my sister while I finished high school. That’s when I really heard Springsteen for the first time.
The guys I hung out with in Texas (one of whom became the father of my children) didn’t really listen to Springsteen. Their vibe was more Beatles and Zeppelin. In fact, some of them openly disliked “The Boss.” I guess some couldn’t relate to the gritty, blue collar New Jersey songwriter. I don’t particularly relate to what Springsteen writes about – most of the time – but I can certainly appreciate his talent.
So when I listened to Thunder Road today, I was surprised that there was anything new about the song. By now I’ve heard it hundreds of times. It’s a popular staple on SiriusXM, just as it was on FM radio before that. Maybe it’s because I was too tired to think about anything but that song at that moment. The ongoing chatter in my brain finally shut up out of sheer exhaustion. Maybe it’s because I was listening to it over my Bose speaker and could hear every nuance. Whatever the reason, I heard the dynamics of the song and the beauty of the piano like never before.
The piano and harmonica play the intro to Thunder Road. The tempo of the piano is hesitant, as though the artist is deciding what chords to play and just how to string them together. The harmonica is haunting, droning its phrases along a backdrop for eight measures. It very well could be playing on a Friday after the whistle has sounded and everyone has gone home to decide how they’ll spend their precious time off.
As Springsteen starts to sing the first verse, the piano has found a livelier tempo. The harmonica picks up its pace. The keys play all eighth notes in a continuous, rolling pattern behind the Boss’s soulful voice. The piano part is so pretty that it could be playing in a music box. It isn’t until the second verse that the drums and the guitars join in.
By the time we get past the chorus and on to the bridge, the piano is really rollicking along. Pretty runs give way to full chords that drive the song forward, just like the car the protagonists are driving through the night in the song. In the instrumental conclusion of the song, the piano is playing runs in octaves. You can’t ignore it. It is majestic.
I’m purposely omitting any discussion about the lyrics. For this afternoon, there were no words as I listened to the song. They took a back seat to the instruments in my drowsy listen.
If I’d had a piano when I first heard this song, I know I would have tried to play it. Back then I would have done so, easily. These days those things take much longer to learn. My brain doesn’t separate the right hand from the left when I’m going through a new song, especially with sheet music. I generally have to play one hand at a time until I start to piece it together in my head. Considering how well I played in my youth, it’s embarrassing. But I still want to learn a song when I hear a part as beautiful as the one on Thunder Road.
If you want another song with a great piano part, take a fresh listen to Paradise By the Dashboard List. Jim Steinman was a brilliant and talented multi-instrumentalist, but his chops are on plain display during that song. Wow. You cannot help but respect him, as weird as he seemed to be during interviews in his later life.
So much is made of guitar players and drummers in rock and roll. Yes, they are brilliant and amazing, but give me a good piano player any day. They can make a song really rich and full of life.
I hope you have a nice cold beer and enjoy your Friday evening. Peace, Jude