Like most rock fans, I’ve always enjoyed “story songs” whose lyrics take the listener through a story arc from beginning to end. However, I have found that, inside a number of famous rock story songs, there are compelling tales that bear a deeper telling. I’ve often imagined the fuller narrative that might have existed before the songwriter whittled it down to a limited number of stanzas, trying to capture the essence of the plot and the nature of the characters with the added challenge of rhyming couplets. So, with all due respect to the original songwriters, I’ve “blown out” the lyrics to a collection of some of my favorite story songs, to offer short fictions from which the songs could have been borne. The creative challenge I set for myself was to retain the original lyrics, word for word, in the same order, and have them appear within the short story. While I hope my stories succeed as fiction, they also serve as puzzles for rock fans to find the lyrics. I call my collection “The Secret Stories Inside The Greatest American Rock Songs.” Below is my short story “Thunder Road,” incorporating original song lyrics by Bruce Springsteen.
It’s when I realize how tightly I’m gripping the steering wheel that I sort of snap out of it. I look around and see that I’ve driven to Mary’s house. I’m not really surprised.
Out the passenger window the front porch is framed like in some homespun portrait of the American Dream, from a hundred years ago. There’s that damned squeaking swing. How many nights did I rock away, dreaming so many dreams, with Mary in my arms? But I was just out of school, just a kid. I didn’t know then that, like this white picket fence with its missing slats here and there, nothing works out perfectly. Don’t matter that you keep painting it, don’t matter that you fix this gap here and replace the broken slat there. Imagine it’s perfect all you want. Picket fences still get beaten down by the weather.
I throw the shift into park and rev the engine twice. She sounds angry. She growls the way I feel. This car’s been my only freedom for how many years now? I shut her down but leave the radio on. I play it loud.
Along the street, kids race up the block, trying to get in their last afternoon games before the sun slides across the backyards, surrendering to the western horizon.
The sun hangs beyond Mary’s house just waiting for a little darkness before it sparks the clothes drying on the Saturday wash line and sets them on fire.
How many sunsets have I sat in this town waiting for my darkness to be a spark?
How many times have I come running to Mary for that spark?
How long have I been waiting?
The screen door slams and I know it’s Mary standing there on her porch. How will she come to me tonight? The innocent or the woman. I need them both. I need her whole. I look towards the house ready to flash all my courage in a single smile, ready to shoot the works tonight. A sudden breeze sweeps across the front yard. Not a dying breath of day, but an enticing push from the night. Mary’s dress waves and she throws her head back so the wind can fly her hair across to one shoulder. The wind must have picked up the sound of my radio and sent it to Mary’s ears. Her body is quick to respond and she begins to sway. I know that she is feeling her own release – she is not acting for me. There is the sky easing towards purple, a wind carrying a song and for Mary the night will make her a woman again. I see this all in her – in the movement of her hips, the tilt of her face. Like a vision she dances across the porch, stretching out her arms, speaking my name. She begins to sing like some seashore siren and already I’m shipwrecked as the radio plays my dirge, my anthem. Music is blood: it races and it is life; it spills and it is death. Tonight it is “Only the Lonely,” a ballad by Roy Orbison – dark and brooding, the lyrics hold my attention until Mary is at the car leaning through the open window. I see the August sweat freshly dabbed along her brow, and I smell the perfume she just splashed on.
“I love this song.” Mary stares hard at me. She is my courage and I’m ready to challenge… “Old Roy’s singing for the lonely tonight, baby.”
But she’s been waiting for me… “Hey that’s me, I got nobody.” She winks at me.
I match her stare and her tease. “I know you got nobody, baby. But I want you.”
Then I’m serious. I lean over and take her hand. “Only you.”
“I’m so lonely, hon.” She’s serious too.
“I know, baby, I really do.” Before I go on, I falter and my eyes dart to the rearview mirror. In a world of moments, that hell-raised dog sinks deep its jaws into my stomach, and my courage wavers. I look back to her, hoping her eyes can’t hear the desperation begging inside me, ‘don’t turn me home again.’ But she’s smiling and her lips are mouthing something. The words that are not given speech reach me nonetheless and Mary is saying ‘I love you.’ My courage is champion now and I silence my growling hounds of regret. My words are ready to fly and I won’t turn back now because I just can’t face myself alone again, and then I am speaking in a quick, new voice.
“Mary, tonight’s the night. I’ve quit my job and packed my bags. I’m saying good bye and good riddance to this place. I’ve been trying to do this all my life and now I’m ready to go. But I want you to go with me.”
Before the rest of the words – so well rehearsed, so well intended – are given a chance, Mary’s backing away from the car. I’m out the door as she’s back to the fence. I speak firmly, there is confidence, boldness now, as I say to her, “Don’t run back inside, Mary. These are our plans coming true. How many stars did we make wishes on, to change things for us? The stars ain’t gonna do it for us. We have to. And now we can. This ain’t some crazy scheme, darling. Trust me. You know just what I’m here for. Our future. You and me together. But not here. This is just dirt here. The dirt of our childhood. The dirt of the past. It’s not rich enough for a future. It’s time for us to leave and find another place.” But the staged bravery of my words is flawed and Mary is frightened. She runs around the house towards the sunset blazing in the backyard. I pause and feel for her – a woman ready for only a night, forced now to contemplate a true darkness, an unknown. But I can’t give up, I know I’m right.
I run after her and when I’m at her side, she turns and willingly cradles into my embrace. There are tears but her eyes don’t close. They see the truth and urge me on. My voice is soothing, “It’s okay, baby. So you’re scared and I’m scared too. But not about moving ahead, only about staying here, being left behind. For years we were kids dreaming in the darkness on your front porch, believing in the magic of fireflies, the forever feelings of our first kisses. I know you’re thinking that maybe we ain’t that young anymore, when we could pretend and make believe and say little prayers with our fingers crossed. But Mary, show a little faith, in me, and in you. Sure we’ve always been dreamers – but just look around us. Look at all those houses – they’re all the same. Look at their yards, the same lawns, the same trees, the same rusted bicycles. Now look at the windows, do you see those colors, that incredible orange and purple? See how all those windows reflect the sunset. Mary, there’s magic in the night. It’s beautiful. You’re beautiful, Mary. I’m beautiful. Our dream is beautiful. Let’s go live it.”
So many words… it’s as if all our nights together were singing at once and were being lofted skyward on my words. Or was I falling earthward, weighed down by my own tenuous promises? Nothing from Mary, whose face has fallen from me, until she looks up, with a laugh beginning in the corners of her mouth. Her tears have stayed and she squints daringly at me, “You ain’t a beauty – no way, buddy…” Her teasing words amid a sullen moment catch me off guard. I worry about sudden finality but she delivers her punch line, “but hey, you’re alright.” There’s the coyness of the little girl I first plotted my dreams with.
I squeeze her a little harder in my arms because I realize that both the woman and the girl will be with me in my future. I kiss Mary’s lips and tell her, “You’re enough beauty for both of us and that’s alright with me.”
She smiles up at me. “Tell me more. Tell me again.”
“What’s left to tell? You know our future if we stay. Just look around and you can see every year of the rest of our lives. The people we’ll become… just like everyone we know.”
Mary slides her arms around me. “But we’re different, right?”
“You know we are. I’m not saying I’m better than anyone. I’m just saying I’m better than this place. I’m ready to go, but I want you with me.”
Mary reaches up and pushes my hair away from my eyes. “Make me believe. I want to believe, I believe in you, but how do we know it’s right, that tonight’s the right time. If I leave, if I leave now, one thing I know is that I can never come back here. It would hurt too much. Even more than staying.”
I don’t want to talk her into something she’ll regret, but I wonder how I can give her enough courage to go with me. I turn her from my embrace and walk her, my arm heavy around her shoulders, towards the front of the house. I won’t say a word yet, and she knows I’m thinking. She’s making herself ready. I picture her walking to the edge of a river, ready to wade in and submit herself to a preacher who’s calling her to be baptized. I take her to the porch swing. We sit and rock, like our first day, like just last night.
I turn and face her, our hands clenched to each other. “Mary, if you stay, what can you do? You can continue to lie in your bedroom and stare at the ceiling. You can hide beneath your covers, and feel sorry for yourself. Or you can make a plan. Take every daydream and make them real goals. You wonder how you’ll be brave enough, well, just look at what you’ve been through here. Study your pain and you’ll see that you’re incredibly strong.”
Mary cuts me off. “Strength isn’t courage.”
“No it’s not. And this is about faith. I’m not talking about the faith of our parents who make crosses every time they pass a cemetery, or a church, or the scene of an accident. They’re blessing themselves against bad luck. We’ve got to make our own luck.”
Mary slides her hands from mine and turns away. She’s looking off to some distance. “Faith, luck. Magic. What does any of that mean in the real world? If we’re leaving, it has to be for a real future, something we can touch and hold.”
I stand up and pace a bit. I’m feeling anger, or maybe it’s just the adrenaline that’s pushed me to this point. “Look, Mary, I’m different from all those guys who wanted to be your lovers. I’m not concocting tales of make believe to get you to love me more.” Suddenly I’m on my knees before her, “I don’t think you can love me any more. And because of that, I want to rescue you from all this town will do to us, and give you everything a new life can offer.”
She looks at me wildly, she’s never seen me like this – I’ve never felt like this. It’s excitement, and, yes, danger. I take her hands again, “Mary, we can throw away every bad memory, we can start fresh. We’ll have a little house somewhere, we’ll have a porch swing. You can grow roses in your garden. We can dance in the rain. We can sing at the top of our lungs. We can make love all night long.”
I’m up and pacing again. My heart is racing. She has to believe in me, I have to believe in me. I stare away from her and look out on all the houses lining the street. I feel claustrophobic. “Whenever we’re not together, I think to myself, ‘why do you waste your time?’ It’s like I spend every summer praying in vain for something to happen, as if I’m waiting for a savior to rise up and take us away from these streets.”
I walk slowly back to Mary, I can tell she’s crying again. “Well, maybe I need to be that savior. Now. Today.” I sit next to her and brush away a tear from her cheek. “Thing is, I’m no hero. And that’s an understatement, don’t you think?”
Mary leans in and kisses me. Her face is wet from her tears, but I know she doesn’t feel sadness. But is it happiness? She grabs hold of my open shirt, “You are a hero. I’ve always counted on you. I knew there’d come a day that you’d save me. But I guess I was thinking, there would be a wedding ring and a little house on the edge of this town. I thought you’d make it big somehow here. I thought all our dreams were, you know, only dreams. You can save me, but right here.”
I’m on my feet again, and I pace. I want to explode but keep it all in. I keep my voice calm. I look at Mary, “I thought you understood.” I extend my hand to her. “Come with me.”
Hand in hand we walk down to my car, a beat up old Chevy that’s dinged and scratched but whose engine roars with all the fury I feel. Mary loves this car too. Many a night it’s taken us out of here, flying down the boulevard, over to the beach, just away, to be alone and quiet for a few hours.
“Mary, my days here are done. I work all day in the garage, I rehearse all night with the band. There’s only three bars in this town where I can play. We’ve been up and down the shore… it’s not enough. Look Mary, if you think I can save you, understand that all the redemption I can offer you, well…” I drop to one knee before her, I need all my charm, “Baby girl, our road to redemption is sitting right here. When I turn the key and the engine beneath this dirty hood fires up, it’s our ticket. You want a ring, I’ll get you a ring. You want a house, I’ll get you a house. With this car, we have a chance to make it out of here. And together we’ll make it good somehow, some way.”
Mary pulls me to my feet and playfully pushes me against the car. “Are you proposing to me? Again?”
“Hey what else can I do?”
She kisses me smiling. “I’ll tell you what we can do now. Except not here.” She wraps her arms all the way around me and buries her face in my chest.
And suddenly all that confidence is back inside me, just like the engine kicking over and revving me up.
“Mary, let’s get in my car and go. I’ll roll down the window, breathe in this air one last time, and just go. You’ll roll down your window – just feel the freedom – just let the wind blow back your hair.”
Mary squeezes my chest, “Well… do you really think this night’s the best night for, you know, eloping?” I can feel her smiling.
“Baby girl, my heart’s busting open. This is the night.”
“Do you have any idea where we’ll go?”
Any idea? I have too many ideas. But I can’t tell her that. This isn’t me trying to get my girl into the back seat. This is my chance to start a new life with the woman I love. I need her to believe in me. “Mary, you see those two lanes down the road there? They will take us anywhere we want to go. But right now, it’s not about where, it’s about when.”
I run my hand through her hair, the long silken tresses that fall down her back, that beautiful mane that first caught my eye. “Mary, you know this has been my dream. To run away with you. I feel we got one last chance, to make a decision. Take hold of this dream and make it real. You’re my angel, baby, I don’t want to go without you.”
Suddenly Mary pushes away from me. I don’t know if it’s anger or fear or if she’s just playing with me. But when she speaks, it’s raw honesty. “I’m your angel? What do you want me to do, trade in these make-believe wings and become your wife and live dirt poor in some trailer park, in a house on some wheels?”
I’m stunned by her vision. She’s looking at a future I’d never let happen. Doesn’t she have any faith in me at all?
Tears are back in her eyes, as she says to me in a very low voice, “You say, come on, Mary, climb in back. My car’s already to get us to salvation. Like heaven’s waiting down the road somewhere. As if just crossing the tracks out of this town will solve all our problems.”
“Where you gonna work? Where am I gonna work? Where are we gonna live?”
“‘Oh’ is right!”
She’s angry, but I can see that she’s not sending me away. She’s being practical. She’s the kid at the magic show who wants so hard to believe in the magician, but just wants a hint that the lady in the box didn’t really disappear.
“Mary.” She looks away. “Please, come take my hand.” Head down, she walks back to me and gives me her hand. I lead her to the front of my car. In a well-rehearsed move, I lift her up and sit her on the hood, and lean in to stand between her legs. With one finger on her chin, I gently lift her face to mine. I kiss her with everything I feel. She kisses me back, putting both her hands on my face. “I love you,” I say.
“I know you do. And I love you too.” We hug for a long time. Then Mary says, “Maybe we shouldn’t go riding out tonight. Maybe tomorrow, in daylight, we go check out a place to live. Maybe start looking for jobs somewhere else.”
I smile, “So what you want to do is – instead of being a thief in the night, looking to steal our fate, you want to go to case the promised land, like we’re gonna plan a break-in.”
She laughs. “Oh, it’s not like that.”
“Oh no, it’s not. No one’s keeping us out. We don’t need permission to go in. It’s our future.”
Mary falls silent again. Our embrace keeps us together, but keeps us looking in different directions.
“Answer me this. Where are we going to live?”
I rub my open hand slowly along her back, underneath her hair. When I stop, I can feel her heart beating. “Remember last summer, the lake house off of Thunder Road?”
“Oh, that was the name, Thunder Road, I didn’t remember that. Oh God, I loved that house.”
“Yeah, Thunder Road, that’s the place. That’s when I started thinking, there were better places for us to live our lives. That’s when I started to see how to make our dream a reality.”
“Okay, but that was a vacation. That’s not a real life.”
I slide from our embrace and take hold of her shoulders, “Mary, you can’t be scared of real life. It’s not lying out there like a killer waiting to attack you. It’s all around us waiting for us to grab it, and make the best of it. Real life can be a vacation in the sun if we choose the life we want to live.”
Mary pushes me back and slips from the hood of my car. I say softly, “Hey, where you going?” She ignores me and just walks away towards her house. “Mary, I know this is scary…”
“Stop!” She’s spun to face me, her arm outstretched, her hand flattened to be a wall, a barrier between us. “It’s too late. Not tonight.”
“You say we can make it all come true if we run away. Tonight. That our lives will be like some one-week vacation we had. Last year. Oh yeah, in a lake house off of Thunder Road. Great.” She slaps her thighs with frustration. “Well, I can’t just sit tight and, what? … take hold of how you see things. You’re a dreamer. I’m a realist. Whatever our life is going to be, it’s not going to be like a vacation in a lake house off of Thunder Road.”
She turns and runs. Back to her house, back to the comfort and protection of her porch. But she doesn’t go inside. She goes to the swing, and stands before it. She’s too upset to give herself over to the reward, the dreaminess of the swing.
I think about what she said, I think about each word. She said, ‘whatever our life is going to be…’ so I know that she sees us together, she wants us together. I’ve been a fool. I showed up here thinking I was a knight on a stead going to rescue the princess from the tower. I talk about magic and think that romance will make everything okay, make my dreams real. But the reality is that the princess won’t leave her tower until her knight can prove that a steady paycheck will lead to a happy home in a town she can be proud of.
I make my way to the porch, thinking about what I need to say. I need to be honest, I need to be strong. None of this will work if Mary doesn’t believe in me. Maybe she just sees me as a mechanic who likes to write songs. Maybe she never bought into me as a guy in a band who busts his ass all day just so he can pursue his passion.
I’m up the steps but I won’t go closer to her. “Mary, well, you know I got this dream. I’m not just a guy with a guitar. I’m a songwriter. A good one. I write songs that matter to me. Songs that people enjoy. There’s a voice inside me, and I know how to make it talk to people. They listen when I sing.”
I take two steps closer to her. “Look Mary, I’m always gonna write songs. I just believe that, given the right chance, I can make it big. Just not here. And my car’s what’s gonna get me out of here. But not alone.”
I step forward and put my hands on her shoulders. I won’t turn her to face me though. “Mary, when we were out back, and you held me, it was closest I’ve ever felt to you. To anyone. I could feel our hearts beating together.”
I kiss her on the head. “Now if you’re ready to take a chance on me… if you’re ready…”
She turns in my arms and puts hers around my waist. “That is enough.”
I look at her curiously. I can’t read her again. But then she says, “I felt our hearts beating, too. And that was enough for me. I know now. Just promise me, you’ll write songs like the way to romance me. And you won’t write songs for anyone but me.”
From zero to 60 in a heartbeat, the excitement is back with a vengeance: “Then let’s do it, Mary. It’s not a long walk from your front porch to my front seat to our life together. Think of it like this: The door’s open…”
She puts a finger on my lips to cut me off. “but I know the ride we’re about to take is permanent. And it ain’t free, is it?”
I grab her in my arms and kiss her hard. I whisper in her ear, “I know you’re lonely, baby girl. I know you’re waiting for my words to become reality. Don’t think that just because I ain’t down on my knee with a ring, that all the love we’ve ever spoken about isn’t here with us now. We’ve been prisoners in this town, but tonight we’ll be free and all the promises we’ll ever make, well, I’ll see to it that they can never be broken.”
We kiss. And it is a kiss that ascends love. It electrifies like our first kiss, it’s hallucinatory like our love making, it’s forceful like our commitment to each other.
When I look at her again, there are no tears. Just a beaming smile. The bride to be. The expectant mother. The proud wife. She takes my hand and brings me to the porch swing. “Sit here. I’ve got to put some things in a suitcase. I promise I won’t be long.” She laughs, “Yes, I promise.”
I smile back at her. I can see my whole life in her eyes. She walks to her front door and stops. She looks over her shoulder at me. There’s something left to say, to ask. She turns. “Why tonight? Why this night? I’m just curious.”
I stare at her, and answer in an even voice. “Truth? Last night I had a nightmare about you. There were ghosts chasing you in the street. I could see incredible fear in your eyes because you realized that they were the ghosts of all the boys who ever wanted to date you and you had just sent them away and broke their hearts. You couldn’t get rid of them though, so they kept coming back to haunt you. And you were running along this dusty beach road, and they’d chase you. Some of them were in cars and they’d race past you in the skeleton frames of burned out Mustangs and old Chevrolets. As they’d go by, they would scream your name, ‘Maarrrryyy” long and drawn out. Your name would echo at every corner you turned to. The night was closing in on you. And you started to cry, running in the streets, all by yourself. Then you suddenly stopped and looked around. The ghosts have you surrounded. You turn and look at these boys. But you don’t seem to know any of them. Then you look down and see your high school graduation gown is lying in the street. It’s all torn up, it just lies in rags. And this makes you cry even more. And the ghosts move in closer, and you fall down at their feet, and… through your tears… well, you call out my name.”
I see that Mary’s lip is trembling. It’s as if she was the one who had the nightmare.
I continue, “And, this morning, when I woke up, in the lonely bed where I dream about saving you… well, I’m lying there with the window open. And this breeze comes in. You know how the air can be cool just before dawn? Well, that sent a chill down my spine. And I’m thinking about you and the ghosts and their cars. And in the breeze, it was like I could hear their engines roaring on down towards the beach. But I knew then, this was the day, this would be the night.
“I imagined that when you saw me pull up to your house and get out of my car, you’d race out to the porch. You’d have a suitcase filled with our dreams, all packed up before they’re gone, gone on the wind that wipes everything away.”
I take a deep breath, stand up and walk over to the most important woman I’ll ever know. “So Mary, go get that suitcase. Get ready to climb into my car, and start a brand new life together.”
I grab her in my arms with all the love in my heart, “It’s a town full of losers, Mary, and I’m pulling us out of here… to win.”
Twenty minutes later, with Mary in the seat beside me, all the treasures and memories we need in the back seat, I look into the rearview mirror and see the last green light I’ll ever need from this town.