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Books & Manuscripts

Words of Redemption: Explore the Lyrics to Springsteen's Thunder Road

By Sotheby's
Bruce Springsteen's “Thunder Road” Working Manuscript (Long Branch, New Jersey & New York City), circa 1975 is a highlight of the upcoming Fine Books and Manuscripts Online auction (7–21 June 2019, New York).

I n late 1974, as Bruce Springsteen began work on his third studio album, the stakes had never been higher for the young musician. On the heels of the disappointing commercial performance of his first two albums, Greetings from Ashbury Park (1973) and The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle (1973), many in the music industry had written him off as a local phenomenon – a performer who had built a small following on the east coast, but who would never break through to the mainstream. In spite of the onerous pressures building around him, it was in this context that Springsteen would craft his breakthrough album, Born to Run.

Red Bank, USA - 11th October: Bruce Springsteen and Steve Van Zandt from the E-Street Band performance live on state at the Carlton Theatre in Red Bank, New Jersey, USA
Red Bank, USA - 11th October: Bruce Springsteen and Steve Van Zandt from the E-Street Band performance live on state at the Carlton Theatre in Red Bank, New Jersey, USA during the Born to Run Tour on 11th October 1975. Photograph by Fin Costello/Redferns

“Well now, I ain't no hero, that's understood / All the redemption I can offer, girl, is beneath this dirty hood / With a chance to make it good somehow.”
Bruce Springsteen, Thunder Road, Studio Recording

The opening track, “Thunder Road,” would occupy a crucial introductory role to the album, and establish many of the central themes. Springsteen is known to have an exceedingly intense creative process, writing and rewriting and then recording and rerecording every song on Born to Run. In keeping with this, "Thunder Road" evolved considerably from its first known performance in early 1975 under the title "Wings for Wheels" to the recorded studio version.

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Recto of Bruce Springsteen, “Thunder Road” Working Manuscript (Long Branch, New Jersey & New York City), circa 1975. Estimate $40,000–60,000.

The song's opening line – "The screen door slams, Mary's dress waves" – introduces Mary, the object of the anonymous protagonist's desires. Early drafts of the song mention alternative names: Angelina, Chrissie, Christina, or, as in the present manuscript, Anne.

“The screen door slams, Mary's dress waves / Like a vision she dances across the porch as the radio plays / Roy Orbison singing for the lonely / Hey, that's me and I want you only.”
Bruce Springsteen, Thunder Road, Studio Recording

The first verse of the “Thunder Road” Working Manuscript, aligns closely with the recorded version: "The screen door slams, Anne [sic] dress waves / Like a vision she dances across the porch / As the radio plays / Roy Orbison singin’ for the lonely."

Elsewhere, familiar lyrics are present in a fragmentary form: "When your blowin with nothing in your hands / Baby its your only chance. As well as: Nothing in your hands only chance / on thunder road."

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Verso of Bruce Springsteen, “Thunder Road” Working Manuscript (Long Branch, New Jersey & New York City), circa 1975. Estimate $40,000–60,000.

The manuscript also references other songs on the album, including the famous lyric: “maybe we were born to run” and a 4 line working fragment of "Jungleland" that differs substantially from the recorded song: "beneath the city, 2 hearts beat / soul engines in tender silence / surrender of violence / tunnel machines / rages have grown ... / calls to bed / cannot speak."

“But when you get to the porch, they're gone on the wind / So Mary, climb in / It's a town full of losers, I'm pulling out of here to win.”
Bruce Springsteen, Thunder Road, Studio Recording

Throughout Springsteen's long and distinguished career, "Thunder Road" has remained one of the artist's most enduring anthems. In 2014, “Thunder Road” was named number three on Rolling Stone’s “100 Greatest Bruce Springsteen Songs of All Time.”

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