On the great debate between “sway” and “wave” in the second line of a most iconic Boss song
For a moment, let’s forget about the dress. We’ll get back to it. What is with the screen door?
Press play to hear a narrated version of this story, presented by AudioHopper.
As anyone who has ever lived in a house with a screen door (a bungalow, let’s say, in a summer colony of them) knows, you can’t slam a screen door. No matter how steamed you are, no matter how much force is applied, the door doesn’t have enough weight to do more than tentatively smack back to its at-rest position. It doesn’t matter, though, because this is, despite the present-tense, a memory song. The radio is playing Roy Orbison, “Only the Lonely” assumedly, and the Bruce Springsteen of now – 1975, or 2021 – is remembering Mary on her porch. He has the car running. Come on, Mary, let’s pull out of this town of losers. Blam! So if he says “the screen door slams,” he means shut off, left behind.
But that dress. Of course, in my circle of friends having internet discussions, the “waves” vs. “sways” debate has been going on for days, with all kinds of “evidence” – empirical, anecdotal – being presented to back up the position the friend has dug in his/her heels into. It makes sense, because being passionate about Bruce Springsteen in general and “Thunder Road” in particular is common among my friends; it leads off his album Born to Run, as you know, and if you wanted to select one Springsteen song to stand in for that whole period in his career, the “cars and girls and escape” period, you’d be smart to choose “Thunder Road.” So no one wants to admit that maybe all these years, how ever many it has been since you’ve been following Bruce Springsteen, you’ve been getting the second line of the song wrong, and it’s only three words: “Mary’s dress somethings.”
I’ve never given it much thought. It sounded like “waves,” the lyric sheet said “waves,” and I knew that Springsteen didn’t shy away from the imprecise rhyme. I’ve seen him live more than any other artist, and I’ve loved most of those shows, but I have never loved him for his diction. It could have been “shaves,” as in, the pleats on her dress cut through the summer air like a sharp blade. People who stick to their guns on “waves” despite manager Jon Landau telling the fact-checked-to-death New Yorker that it is and has always been “sways” get all tangled up. A dress can’t sway, one writer insists. Which is nonsense. There are songs like ‘Slow Dancing (Swaying to the Music)’, and Bobby Rydell’s “Sway” (“Sway with me”), and countless songs like Pomus and Shuman’s “Dance with Me” where the music sways, so if the music can sway, and the person inside the dress can sway, surely the dress itself can sway around that person. Can she sway without the dress swaying also? Unlikely.
VIDEO: Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band “Thunder Road” (Live at the Hammersmith Odeon 1975)
I had “waves” in my head, but I’ve had a lot of lyrics wrong in my head for decades and then suddenly, oh!, the Hollies are singing “beginning in a queue” on “Bus Stop,” not “beginnining in June” (that extra syllable seemed cool). I am not stuck on “waves.” So I went back and listened to a bunch of versions of “Thunder Road”: live, electric and acoustic, from the ‘70s and from the 2020s, and when he is enunciating clearly, it’s “sways.” Right there, audible as anything. One theory I have about the “waves” situation is that as soon as live audiences hear the opening notes on the harmonica intro, they start to sing along, and most of them have (as I did) assumed “waves,” so the wave of “waves” takes over and no one can hear Springsteen say “sways.” But on live recordings, it’s kind of unmissable. Truthfully, though, if Bruce Springsteen sent out a press release this afternoon saying, “Cut it out, everyone. The dress sways,” people would call it a forgery from the Landau Management Sways Conspiracy Division. Bruce could then send out an audio disclaimer, and people would still deny it, like his voice had been Anthony Bourdain’d, and wasn’t him at all, but a computerized simulation.
Anyway, the point of “Thunder Road,” the center of it for me, is the “show a little faith, there’s magic in the night” part, and maybe part of that magic is believing what you need to believe, to cling to an idea. Jason Isbell posted on Twitter that Amanda Shires thought the line after the controversial one is “Like a pigeon she dances across the porch…,” and if anyone over these past decades has thought a line was “show a little face” (like: don’t hide behind the door, come out to play), and that’s what makes sense to him or her, what harm done?
Over the summer, many, many people have gone back to their copies of Born to Run and played track one, or clicked on “Thunder Road” on some streaming service, and the song was in the air, the way hit singles were in olden times, all kinds of people trying to get to the bottom of one song, trying to unlock it.