Bruce Springsteen fans have been on fire with a question over the past few days: What’s the real opening lyric to “Thunder Road”? It started on July 3, when the New York Times’ lead Trump scribe and political reporter Maggie Haberman tweeted a line from the Boss’s epic Born to Run opener while waiting to watch the return of Springsteen on Broadway. “A screen door slams, Mary’s dress sways,” she wrote, setting off days of argument among Springsteen fans over whether the final word was “sways” or “waves.” Even E Street Band guitarist Stevie Van Zandt chimed in — if only to tweet, “Oy vey! Get this Bruce lyric shit outta my feed!” The Los Angeles Times published an investigation (yes, really) on July 15, finding discrepancies over the true lyric: While the original Born to Run booklet, reissue booklet, Springsteen’s website, and Bruce Springsteen: Songs all have the lyric as “waves,” Springsteen writes in his memoir, Born to Run, “‘The screen door slams, Mary’s dress sways’ — that’s a good opening line.” What’s more, the Boss’s handwritten lyrics to “Thunder Road,” which sold at auction for $62,500 in 2019, also say “sways.”
The question became such a flash point that it reached The New Yorker’s editor-in-chief David Remnick, who emailed Springsteen’s longtime manager, Jon Landau, for a July 17 “Cultural Comment” column on the lyric confusion. “The word is ‘sways,’” Landau replied, definitively. “That’s the way he wrote it in his original notebooks, that’s the way he sang it on ‘Born to Run,’ in 1975, that’s the way he has always sung it at thousands of shows, and that’s the way he sings it right now on Broadway. Any typos in official Bruce material will be corrected.” And, in a dig at the “waves” crowd, Landau added, “And, by the way, ‘dresses’ do not know how to ‘wave.’”
Springsteen’s former manager Mike Appel, who worked with the rocker during Born to Run, agreed, telling the L.A. Times he sent the lyrics to the U.S. Copyright Office as “sways.” “I heard him sing it I don’t know how many times, and it was always ‘sways,’” he said.
Two Springsteen managers — the only more definitive answer might be a decree from the Boss himself. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t strong proponents in the “waves” camp too. Springsteen scholar Caryn Rose, who ranked all of the Boss’s songs for Vulture and wrote the 2012 book Raise Your Hand: Adventures of an American Springsteen Fan in Europe, told the Times she “can’t believe this is even up for debate,” and that the line is “waves.” “The matter is settled,” she added, noting that the question comes up every so often in fan circles. And Melissa Etheridge, who’s covered the song and sung it with Springsteen himself, said she goes with “waves” too — at the Boss’s advice. “I even talked about the lyrics with Bruce. We were practicing the song and dividing up who would sing what. In the middle of it, he said, ‘Man, there’s no chorus to this song! The lyrics just go on and on!’” she remembered, of her 1995 MTV Unplugged performance. “But he would’ve told me if it wasn’t ‘waves.’ He would’ve said, ‘You’re singing it wrong, honey.’ So it’s definitely ‘waves.’” But Springsteen hasn’t told either side they’ve been singing it wrong yet. Maybe we can expect an answer during Springsteen’s performance at New York’s Central Park “Homecoming” concert on August 21 — when he’ll surely leave some fans lonely for words he ain’t spoken.