Mick Jagger never liked to explicitly tell you what he was singing. Maybe he got the idea from Fats Domino who said you should never sing the lyrics out very clearly. Jagger called it great fun trying to decipher lyrics.
In an interview with NME he explained why you never saw the lyrics in a Rolling Stones album. “I never like to print the lyrics. I always think the lyrics should be listened to in the actual context of the song, rather than be read as a separate piece of poetry.” Jagger’s enunciations and his own muddy mixes made it even harder to figure out what he was singing.
For Bruce Springsteen, it was a different approach. When he released his debut album Greetings From Asbury Park, his lyrics were an essential part of his presentation. He wavered in printing them on its follow-up, The Wild, the Innocent & The E Street Shuffle, but emblazoned across the inside of the gatefold cover of Born To Run, Springsteen’s narrative was in full support of his cinematic storylines.
More than 45 years since his harmonica introduced the opening track “Thunder Road,” one word in the song has suddenly become a point of controversy. In the opening of the song, “ Screen door slams, Mary‘s dress waves.” At least it did until last Saturday when manager Jon Landau declared by email to The New Yorker’s David Remnick that the real word was sway and vowed that it would be corrected forevermore.
It all started when journalist and New York Times Maggie Haberman attended Springsteen on Broadway and quoted the song’s opening lines in a tweet. “Screen door slams, Mary’s dress sways.” That set off a firestorm among the Springsteen community which excoriated her for misquoting the word sways. It led to a tongue in cheek investigative piece in the Los Angeles Times by Rob Tannenbaum that inconclusively left “Thunder Road” where it had been for 45 years. Or so we thought.
Jon Landau has been an able steward of Springsteen’s long career and one of the great managers in the history of rock ‘n’ roll. His induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was well deserved and he shares in the significance of Springsteen’s accomplishments, most recently in his return to Broadway and the reopening of the country.
Writing to Remnick, Landau went on the record by saying Mary’s dress sways and implying it’s always been that way (even though it hasn’t.)
“The word is ‘sways,’ ” Landau wrote. “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, by the way, ‘dresses’ do not know how to ‘wave.’”
If it’s all ado about nothing, it still seems a bit reactionary. Why did he (and in turn Bruce) feel the need to be so definitive? Why not let this play out like a storyline in the annals of rock and roll?
We are still convinced that John Lennon gave us a “Paul is dead” clue at the end of “Strawberry Fields Forever.” We all thought we heard him say “I buried Paul” despite Lennon’s playful interviews that it was just “cranberry sauce.” Decoding the words of “Louie Louie” went so far as to prompt an FBI investigation. Carly Simon has made it a life‘s work dodging questions about the identities of the characters in “You’re So Vain.” Presuming the song could only be about him, actor Warren Beatty thanked her. But Simon has been coy over the years and held steadfast that there are three characters at play. It continues to be one of the great mysteries and let’s hope it stays that way.
Landau comes off like being the fixer. It strikes me as managerial overreach. In the film Blood Brothers about Springsteen’s mid-Nineties period, Landau self-deprecatingly calls himself “Jonny Pontificate.” Why did he rush to respond now? This would have been a wonderful time to say we’re not going to comment. Or in the words of the late Ben Bradlee, come up with a non-denial denial. Let Bruce Springsteen crack a one-liner. “I could have said that but you know that was a long time ago…” The two could have cited the Keith Richards defense. “Just because I wrote it,” the guitarist famously said, “doesn’t mean I remember it.”
In rock and roll, there is beauty in ambiguity and songs are subject to your own interpretation. When I was younger, I naively asked Michael Stipe to tell me what “Radio Free Europe” was about. “What do you think it’s about?” he asked me back. I fell into the trap of responding to which he shut down the conversation and said something like, “That’s not what I was thinking about.” Lesson learned.
But more than correcting the record, something sticks in my craw about his statement to Remnick. Landau forgets something that I believe Springsteen and many other songwriters have said. Once you release a song, it no longer belongs to you. It belongs to your audience.
Landau’s last line seems like a condescending dig and dress down of Springsteen’s audience–one that has faithfully recited song and verse in the chapels of arenas and stadiums over multiple decades.
When Springsteen put out the mic to the audience so we could sing the opening words to “Thunder Road,” I do not recall ever once being corrected that we sang the wrong words. I don’t know what was in Springsteen’s Teleprompter but I do know that I witnessed on multiple occasions hearing 50,000+ people attesting that Mary’s dress waves. And when Springsteen turned the mic back to himself and said “well that’s all right for me,” it was as much a recitation of the narrative as it was validation of our communal hymn.
In her beautiful essay, writer Caryn Rose examines why she believes Mary’s dress waves. “Wave is a verb, it is an active word.,” she writes on her Jukebox Graduate website. “Sway is a description of a thing that is happening. Mary is dancing, she is in motion, her dress is waving.”
In response, Harry Hew tweeted: “I’ve seen a lot of cases made for why it’s “waves” & why it’s “sways,” but @carynrose is the first person to convince me of why I should WANT it to be “waves.” And that’s way more important. Now I don’t just have an opinion, I have a reason to care.”
To be clear, we’re not talking about taking down statues but great art should not be tampered with. A “Mystery Solved” as Remnick declared is a hollow one. The sudden rush to proclaim an error and correct “Thunder Road” which began on music lyric websites and will, according to Landau, be on future pressings of Born To Run, only makes me wonder what took so long. I am old enough to remember the misspelling of Landau’s name on Born to Run written as John. It was later corrected with a sticker that Columbia put over the credits of the original pressing. If there really was an error in “Thunder Road,” wouldn’t that have been the time to have corrected it? Or when CBS issued mastersound audiophile pressings. How about in the 30th anniversary box set? Thankfully we won’t have a recall for our old versions.
Now that we’ve reopened the notebooks and waves have fallen, maybe Landau has opened up the opportunity to re-examine Springsteen’s lyrics in other ways. The line “You ain’t a beauty but hey you’re alright” makes me queasy in our current times. And then there are all of those references to women as “little girls.” The objectification has always been unsettling. To invoke the title of Landau’s great book, maybe it’s too late to stop now.
For me I’ll leave the subject alone for the time being. I’ve got some Rolling Stones songs I need to go listen to and figure out what Jagger was really saying. I just have to resist picking up my phone to find the lyrics. It’s just not as much fun. I still like a good mystery and god knows we could use a good one.