After weeks of raging debate over the opening lyric to Bruce Springsteen’s “Thunder Road,” the rock icon’s longtime manager settled the matter definitively over the weekend. In the end, the question was: “to sway or to wave?”
To back things up a bit, the Boss Nation was thrown into tumult on July 3rd when New York Times writer Maggie Haberman tweeted the first line to the 1975 track that opens Bruce’s breakthrough Born to Run album before she attended the rock icon’s revived Springsteen on Broadway show. “A screen door slams, Mary’s dress sways,” she tweeted along with a picture of the empty stage awaiting Springsteen’s arrival.
The only problem was that Bruce definitely sings that the dress in question “waves,” not “sways.” Or does he? The ensuing debate found its way into a subsequent Los Angeles Times article entitled, “‘The screen door slams, Mary’s dress…’ waves? Sways? An investigation into the Boss’ mystery verb,” which ran down the fierce divide over which word the Rock Hall of Famer sings in one of his most beloved songs.
The back-and-forth got so heated that Springsteen’s long-time consigliere, guitarist “Little” Stevie Van Zandt tweeted, “Oy vey! Get this Bruce lyric s–t outta my feed!” As the LA Times noted, Springsteen printed the lyrics in the original album gatefold design, where they clearly state: “Mary’s dress waves,” with the CD booklet reissue featuring the same line, which also appears on the official site and in his official songbook, Bruce Springsteen: Songs. As if that wasn’t enough, on page 220 of Springsteen’s Born to Run memoir he wrote, “‘The screen door slams, Mary’s dress sways’ — that’s a good opening line.”
Confusing things further, lyric sites Genius.com and AZlyrics.com opt for “sways” — though the sites sometimes feature incorrect of misheard lyrics — and the Times pointed out that Sotheby’s auctioned Springsteen’s handwritten lyrics to the song in 2019 for $62,500 in which the singer’s cursive clearly reads, “The screen door slams, Anne dress sways” and during a VH1 Storyteller recording in 2005 the paper reported that he read the lyrics aloud and he “almost certainly” said “sways.”
The deep-dive story surveyed musicians who’ve covered the song and performed it with Bruce — including Sara Watkins, Eric Church and Melissa Etheridge — with all three falling on the “waves” side, though Matt Nathanson is a “sways” guy and Frank Turner splits the difference with “swaves.”
Enter Bruce’s longtime manager and former rock journalist Jon Landau, who settled the matter in an email to the New Yorker’s David Remnick over the weekend. “The word is ‘sways,’” Landau explained. “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.”
For the record, Landau explained, “And, by the way, ‘dresses’ do not know how to ‘wave.’” According to Variety, on Sunday, the official Springsteen site updated the lyrics page to read “sways“; it had reportedly read “waves” the day before.