In this new series of articles, we'll be taking a look at the early versions of Bruce songs that later became classics. First up, "Wings for Wheels", which later became the seminal "Thunder Road".
I remember Tom Petty once remarking that he write his music first, then plugs in lyrics that match. This explanation can account for some of his nonsensical and bizarre lyrics in songs such as "Free Falling." In "Wings for Wheels," we can see that Springsteen takes a different approach. Both the music and the lyrics are almost finished, but not quite. Let's take a look at the differences.
The first thing everyone notices is the lack of the signature harmonica to open this song. The first stanza is basically the same, with Angelina replacing Mary. I think both Angelia and Mary are fine names that work within the song, and the switch is puzzling. Perhaps the name Mary is just more significant to Bruce, as it would show up in future songs. Or maybe it was easier to sing since it only had two syllables. Or maybe Angelina got mad when he dumped her and keyed his car. Another great mystery that may never be solved.
The second verse is completely different. Here, instead of the religious imagery used in the final cut, Bruce writes about something he knows very, very well: cars. "I'm no prince and I can't lay the stars at your feet" is a wonderful line that I'm surprised didn't get used in the final version, but given the amount of cars Bruce would sing about not just in future songs, but in future verses of THIS song, it is for the best that he trimmed it down here.
By the time Bruce reaches the swelling chorus, you are just dying for him to put the words "thunder" and "road" together. (It reminds me of this early version of Elliott Smith's "Miss Misery", also missing the titular line.) However, he just sings "dance all the way", and sort of trails off. There is something charming about hearing this, as you can almost imagine Bruce feeling that something wasn't quite right in that very moment he was singing. Also, unlike the final version, Bruce comes back again to the chorus. This, I feel, is a great addition. Who wouldn't have liked another chance to scream "thunder road" again?
The bridge in here is another interesting piece of music and lyrics, as Bruce slows it down and uses the word "jive." It is very different from the originally, and from what I can tell was scrapped completely and not recycled in any other part of the song. It leads into a rehash of the second verse, and then Bruce's classic "town full of losers" line seals the deal. We unfortunately miss out on ghosts in Mary's exes' eyes and burnt out Chevrolets. The end of this version sounds more improvisational, like Clarence and the band are just free-styling. They clearly fell in love with the "Thunder Road" riff, and go back to it a lot. It isn't as clean and professional sounding at the final version, but like Bruce singing "dance all the way," it has its charm.
When I first heard this version of "Thunder Road," I must say I wasn't a fan. It fell into the "uncanny valley" - it was too close to "Thunder Road," but it wasn't quite "Thunder Road." However, over time, I've found the song has its own merits as a youthful, more innocent version of the final cut we all know and love.