The screen door slams, Mary’s dress … what?
— Thunder Road, Bruce Springsteen
I don’t remember when the argument began. We’ve been friends for so long now that, at some point, we’ve lost all of the beginnings. Half the things we say to each other now would not make sense to anyone else because they are inside jokes inside of inside jokes inside of inside jokes. Heck, they barely make sense to us anymore. Just unpacking why we reenact the “champagne cocktails” scene in Godfather II every time we see each other would take a 30 for 30 documentary or at least a long oral history.
Anyway, at some point a long time ago, Mike Vaccaro and I started arguing whether Mary’s dress sways or if Mary’s dress waves in Thunder Road, and we have been arguing about it nonstop ever since.
This argument has come to life in the last few days as people started writing so much about it that finally Jon Landau, Bruce Springsteen’s manager and destroyer of worlds, felt it important to make the official pronouncement: Mary’s dress sways.
“The word is sways,” he told David Remnick of The New Yorker. “That’s the way he wrote it in his original notebooks, that’s the way he sang it on ‘Born to Run,’ in 1975, and that’s the way he has always sung it at thousands of shows … and by the way, dresses do not know how to ‘wave.’”
I have many feelings about this quote, none of them good. But the point here is not to question Jon Landau*. The point here is to talk about words.
*Here’s an actual text exchange between Mike and me while I am writing this piece — Vac started it with the GIF and emoji:
Yes, of course, Vac has always thought that Mary’s dress sways. The reason, he always said, is obvious: Sways it the word that rhymes.
The screen door slams, Mary’s dress sways
Like a vision she dances across the porch as the radio plays
Sways. Plays. For Mike, it really was simple. If her dress “waves” then the radio “paves” or “slaves” or “raves” or “shaves.” He didn’t need any other exhibits. If he was presenting his case in front of a jury, he would say: “Sways rhymes with plays. The prosecution rests.”
Mike isn’t exactly wrong talking about Bruce and rhyme. Springsteen has always been something a rhyming nut, and this was particularly true in his early days as a songwriter. He tells stories of climbing into bed with a rhyming dictionary and writing stanzas like this from “Blinded by the Light.”
With a boulder on my shoulder, feelin’ kinda older, I tripped the merry-go-round
With a very unpleasing, sneezing and wheezing the calliope crashed to the ground
So, Mike’s case, short as it might be, is pretty compelling. Sways. Plays. Couldn’t be anything else. Maybe Vac too, like Jon Landau, has trouble visualizing a dress waving. But, yeah, mostly it is the rhyming thing.
The trouble is — the thing I have always tried to tell Mike and would tell Jon Landau if he would listen — is that this is bigger than rhyme. For one thing, “waves” is absolutely close enough to a rhyme for “plays” that it doesn’t matter. But even leaving that alone …
1) “Sways” is absolutely the wrong word.
2) “Waves” is absolutely the right word.
It isn’t a close call. A dress that sways is nothing. A dress that waves is everything.
In my life as a Springsteen fan, I’ve had three significant lyric disagreements with the Boss. The first is the obvious one, the disagreement everyone has, the speedball fiasco in “Glory Days.” I know there are extreme Boss fans who will try to defend the indefensible “He could throw that speedball by ya,” by citing historical references of fastballs being called speedballs or by pointing out the musical superiority of the word “speedball” to “fastball.” But I cannot and will not go out on that creaky ledge with them. Speedball is wrong. Speedball is bad. Speedball is a lyrical catastrophe.
The second major disagreement is a personal one that nobody seems to agree with me on — it comes from the song “The Wrestler.”
Springsteen’s lyric: Have you ever seen a scarecrow filled with nothing but dust and wheat?
I believe it should have been: Have you ever seen a scarecrow lost in a field of dust and wheat?
I feel sure that my version is better, more expressive, more haunting, and I really don’t care what anybody says.*
*And, oh, by the way, the next line in “The Wrestler” is “If you’ve ever seen that scarecrow then you’ve seen me” … and “wheat” and “me” do not precisely rhyme.
Finally, the third disagreement: Mary’s dress waves. Of course, it waves.
Let’s put crude rhyme thoughts away and talk about the word “sways.”*
*For more on this — and, realistically, a more thoughtful take on this — please read my friend Caryn Rose’s thoughts.
The definition of sways: “To move slowly or rhythmically backward or from side to side.”
Now, let’s put sways in a sentence: “He swayed slightly on his feet.”
You get it, right? Sways is a certain kind of slow, lazy, dull movement. Think about the things that sway. Trees sway. Rocking chairs sway. Curtains sway. Smitten couples on the dance floor sway.
Now, re-read the lyric:
The screen door slams, Mary’s dress sways
Like a vision she dances across the porch as the radio plays.
The screen door SLAMS. Mary DANCES like a VISION across the porch. The radio PLAYS. These are action words, power words, Mary is a tornado in motion, she is slamming screen doors, dancing across the porch, breaking hearts, she is spirit, and she is life, and she is a vision, and she is everything that he wants and dreams.
There is not the slightest chance in hell that her dress was swaying.
No. That dress was waving. Or, if you want to go to the thesaurus for wave synonyms, that dress was shaking, it was fluttering, it was swishing, it was flaunting. It wasn’t swaying like some nervous middle schooler trying to give an oral report on a book he didn’t read. No, that dress was WAVING, it was making itself known, it was telling its own story.
Things WAVE in the wind.
Things SWAY in a breeze.
You tell me, was Mary the wind or was she just a breeze?
I have little doubt in my mind that Springsteen originally wrote that “Mary’s dress sways.” He was young, and, as mentioned, he was hopelessly in love with rhyme. Anyway, what difference does that make? He had no idea that “Thunder Road” would become what it has become. It’s a single word in a 421-word song on an eight-song album recorded a long time ago. Waves. Sways. What difference could it make?
And the answer is that it makes no difference at all, except for this: Mary’s dress waves.