Skip to main content

A Springsteen Mystery Solved | The New Yorker

The Internet is an uneven contribution to the human prospect. We know this now. The wide-eyed evangelical era of “information wants to be free” is long in the past, and we can safely argue that the Web has deepened the ugliest fissures of society, winnowed our attention spans and heightened our anxieties, poured gasoline on conspiracy thinking, assisted in the global rise of nationalism and neo-Fascism, and, well, Chrissy Teigen.

But we strive for fairness, and the Internet has also made invaluable contributions. For example: during Game Three of the N.B.A. Finals, I mistakenly turned away from the action to do some reading. My phone buzzed. It was a text from my colleague Isaac Chotiner, noting that Jeff Van Gundy, an ESPN commentator and a former coach, had just quoted on the air a few lines by the Russian poet Joseph Brodsky as a way to describe a pick-and-roll play executed by Chris Paul and Deandre Ayton, of the Phoenix Suns. This rarely happens. And I’d missed it! But all was not lost. Thanks to Twitter, there it was. We are told that Mel Allen once compared a Mickey Mantle home run to a moment in Anna Akhmatova’s “Poem Without a Hero,” but, without Twitter, it is lost to the mists of legend.

There are other glories. Take, for example, the ability to waste time. Early this month, on a day too grim for dogs or snakes, it was best to stay inside, scroll numbly through Twitter, and wait for a virtual brushfire. Maggie Haberman, the tireless chronicler of the Trump Administration for the Times, unintentionally provided one, tweeting a photograph of a half-empty theatre and stage along with the lyrics “A screen door slams, Mary’s dress sways.” The lyrics are the opening to “Thunder Road,” arguably the best song on Bruce Springsteen’s breakthrough album, “Born to Run.” Haberman was obviously celebrating Springsteen’s return to the stage and the reopening of Broadway.

Naturally, a conniption ensued. Haberman was blasted for getting Springsteen’s lyric all wrong, and, in the days since, people have continued offering confident opinions. It’s not “Mary’s dress sways”! It’s “Mary’s dress waves.” Randy Bohlender (“Husband, dad of 10, pastor of The Bridge”) tweeted, “It’s Waves. Mary herself would sway but even then her dress waves and this is an established fact I will fight you over.” Erin Siobhan (“Lawyer. Hipster. Bad at twitter.”) was also in the “waves” camp: “All of you are ridiculous and wrong.” Chris Jones (“Idiot. Storyteller. Colonoscopy advocate and 9-hole golfer.”) was blunt: “Mary’s dress waves, and I will brook no argument to the contrary.” Louis Proulx (“Twitter is like screaming from the moon and thinking the whole world heard you.”) asserted, simply, “Waves, of course.” He also opined, not unreasonably, that another moment in the song—“You ain’t a beauty, but, hey, you’re all right”—is “quite possibly the worst compliment ever.”

Springsteen himself was hardly in a hurry to deal with the issue. No comment from his virtual corner. Stevie Van Zandt, his longtime guitar player and Sancho Panza in the E Street Band, is constantly on Twitter, promoting his latest music obsession, whacking Donald Trump, boosting voting rights, and retweeting an occasional pet video. But his engagement with the “waves”/“sways” situation was impatient, a grunt of Yiddishkeit and Jersey exasperation: “Oy vey. Get this Bruce lyric shit outta my feed!”

Misapprehension is a constant in music history. I am wobbly on how this might have played out for Monteverdi or Verdi, but pop music is full of mondegreens. The Kingsmen’s recording of “Louie Louie” was interpreted so variously that it led to an F.B.I. investigation. This is hardly a purely boomer obsession. A line in Drake’s “Hotline Bling”—“You make me feel like I did you wrong”—is sometimes heard as “You make me feel like a Digimon.” Did Elton  John truly sing "hold me closer Tony Danza?" There are tons of such examples, from early rock to hip-hop, and we know them all because we’ve got kissthisguy.com and a book by Gavin Edwards called “ ’Scuse Me, While I Kiss This Guy and Other Misheard Lyrics.” Both are referring to the moment in Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze” when he (actually) sings “Excuse me, while I kiss the sky.”

Writing in the Los Angeles Times, Rob Tannenbaum came along to do a fair-minded, comprehensive job of investigating the “waves”/“sways” conundrum. First, he writes, “Springsteen is not one of rock’s great enunciators, and because ‘dress’ ends with a sibilant S, ‘suh-ways’ is difficult to distinguish from ‘suh-waves.’ So the topic is up for debate, right?” Both on Springsteen’s official Web site and in his songbook, the word is “waves.” And yet Springsteen uses “sways” on page 220 of his memoir, which is also called “Born to Run,” and in his handwritten lyrics, which were auctioned off a couple of years ago by Sotheby’s. Tannenbaum interviewed various musicians who have recorded the song or have sung it with Springsteen; the verdict was split. One British performer, Frank Turner, straddled the great divide, telling Tannenbaum, “I’ve been known to pointedly sing ‘swaves.’ It’s a middle ground. Like centrism, it pleases nobody.”

There are not seven kinds of ambiguity in this life. There are thousands. Tannenbaum writes, “We may never resolve this flap.” But, sometimes, there really are answers. I e-mailed Jon Landau, who, as a critic for The Real Paper, in 1974, declared Springsteen to be the future of rock and roll, and then became his close collaborator in matters musical and financial. Short of Springsteen himself, no one could answer the question more definitively than Landau.

“The word is ‘sways,’ ” Landau wrote back. “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.’ ”

Original Post

Replies sorted oldest to newest

Add Reply

Post
×
×
×
×
Link copied to your clipboard.
×
×