Alicia Coutts – Thunder Road

Climb in back
Heaven’s waiting on down the tracks
Oh-oh come take my hand
We’re riding out tonight to case the promised land

4 am March 9, 1976 – Hancock St Doubleview – John has just tied his boards to the roof and got in the back of my EJ. The rain is horizontal so Mark and I sit in the front laughing and listening to ghoul radio while he does that. I am 17, John is 17, Mark is 18. I finished school in 75, John didn’t make it to the end, and Mark has recently finished failing first year Architecture.

John is soaked to the skin and is taking his clothes off as we turn North onto Wanneroo Road. He hasn’t had much time to pack as he’s had footy training the night before and had just quit his job. Everyone is a bit edgy really, I am probably the one with the least to lose, I am passing on starting Uni. Mark and I have both done full-on pre seasons for the forthcoming hockey season and Mark is seriously good. He is a freak in fact, no-0ne can get the ball off him and he gets goals at will. While the powers that be don’t like him, state and national selection are at his feet. Australia will lose to New Zealand in the Olympic final in coming months and the the Australian squad wil be rebuilt from scratch.

John is coming off a year in the colts at Subiaco – he has football pedigree, his brother plays for Subi, his two uncles played for West Perth, the door is open a mile wide because Subi is in the pits. Fitzy is playing for  Carlton, Feathers with the Bulldogs, Keith Watt has walked away form the game, David Parkin lasted one year as senior coach, in which time he provided John the best adult role model he has ever had, but now he is gone. The new coach is a tool. John is in the league squad. He is playing centre, they are looking for a new Featherby.

We turn onto Neaves Road, windscreen wipers scratching, heater full blast. We have come about 20 k’s we have about 560 to go, still we might get waves today, we are in the middle of a big storm but there is a bigger one coming. Here is our carefully crafted plan. We  are going to Kalbarri to surf Jacques for a month or so and possibly we might go further North and see if we can find the mythical Red Bluff, and the waves further up on Gnaraloo station. That cuts right across the looming football and hockey seasons and the sporting careers of young men – but of course we also might only stay until the end of the week, and then come home.

The nervous energy has died down a bit, I tell Mark to find a tape, at the same time John fishes a shop-bought one out of his pocket. We never had them, everything was always recorded from vinyl. I laugh – it is Born to Run, of course it wouldn’t be a home recording because who would own a Bruce Springsteen record, but it goes in the tape deck anyway because we can’t find the box of tapes. Fact is I had never really listened to that music much but I was a proto punk full of the Velvets, Iggy Pop and so on, so I was kind of required to hate him. By the time Thunder Road was finished that had all changed – which was lucky, I had left the carefully sorted box of 20 tapes for the trip on my bed – Born to Run was all we had.

10:30 am –  Carpark, Jacques Point Kalbarri. When you plan surf trips you always dream of good surf, the anticipation can be excruciating, with all the talk of spitting pits and heaving lips. But you really secretly want a small day to start with to ease yourself in to a new wave. Which is exactly what Jacques was not that morning. Warm, under a leaden sky, lumpy, glassy, triple head high, breaking in about a foot of water, three guys out. Bracing. Truth is we are all scared shitless.

10:50 am – Mark has just been pitched and then pinballed all the way down the reef and is scrambling to get back outside – but he can paddle through anything, I have got hold of a smaller one and just had the most sensational barrel of my sweet short life and John is out the back scratching for a monster. He decides to turn and go and that just looks all wrong. He is on his backhand and as he gets to his feet the wave jacks again and he gets caught in the lip. But somehow he hangs in, the board freefalls and I see the rail and fin bite and he puts in a bottom turn before the lip slams down in front of him. I am now struggling to get over this wave myself and as I go over the shoulder I see John still deep in the pit.

1:00pm Kalbarri Bakery. We are drinking cups of tea and eating coronation buns, looking at the to-lets on the pin up board. Sliding doors. We stay in town and surf.

John never played league footy.
Mark never played in the Olympics for Australia.

I was never going to do either, but I thought about those two the other night when I was watching some hysterical nonsense at the Olympics. Sometimes, glory and failure is shared with almost no-one, sometimes it is shared with the world.

John’s barrel was better than Tom Hawkins awesome shot for goal, but only I know that.
Alicia Coutts has the soul of a surfer, I think she would try just as hard for perfection with an audience of none. She has ridden to the promised land.


  1. Neil – brilliant work. The fact is that the need to get to the limits in sport burns bright in some and not quite so brightly in others. Neither is right or wrong.

    I have a mate who was a juior long jump champion, super basketballer, very fine sprinter, and had Carlton and Hawthorn after him. He went to night clubs instead. He’s a ripper bloke.

  2. Andrew Starkie says

    Neil, this is my favourite Bruce song. The opening line – ‘The Screen door slams’ – is one of the greatest in r&r. It evokes such possibilities in the imagination.

    Apparently Peter Gularnick has written a brilliant piece on Bruce in The New Yorker. I have his books on music and musicians, they are superb.

    DIps, we all have those mate, I think.

  3. Andrew Starkie says

    sorry, story is written by david remnick. have his books too. one on Ali is gold.

  4. Beaut piece. Thanks Neil. Evokes the adventures of youth brilliantly.
    I can remember a trip from Adelaide up to Queensland in the same era with Patti Smith’s “Horses” on high rotation. Way too wild for my chilled-out middle aged self. But I though the other day, must buy a copy so I can wail along to myself on the way to work. If only they knew.
    Andrew – second line is “Mary’s dress waves” – even more evocative when you are married to one. Mary is a constant figure in Bruce’s songs – something to do with a Catholic upbringing I think. My Mary regards it as a personal endorsement.

  5. Andrew Starkie says


    well, yes, you’re right. I have only come to appreciate the Boss in recent years. Such a beautiful story teller. i recall my best mate when a very young boy singing ‘The River’ word for word in his mum’s garage. We pretended we understood it all, but of course, didn’t. Blood Brothers in another.

  6. Andrew Starkie says

    hang on,I’ve just remembered:

    The highway’s jammed with broken heroes
    On a last chance power drive

    Born to Run.


  7. Skip of Skipton says

    Patti Smith’s “horses” = Wanker Alert!

    I remember seeing AC/DC’s debut on Countdown. Bon Scott was dressed up as a schoolgirl. They were singing a cover song “Baby please don’t go”. I told my mum to buy me the single, she came back with ‘high voltage’. Being the youngest child, I can’t remember life wtrhout rock’n’roll. It was Beatles and Stones etc, Queen were fantastic in the ’70s, but after AC/DC, the next big Rock ‘n’ Roll rush was Kurt and Nevermind. It felt like someone from my age-group had rescued Rock.

  8. Geez Skip, talk about kicking a man when he’s down.
    You’re starting the mental destruction for Friday night a bit early.
    Haven’t finished licking the wounds yet.

  9. Neil
    Thanks for this piece. Some things in there to which we can all relate.

    And “Thunder Road” is my wife’s favourite song.


    Link to a brilliant piece about Springsteen at age 62 (can you believe it – it is only yesterday we were……) by David Remnick on the New Yorker magazine website.
    Read it and weep. For the quality of the writing and the qualities of the man.

  11. DiamondLil says

    Ah Sport!
    The glory,
    the heartache,
    the road you choose to take…

    Beautiful story Neilo, but it nearly got me sooking. A bit like the Olympics commentary… but for a different reason.

  12. DiamondLil says

    Patti Smith is brilliant and I will hear no different. (Reading Just Kids at the moment)

  13. DiamondLil says

    AND another thing – why can’t I tweet straight from this page?

  14. Love your taste in music, Lil.
    What’s a tweet?

  15. A ‘tweet’ is what the Dockers gave themselves, and all their supporters, on Saturday evening P B.

  16. Sort of like a wank then. Now I get it.
    Thanks Phantom.

  17. That was my one and only, PB.

    Apparently the Cats are heading west this week.

    I will slip sedately back into the cave and zip my lips.

  18. Oh, I love that Neil – very evocative and nostalgic.

    I was probably at home covering my school books with Women’s Weekly back-to-school labels while you were on that Thunder Road. Still, I’m sure The Boss would have picked me instead of Courney Cox – if only I had been wearing the right EastCoat jeans.

  19. Great read, Neil.

  20. Mulcaster says

    “Because the Night” was written by Bruce Springstein and performed by Patti Smith. Natalie Marchant and “10,000 Maniacs” did a brilliant cover. I drive my kids insane by playing “London Calling” at volume on Saturday mornings.

  21. Mulcaster says
  22. Alicia Coutts might have the soul of a surfer, Neil, but you have the soul of a poet.

  23. Rick Kane says

    Great article Neil. Music is so much a part of our lives. After Friday night I couldn’t get The Promised land outa my head:

    I’ve done my best to live the right way
    I get up every morning and go to work each day
    But your eyes go blind and your blood runs cold
    Sometimes I feel so weak I just want to explode
    Explode and tear this whole town apart
    Take a knife and cut this pain from my heart
    Find somebody itching for something to start

    The dogs on Main Street howl ’cause they understand
    If I could take one moment into my hands
    Mister I ain’t a boy, no I’m a man
    And I believe in a promised land

    Anyways, enough about that!

    From the reaction your piece has provoked it sounds like there’s a lot of music fans hanging around here. They might also enjoy this essay from The Guardian. At the end of the article there is a link to the Six Songs of me project where you can add your own inspirational song choices:

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