Meaning of “Runaway Train” by Soul Asylum

Soul Asylum’s “Runaway Train” is a song is about the singer going through a bout of depression. And although at the beginning of the song, he finds a little relief by interacting with someone who is presumably his girlfriend, overall this is a very-serious case. How serious? So serious he has basically concluded is incurable. 

Thus the rest of the track does not find him pleading for help or anything along those lines. Rather it focuses on his confused mindset, a result of him refusing to deal with the “pain” of reality. And more importantly, it finds him comparing the trajectory of his life to a “runaway train”, where he is on a one-way course to the point of no return.

Lyrics of "Runaway Train"

Facts about “Runaway Train”

  • This track is also the primary reason why the album it is featured on, Soul Asylum’s “Grave Dancers Union”, went on to sell over three-million copies.
  • “Runaway Train” was released on the same day as the album, which was 1 June 1993, by Columbia Records.
  • In celebration of its 25th anniversary, “Runaway Train” was re-recorded in 2019 by Jamie N Commons, Skylar Grey and Gallant in collaboration with the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC). This initiative is complete with a new, state-of-the-art website which allows viewers who watch the interactive music video to see missing  children in their respective areas, where they have a higher tendency of being recovered, through the utilization of geo-targeting technology.
  • All of this for a song which, according to its sole writer Dave Pirner, really has nothing at all to do with missing children.
  • Adding to the success story of “Runaway Train”, the song won Dave Pirner the 1994 Grammy for Best Rock Song. However due to his personal belief that one song should not be exalted over the others, Pirner did not attend the ceremony. And Meat Loaf accepted it on his behalf.

Music Video of “Runaway Train”

The legendary music video to this track, which was directed by Tony Kaye, is what is largely accredited with blowing it up. It features images of dozens of real life missing children. Furthermore, in the clip, there is an epilogue of Dave Pirner issuing a telephone number to call if one of them is spotted or if they themselves wanted support.

Some versions of the clip featured different children based on the country in which it was to be aired.

FYI, MTV edited out the epilogue due to not wanting the video to read like a public service announcement.

Were the missing children in the video ever found?

As of 2019, Rolling Stone confirmed that of the 36 missing children featured on the clip, 21 had been found. However, the number reported by Tony Kaye in 2013 was 26. Overall while most of them were actually found, it was not always a happy situation.

How did “Runaway Train” fare on the charts?

It charted in many countries, most notably peaking at number 5 on America’s Hot 100 and number 7 in UK. It also reached number 1 on RPM Top Singles (Canada). 

9 Responses

  1. Mark Mann says:

    According to Dave Pirner, he wrote it is about his depression.
    The beginning seems to talk about what depression did to him; that it wakes him up in the middle of the night like a firefly without light’. A firefly without light can clearly describe what it means because the light is what makes it beautiful; what looks like hope.
    The second part talks about how it drained him and stole his sleep. How he was tired of all the secrets and all he could do was weep. I believe the secret was his depression considering most people don’t talk about their issues with depression. He feels so gone in it that he feels trapped without an escape.
    His chorus seems to describes his life as a runaway train or on a runaway train; a one way track which was the wrong track anyway, a track that led to nowhere. You can imagine how hopeless that felt.
    In the next verse, it is as if he’s asking for help to remember how to laugh so at least all he’s been through will be worth it. Everything seems dull to him. It’s like night and day are the same.
    He can’t believe how things are messy in his life. It is obvious from this track how difficult things were for him in that moment of his depression
    The video he made for the song featured a lot of images of missing children and it is believed that the video helped find 26 of them; in his depression he found a way to heal.

    • Sixty plus says:

      I heard this song while Christmas shopping yesterday. The first time I heard it in years. Very moving lyrics and instrumental. I will never forget the lyrics.

      • Juliann says:

        I literally just heard this song right now in Walgreens and it always touched me because I totally remember watching the music video as a preteen and seeing all the kids in the video and it really affected me big time in like a disturbing way that made me so sad and realize what went on outside of my safety suburban bubble and when I heard it just now it brought me back to that time in the video it made me wanna cry again I wonder what they meant to the end about how 26 kids were found but wasn’t always a happy reunion, they didn’t elaborate on that part, guess I’ll have to Google it further, Godspeed everyone

  2. Erin says:

    This video I feel has to do with human trafficking and all the children that go missing every year in our country because of it. He is depressed because “he knows what no one else knows” -so back when this song was written no one else really knew how deep this issue is in hollywood and music industries. He is depressed from knowing too much. The video is very telling.

  3. E. P. says:

    It reminds me of my estranged son, who feels like he can’t come home. (Be we miss him and he is more than welcomed) he is in need of deep healing and doesn’t necessarily see things in the same light as our experience. So everything seems the same and he doesn’t want to come back. But that’s perception for you…mixed with mental health not quite excepted or dealth with. (Please come home L.H.P.) we love you.

  4. Anonymous says:

    I just found this song again I heard it the other day geez I miss this so much this is such a great song thank you thank you for the lyrics

  5. Anonymous says:

    I remember this song from when I would drive to my girlfriends house in 1993. It was on the radio all the time. I lost her and It helps me remember.

  6. DeeDees says:

    I asked my dear aunt who I was very close to to somehow try to reach out to me through a song. One day, suddenly, this song out of nowhere came into my head and I just knew it had to be her. I played the song on Spotify and read along with the lyrics as well. I just sat stunned. She was taken too soon and I knew she was very distraught over it.

  7. MaryAnne Lunsford says:

    Reminds me of my husband of 37 years that died last year. He was at the point of no return. Was gonna kill himself. He ended up going to the hospital and died there after signing a directive to remove all the things they had put on him. They were wanting to amputate both of his legs. No circulation. He didn’t want to live like that. Had neglected his health and well being for many years. Had been taking morphine for a while and other drugs. I watched him go downhill for years. It was sad and broke my heart. he was a brilliant engineer. RIP Tom

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