This Is Not A Dark Ride
Tunnel of Love’ was Bruce Springsteen’s first studio offering since 1984’s ‘Born in the USA’. That album catapulted the man to the platform of mega stardom and created hype that, unlike with Born to Run, Springsteen was happy to go with. For many that image of Springsteen is the one that they remember and during that whirlwind tour of 1984-1985 he married. Bruce Springsteen had made it to the top of the mountain with the previous album and to everyone he was a hero. The next album is all about the man behind the image, finding out who that man was and living the married life. It may not have sold as many as its predecessor but to many, myself included 1987’s ‘Tunnel of Love’ is a stronger collection of songs and the concept behind it is truer and more lasting simply because there is no concept. Nothing on ‘Tunnel of Love’ is manufactured because Springsteen ‘needed a hit’, nor is any part of it re-packaged in a bolder brassier arrangement because that would sell more. Throughout this album you get the sense of a man stripped of the image, learning to deal with life’s issues like the partnership of love and marriage and how much it takes to make that work and, ultimately what to do when it isn’t.
The album’s opener, ‘Ain’t Got You’ is as much of a throwaway song as you are going to get here but even this is painful heartache dressed up in a catchy tune. Springsteen literally reels off everything he now has, ‘fortunes of heaven’, material wealth and importantly he brags that ‘everybody wants to be my friend’. This is the first hint of a common thread running through this album, one of appearance and reality. Everybody wants to be his friend but none are and while he has everyone wanting to kiss him he still misses out because he in fact remains ‘the biggest fool’ because he hasn’t got ‘You’. Whether you take the ‘you’ to be his wife or admission that he feels no connection to her, or you want to take the ‘you’ to be more abstract feelings of happiness, love, completion – that’s up to the listener but all of those can be felt within even this opening track and it sets up feelings that come back throughout. This is a conflict of appearance over true feelings – having the world and yet feeling empty, knowing lots of people but having no friends. ‘Tougher Than the Rest’ is a complex song. Although it is one of my favourites in the Springsteen catalogue it has always intrigued me also. The song deals with one half proving to the other than they will stay the course, ‘somebody ran out, left somebody’s heart in a mess’, it leaves us with the idea that the man is doing everything to prove that he is up to the challenge of walking the ‘thin, thin line’ and that he is, after all, tougher than the rest. One half of relationships telling the other half, and us, that he intends to stick around through all the challenges. There is ‘another dance’, and we are left to think that they will be okay and can come through whatever darkness may come.
Everything within the song is still there and the sentiment cannot be argued but the visual image is powerful and this song is seen less a rallying call for a failed relationship and more a show of strength for a new one that has begun. On a lighter note, Bruce plays the harmonica and that is always a winner.
‘All That Heaven Will Allow’ is a jaunty track, once again the sentiments are all in place and this is one where you don’t feel too much of the downside. ‘I got a dollar in my pocket, there ain’t a cloud up above’. This is ‘Waitin’ on a Sunny Day’ late 80’s style. This is our hero looking proud, happy in the love of a good woman, once again telling us that ‘rain and storm and dark skies’ do not matter when you’ve got someone special. Trouble, we hear, is no match for the man and all that heaven will allow. He wants ‘all the time’ he can get to enjoy his new happy life but if there is one thing we have learnt by now it is that appearances can be deceiving.
Up to now we’ve had the first person, characters telling someone – I’ve got you, I’m happy with you, or I ain’t got you and there maybe trouble ahead. When there actually IS trouble in this album it comes in an indirect style, third person. ‘Spare Parts’, for instance, is a story by a storyteller – Bobby and Janey and the trouble they, or more specifically she, goes through. This is one of the most direct songs on the album musically; having the guitar sound that flooded ‘Born in the USA’ and thought the pain is less direct it is still brutal. What do you do when things don’t happen they you think they will? You carry on the best way you can. ‘They were set to marry’, but he got scared. He had trouble pulling out with Janey, but had no problem pulling out of the wedding. We are left in no doubt whatsoever that Bobby is ‘never going back’ and we hear of the strength of character that the woman has to make it through life with pride and value her life and that of those around her. It takes all sorts of people in all situations to make the world turn and dealing with consequences is the hardest thing to do but, like the girl in this song, it makes you find out who you are.
Another cautionary tale comes next, yet another third person story with negative tones and Bill Horton, our flawed hero villain. Yet another character who goes into things with the best of intentions. The man lets his cautiousness ‘slip away’ over a woman who he marries and intends to build the perfect life, but who ultimately becomes restless. The character eventually leaves to search for something but ‘when he got there, he didn’t find nothing but road’. He feels as if there is something missing, and goes in search of it but then realises that he doesn’t actually know what that missing something is. He goes back, a common theme in Springsteen, going back to face the music is something his characters have done in the Darkness album
and ‘Born in the USA’, yet he also creates great runners too. The romantic runaways of ‘Born to Run’ could actually be the characters in ‘Cautious Man’, the edges a little frayed and the reality hitting home. Bill Horton goes back, for better or worse, knowing that the emptiness, ‘coldness inside of him’ would always be there. Back with his wife, sleeping and oblivious to the inner torment of her husband, is where we leave this picture. That’s the end of that story and it is a rather uncomfortable ending, quite abrubt in sound as well as content because Springsteen’s put the two back together but there is no resolution, the ending is quick – the storyteller stops and the music does too and we’re left with more questions Spingsteen obviously does not want to answer. How does this end? Does he tell his wife? Do they split up? This would have been all nice and rounded if Bill Horton had got to the highway and decided to go and find answers, like the kids in ‘Born to Run’, but he finds nothing and no questions are answered and that is the whole point.
We return to the first person for the next track, ‘Walk Like a Man’. “I remember how rough your hand felt on mine, on our wedding day’. Not really the best thing to remember about the happiest day of your life is it? It is a hint of reality in the perfect scene of a wedding day. We are lead down memory lane for wedding scenes when Bruce asks ‘would they ever look so happy again’ as they do on that day? The narrator asks all the questions and thinks over the steps he had to ‘learn on my own’.
This song goes from ‘present day’ wedding scenes to yesterday memories of childhood and ‘trying to walk like a man’ literally, behind a father figure on the beach. The literal becomes metaphorical as through life the narrator learns to walk like a man and keep walking. A simple song with a deep message, of dealing with the good and the bad in life ‘like a man’. Not the almost comic book ‘man’ that Bruce was in Born in the USA, a real man asking for strength during testing times. Do you ever look as happy as your wedding day? When the wedding is over and the guests leave and you have to deal with each other on a real level? The narrator does not know but he’ll deal with everything walking his best steps. It’s a largely positive memory song for Bruce, which notably refers to his father.
‘Tunnel of Love’ concerns two people taking a ride into the unknown. The song follows the familiar pattern of having one half speak to the other but it is not clear if one is trying to reassure or seek reassurance. The man that takes the money from his hand, also lets his eyes ‘take a walk all over’ his women, a theme we have heard before when the character from ‘All That Heaven Will Allow’ warns ‘if you didn’t look then, don’t go looking now’. Many characters worried about, or inspiring such wandering eyes. ‘Good luck’ he’s told, he will need it. The crux of this song seems to be the unknown that always happens in love – when the two people have to sit and look at themselves and each other will they like what they see and want to stay? The warning signs are there, shadows making it ‘easy for two people to lose each other’. Then we have the million-dollar statement,
“Ought to be easy, ought to be simple enough. Man meets women and they fall in love.”
It was that easy before now, in ‘Born to Run’ all they had to do was meet and fall in love but now there are higher stakes and this is a grown up problem. The ride taken by two romantic kids in ‘Thunder Road’ or ‘Born to Run’ suddenly ‘gets rough’ here and you have to ‘learn to live with what you can’t rise above’ just like Bill Horton going back to his sleeping wife. For better or worse. It is somewhat ironic that Patti Scalfa’s haunting vocal echoes in the background of this song, with those sentiments about the rocky ride of love.
‘Two Faces’ is one of the few first person songs on this album that directly speaks about problems. ‘The other man’ that the narrator wants to get rid of is the same insecurity that Bill Horton was scared of, the face which shows a relationship up as the lie it is while very quickly we are into another face theme in ‘Brilliant Disguise’. ‘Tell me what I see when I look in your eyes, is that you?’. Appearances are once again deceptive; the man in this song wants truth, the true face of the person he is with. A character ‘struggling to do everything right’ like so many stories on this album, and again like so many, failing when everything is stripped away ‘when out go the lights’. When the fairytale is gone and they are left with each other what happens then? Well, at least in this instance the warning is clear ‘don’t look too close into the palm of my hand’. The character is questioning everything, if everything he has bought into is a lie and questioning trust and wanting to find out what goes on behind the mask. The character accepts half the blame for this mis-trust, on one hand wanting to know ‘if it’s you I don’t trust’ but then warning ‘when you look at me, you better look hard and look twice, is that me?’. In a very real sense, when you are with someone on this level you give a large part of yourself and when you doubt you doubt everything. This is something that Bruce would have more confidence in later on with ‘Leap of Faith’ on Lucky Town. On this record, however, the leap of faith is not paying off. This song, like the album as a whole is not one for the first capture of romance, but the reality of everything that comes with that.
‘One Step Up’ concerns love lessons that aren’t being learned, nothing happening the way it should be. The picture looks perfect but the odd details are wrong, ‘the church bells ain’t singing’. We get more inward analysis and harsh truth, ‘when I look at myself I don’t see, the man I wanted to be. Somewhere along the line I slipped off track’. This character was trying to be the best he could be, but admits to falling short. The reality is a man and woman constantly at battle within a relationship that has descended into a ‘dirty little war’. Perhaps the most telling part of this song is the ending, man and woman in each others arms dancing to never ending music, yet this perfect picture is only a dream.
‘When You’re Alone’ is an honest and at times somewhat bitter message from one person to another who is leaving. ‘Love was not enough’, we are told and that when love goes, no amount of good intentions can get those feelings back. It’s a message that when someone makes the choice to leave, someday the wounds will heal and you’ll think you can make it right and come back. Just in case you were in any doubt about this, listeners and readers, you can’t. When it’s gone, it’s gone and ‘when you’re alone you’re alone’. With sentiments like that and those throughout the album you can see that love and the concept of romance gets a harsh time, romance is in short supply for the characters on this album. Love is something people are without, something that people are untrusting of, or something empty, cold and meaningless. There are very few real ‘true love’ moments here, one only in a dream and another in only a promise. With that in mind the closing track is something of an intriguing number. The title, ‘Valentine’s Day’ for one brings to mind the tacky pink hearts and flowers side of love. The kind of ‘love’ that you show with three or four lines in a card and a teddy, the kind that to a certain extent is throwaway when compared to the actual truth of being with someone for richer for poorer. This song, coming as it does after tales of doubt, self-loathing and uncertainty, brings love back to basics. I love you, you make my heart pound, I can’t wait to get back to you. This is the runaway love we’ve heard before, not the real stuff, the ‘I can’t live without you’ stuff. This is the car song, on most of Bruce Springsteen’s albums there has to be a car song, a driving character and here we even get a bass line climbing like the gears. For all the dream-like sounds and the positive images of being in love, we get very little here about the downside of relationships. This song is not about relationships, it’s about loving someone, driving back to be with them and wanting them to be your valentine. It’s about time we get the ‘love is great’ song without the cold harsh truth that has been delivered elsewhere on this album. Although I can’t help thinking that the perfect picture of love and the title of ‘Valentine’s Day’ are a comment on this type of love. Perhaps that all relationships start like this? Perhaps this is the ‘Man meets women and they fall in love’ bit without the haunted ride. There is a reason this lovey dovey picture comes at the last minute. You can have that type of love, the Valentine’s Day love, chocolates, dates, forever mine, four lines of poetry in a card, maybe take that while you can because for the rest of the time it will take work. Romance isn’t real, relationships with all their ups and downs are.
It was during the European leg of the tour for this album that Bruce’s then wife read in the newspaper that he was having an affair with his backing singer. It must have come as quite a shock to her but when Bruce Springsteen said goodbye to his wife to tour this album; you have to believe she would have listened to it. Are those alarm bells I hear? The man was opening his heart for his audience on record. This is men, women, love and marriage in the truest sense of the words and the men and women here are going through the mill and asking some serious questions. In ‘Born to Run’, Bruce asks ‘I wanna know if love is real!’ the overriding question I get from listening to this album in its entirety is ‘Are you sure you want to know?’. It is really all laid bare for you to hear. It is a collection of tales not of teenage lust and romance, but of grown up relationships and reality. On a very real level this seems to me to be a man who, like so many of his characters, wants to do the right thing and wants everything to work out but fears that it will not.
It is also worth noting that the Chimes of Freedom EP and a video was released in which ‘Born to Run’ was essentially re-dedicated and renewed, a nice touch given the new stage of his life he was entering. You may not buy the idea that ‘Tunnel of Love’ is the kids from ‘Born to Run’ all grown up, serious and struggling but when you look at this song re-presented as if his belief in the meanings behind it are also renewed – it’s almost an announcement that he is ready to take the ride again and this time, he was ready to find the perfect partner for the trip, or maybe he had already found her.
We know now that for Bruce and Patti the story ends happily and he was able to go on to record his ‘happy marriage’ album (Lucky Town, 1992). His unhappy marriage album, is as much a masterpiece as any other I have written about so far because it is real, it is painful, heartbreaking and honest.
This is not a dark ride, but there are many shadows to contend with.
© Simon A Moult / Moultymedia 2007.