Monday, March 12, 2012

Putting Aside Childish Things

Some reflections on the 25th Anniversary of Bruce Springsteen’s Tunnel of Love

TWENTY YEARS AGO this spring I was discovering the work of Bruce Springsteen. I’d heard of him, though. He’d been around the block a few times already by then. You have to understand that as a teenager during the late 1980s, I was a pure metalhead. (I still am – no apologies.) I thought Bruce Springsteen was a bandana-wearing, sleeve-rolling, girly-dancing wimp who wrote dumb lines like “wearing trouble on their shirts” and “I check my look in the mirror.”

Metalheads do not “check their look.” We know you don’t like it. That’s a you problem.

I never had time for a popular rocker like Springsteen back then. The whole point of metal was to hold up a middle finger to whatever was broadly accepted - to plant one’s flag on the fringe with the outcasts. Bruce was the Rolling Stones or Michael Jackson or Def Leppard. He was the mainstream.

Springsteen’s album Tunnel of Love, which turns 25 this fall, came out in my junior year of high school, 1987. It was the follow-up to the über-successful Born in the U.S.A. I remember watching what struck me as an excruciatingly boring video for the single “Brilliant Disguise,” with Bruce sitting in someone’s kitchen playing an acoustic guitar and singing. At the time I was blasting Metallica, Judas Priest, and reconnecting with God through Stryper. I played bass in my own garage band, had a girlfriend, and felt morally superior to everyone else. I was an active Christian youth, “on fire” for God. I was sitting on top of the world.

After the album came out, a few things happened. Bruce went on tour, and had an extra-marital affair with his backup singer. It blew up all over the New York tabloids (I grew up in Jersey, just like Springsteen). What a moron, I remember laughing, neglecting to realize that despite a little high school puppy love, I had never come anywhere near to the fruit - forbidden or otherwise. In the fall of 1988, I went off to college, and promptly forgot about Springsteen.

Fast-forward roughly four years, to spring 1992. My twin brother and I were living together in an off-campus apartment near our college, where we were seniors. I don’t remember how, but by some means he had gotten a hold of a cassette that had Tunnel of Love recorded on side B. It found its way into our little twin-deck boom box around March or April of that year, and it didn’t come out until graduation.

The experience I had this time with Tunnel of Love was a bit like that famous line by Mark Twain where the young man is amazed by how much his father has learned in the space of a few years. But by then I already suspected the truth, and didn’t feel like I had much time to chuckle over who had changed and who hadn’t. The end of college was upon me, and since I was there in the first place on an ROTC scholarship, I was about to go off into the U.S. Army. On my own, without my family, without my brother.

With this hard rain coming, suddenly life didn’t seem like a big joke anymore. Or if it was – maybe all of it was – it seemed there was a real good chance that the butt of it would be me. That seemed to be what Bruce was finding out in Tunnel of Love’s wry opener, “Ain’t Got You.” “I got more good luck honey than ol’ King Farouk,” he sings, somewhat idiotically, “but the only thing I ain’t got baby I ain’t got you.”

I didn’t have her, either. Or anyone else. I didn’t even understand what was approaching, because it hadn’t reached me yet. But Springsteen’s album did something for me from the first listen, something I really needed: it told the truth. The more I heard the record, the more it began to feel like Bruce was shouting the lines at me, or at least in my direction.

“There’s things that’ll knock you down you don’t even see coming,” he warned in “When You’re Alone,” “and send you crawling like a baby back home.” I didn’t have the option to crawl home, but if I did I might have. The guy who sang those lines was no wimp. He’d been to the battlefield. Where he’d had the innocence and ignorance blown right out of him.

I fell into a rabbit hole that spring called “Two Faces.” This succinct, sober tune from Tunnel almost feels like a throwaway upon a first listen. Musically, like many of the other songs, it is lean: it features a solo performance by Springsteen, mainly on acoustic guitar, with spare accompaniment by an organ, his own E Street Band drummer Max Weinberg’s percussion, and a brief guitar solo.

The story it tells is more like a sub-thought of the rest of the album’s narrative. It’s about a guy who is trying to hang on to his girl, but he’s feeling heat from a third party, another man who is vying for her affections.

I rewound and played that song over and over again. I didn’t realize why at the time, but I do now. The reason I related to it so profoundly had little to do with the “story.” I sensed something about the artist. The man who had written “Two Faces” was basically admitting to the world that, in spite of his astounding success, he really didn’t understand himself.

I met a girl and we ran away

I swore I’d make her happy every day

And how I made her cry

Two faces have I

This short verse, the first of the song, in its own way captures the essence of the entire record. It’s common knowledge that Tunnel of Love was Springsteen’s examination of a relationship between a man and woman going south. It explores the conflict between dreams and realities in the context of a marriage. How we think life will go versus how it goes.

I could hear something in both the lyrics and the music of “Two Faces,” something I was getting from nothing else I was listening to at the time, possibly from nothing I had ever listened to. For me it was the music of loneliness, of fear, of conducting a self-analysis and being dissatisfied with the outcome. It didn’t sound like any place I had been to before. It sounded like the place I was going.

If Tunnel of Love was only about human love, it would have been mostly lost on me. At the time I first heard it, and through most of the decade beyond, love did not come my way. I didn’t know about it, hadn’t felt it before, and almost gave up on it entirely. That made for a rough ten years. Yet anyone who believes that the challenges of living without love far outweigh the challenges of living with it clearly has never experienced it. Also, I might add, they probably have never heard Tunnel of Love.

Even though a marriage in crisis provides the central context of Springsteen’s album, and the lack of understanding between the male and female is the lens through which everything on the record is seen, Tunnel of Love also speaks to an even deeper truth. That truth has to do with who, or Who, is really behind what happens to ourselves, to everyone else, to the entire universe. Who’s in charge here? is the question behind all the questions on this album. You can hear Springsteen wrestling with it throughout. “Nobody knows honey where love goes,” he admits late in the journey. “But when it goes, it’s gone, gone.”

In this regard, the structure of Tunnel of Love is important, much more so than it would be today. Twenty-five years ago, we stood at the end of a certain chapter in the story of popular music, and Tunnel emerged right at this overlooked but critical juncture. I am referring to the demise of the traditional “record” format, when albums had two sides (two faces?).

Tunnel of Love was the last album Springsteen ever made with this format in mind. It makes a big difference. The whole album is one journey, but it has two legs, and back when you would have needed to flip over the LP or cassette to listen to Side Two, that pause served a purpose.

As originally conceived, the album has six songs per side. The first six, starting with the near a-capella “Ain’t Got You” and closing with the poignant “Walk Like a Man,” generally examine the emotions associated with a romantic relationship on the way in – the way it feels when it’s new. If my earlier stipulation is accurate, that Tunnel of Love has to do with the way we think life will go versus how it actually goes, then Side One is about our plans, our dreams. Even the unfortunate young woman called Janey in the side’s lone exception, “Spare Parts” – who winds up battle-worn and resigned by the song’s end – begins her story with a naive impression of male-female love. This half of the record is full of pride, youthful optimism, lust, hubris, vigor, and a healthy portion of fear.

The pinnacle of Side One is the third entry, “All That Heaven Will Allow,” a masterpiece of narrative songwriting. It carries the listener on a fully-realized arc in the space of four short verses, showing us a young man’s journey from lust-fueled infatuation to the enriching experience of authentic love. In the first two verses, the protagonist, with a little money in his pocket and the freedom of youth, is merely entranced by the woman who has caught his eye. He uses the phrase “all that heaven will allow” to refer to her only, trying to articulate what he feels: that she is beautiful, mysterious, bewitching, and, possibly, the key to his future. But he is still a young man. “All I want to do is dance,” Springsteen sings, signaling the youth’s sense of priorities.

In the third and fourth verses, however, time has passed, and the relationship has transcended mere infatuation. Some of life’s realities have begun to creep in, which Springsteen conveys through the images of “rain and storm and dark skies.” Yet this man draws strength from his partner’s love. It’s giving him the confidence to wrestle with those elements:

They don’t mean a thing

If you’ve got a girl that loves you

And wants to wear your ring

The reference to the sealed commitment of marriage is revealing. The young man has found true love through marriage, not in spite of it or off to one side of it. He has learned that he’s been blessed not just with a woman’s love, potent as that is, but the love of the Divine, the love that forges and seals the wedding band.

Springsteen has always been coy about his religious beliefs and/or practices, but this song exposes a sensibility formed by his inherited Roman Catholicism. Springsteen has a clear understanding of the sacramental. If that were not the case, the song would not end the way it does: “I want all the time/All that heaven will allow.” That’s not a reference to a woman or her love. That is an appeal to love’s Divine provenance.

When I was digging into these songs with gusto at the end of my college career, and later on in my first months in the Army, I longed deeply for the experiences that the young men on Tunnel of Love were going through. I wanted to feel my oats, go out on the town with friends, find the girl with the blue dress described in “Tougher Than The Rest” and show her that I was the one for her.

I also responded on a more fundamental level. I am a Roman Catholic too, from birth. I recognized Springsteen’s hunger for grace in his his singing, the way you recognize the voice of a beloved relative on the phone. I could hear the loneliness behind the bravado in “Tougher Than The Rest” and “All That Heaven Will Allow” – I felt it myself, and I was as anxious as the youths in those songs to step into a man’s shoes.

It’s no accident that the last song on Side One is called “Walk Like A Man,” or that it places the protagonist at the far end of the center aisle in a church, watching his bride approach. Shortly afterward, they both step “into that long black limousine/For their mystery ride.”

Even though I wanted all of this, I also felt some hesitancy and trepidation about it back in 1992 and 1993. Why? Because on Side Two of Tunnel of Love, Bruce Springsteen tells us about what it’s like to go through that passage, and what may be waiting on the other side.

The last four songs of Tunnel of Love are the most shattering of Springsteen’s long and ample catalog. They are also among the bravest songs I have ever heard. Although Springsteen, both before and after this album, has moved listeners around the world with stories of common Americans struggling to hold down jobs, stay true to their families, come back from fighting in wars, or just make it from one day to the next with their dignity intact, I’m not sure he has ever spoken so truthfully and so nakedly as he does on the back end of Tunnel of Love.

I will forever appreciate that courage. It taught me about love and sacrifice well before I had the channe to encounter those things for myself. Even today it re-educates me, well after my own experience has taken me from an acutely alone and under-confident young man to a happily married husband and father of four children.

Springsteen channeled his personal heartbreak and failure into his art, and spun them into profound lessons that he shared with the world. I find this inspiring, and while it may not exonerate the artist from his mistakes, it demonstrates his strength of heart and his willingness to rise above them. I have tried to use creative writing as a means of rising above my own shortcomings, with God’s help, and I am able to relate to the process Springsteen engaged in as well as the lessons.

Springsteen had married the actress Julianne Phillips after the astoundingly successful Born in the U.S.A. album and 1984-1985 world tour. The marriage was rocky from the outset, apparently, forming the basis of the material that would become Tunnel of Love. Then came that album’s supporting tour, the well-publicized dalliance with backup vocalist Patti Scialfa, and a divorce. Of course, Springsteen and Scialfa then married, settled down as much as possible, and had three children of their own in the 1990s.

Thus, the second side of Tunnel of Love is about what happens, when the first side was about the way we picture things will go. But it’s important to note that the songs are not about what will happen, to everyone. Springsteen was not saying that love is a terrible ride, do not go into that tunnel, it will only make you sick or broken-hearted or worse. He was saying that you do not and cannot know how things will go. And you’d better be prepared for anything.

It is here where I connected to these songs. The voice on the album didn’t sound like some bitter, angry celebrity upset that everything didn’t fall into place for him the way it always had before. It sounded more like a mentor, kind of like a big brother, who had been a little further down the road (okay, a lot further) than I had, and was letting me know that adulthood, personal freedom, having a little money, and, eventually, love and marriage, were not all flowers and sunshine. I was all ears.

“You’ve got to learn to live with what you can’t rise above,” Springsteen sings on the title track. That felt like a prescription for my whole life in 1993. After college, I reported to Fort Benning, Georgia, as a young officer assigned to the Infantry - “the Queen of Battle.” Anyone who knew me at all knew that for me to be assigned to a branch of the military whose stated mission is to “close with” and “destroy the enemy”

was a hilarious cosmic joke. And I would have thought it was, too, if I wasn’t the guy on the wrong end of it.

After eight months of training, I was assigned to an Infantry battalion and given a platoon to lead for one year. About three-quarters of my men were older than I was, and all of them had more experience, in however way you want to understand the term. These men had me for chow, every day. It was a tough time, and I would never go back to it if it were possible.

I was nowhere near ready to be in a love relationship then, and saw few opportunities. No one knew better than I that, at least on the surface, Tunnel of Love was a long way from my reality. Yet, I remember one of the very first things I bought at the Post Exchange, or PX, was my own copy of the album on cassette. I played it nonstop until somewhere around 2000. Then I replaced it with the CD version that I have sitting in front of me as I write, which is so worn out itself that “Two Faces” doesn’t even play properly. You have to stop it and pass right on to “Brilliant Disguise.”

Which is what we’ll do now, en route to a conclusion. “Brilliant Disguise” is the first of the final four songs I mentioned earlier, which for me are the dark heart of this rich, wonderful, and sad album. The others are “One Step Up,” “When You’re Alone,” and “Valentine’s Day,” the last of which we’ll save until the end.

“Brilliant Disguise” is such a profound statement on two people exploring the vagary of love with one another that there’s almost nothing to add. Just go listen to it, or listen to it again. If you have ever loved another human being before, you can relate to Springsteen’s lines, “I want to read your mind/to know just what I’ve got in/This new thing I’ve found.” But he realizes that he is just as baffling to his partner as she is to him.

Where does that leave us? Springsteen wonders. If you have not laid down the proper foundation to build love upon, in a rather bleak and inhospitable place. My brothers and I often comment to one another about the astonishing impact of the last four lines:

Tonight our bed is cold

I’m lost in the darkness of our love

God have mercy on the man

Who doubts what he’s sure of

Every time I hear that it knocks me over. Even back in 1993, it had the same effect. It was written by a still-young man in crisis, who was in an untenable situation, an intolerable match, much like me and the U.S. Infantry. It wasn’t lost on me that, at least on the page, Springsteen had reached towards God. I was doing a lot of the same thing.

By the time you get to “One Step Up,” it’s clear the war is over, and all the listener can do is hear it flame out. It’s terrible and tragic. The mention of the furnace in the first verse that “wasn’t burning” is all you need to know. There’s a girl in a white dress, a silent church, a despondent bird.

I drove around the deep south alone, listening to this song repeatedly. “When I look at myself I don’t see/The man I wanted to be,” the voice said. I’d pull on my battle dress uniform and stand in front of a mirror. I knew I’d chosen my path. It wasn’t about that. It’s just that none of it was playing out the way I’d hoped.

I’ve already noted the lines in “When You’re Alone” that really did me in, about unexpected things knocking you down. There was that big brother again, the one who felt burned and beaten himself, but who still cared enough about those coming behind him to say: “You’re gonna find out .... that when you’re alone, you ain’t nothin’ but alone.”

By now, though, with the fight over and the battlefield a wasteland of carrion and ash, the signs of a hard-won maturity and perhaps even a tiny gleam of hope are beginning to emerge. There are no “hard feelings” moving him to sing. There’s only the tragedy and the mystery of what happened, and the storyteller’s eternal question of what will happen next.

And then there’s “Valentine’s Day.” I am still not sure I fully understand this final song. Maybe no one does. In it, our unnamed man, no longer swollen with pride or braggadocio, finds himself alone in a “big lazy car” on a “highway in the dark,” trying to find his way back to home and hearth. The lyric expresses restlessness, a “pounding” heart, perhaps an anxiety that if he doesn’t get there soon, he might lose the one person he’s desperate to locate.

Significantly, however, he never quite arrives before the album ends. The car plods on through what seems like a long and lonely night, possibly representing the endless touring cycle of a performance artist, while the man muses poignantly, even poetically about something both he and the listener seem to understand is already gone. Yet at the same time there is a longing in the voice and in the music, a kind of gentle resignation, a prayer for forgiveness. It features a low, brooding keyboard; a loping, hangdog bass line; a weary vocalist, aware of his own culpability. “Valentine’s Day” might even be considered a kind of musical apology.

And yet, there are glimpses of a future life, a vision of what one might call “better days” down the road ahead. Only the vagabond in the song is too tired, too spent to see them clearly. Describing how he heard from a friend who had just become a father, the narrator says he could “hear the light” in the man’s voice. He speaks of awakening from a dream the night before “scared and breathing,” still alive, only to witness “God’s light” streaming through the window.

Then, in one of Springsteen’s most breathtaking lyrical turns, he attempts to put a name to the unspeakable hunger filling his soul, to describe what it is that still eludes him in this baffling, unpredictable existence:

It wasn’t the cold river bottom I felt rushing over me

It wasn’t the bitterness of a dream that didn’t come true

It wasn’t the wind in the grey fields I felt rushing through my arms

No no baby it was you

Who exactly is he speaking these words to? It’s hard to know. In the end, it doesn’t much matter. He’s still a certain distance from her, whoever she is, or whoever She is. All he can do is keep going.

I remember, as a young Infantry officer, when we used to go on training exercises, for two or three weeks at a time. We’d sleep and eat in the wild and train by night and by day, usually deep in the Georgia woods, either sweating or freezing, depending on the time of year. These never went well for me. It’s hard to strain around the clock to be something you aren’t. I did my best to do what I had sworn to do, hoping my number would never be called to go fight and possibly die to defend America. It never was, and I am very fortunate. But the other soldiers ate me alive.

When these exercises would finally end, they would stuff us on these dirty military cattle-cars and shuttle us back to the main post, with all of our gear piled on our knees. Sometimes these rides took an hour or ninety minutes. They’d bring us to some ball field near headquarters, form us up again one last time, then officially “release” us for three or four days off. Often it would be around one or two o’clock in the morning.

I used to keep Tunnel of Love in my car’s tape deck when I left for those training exercises. When I got back, I’d drive home to my puny apartment, and I’d play “Valentine’s Day” on the way. Every time. I’m not even sure why I did this. I wasn’t returning to anything except my four walls.

It’s a song to lick one’s wounds by, I suppose; a song for late at night, after an ordeal has been endured and you were having a beer with a brother. It’s a mellow, somehow comforting song that acknowledged defeat but also dared to hope, to believe, in “God’s light...shining on through.” It made me feel better, that’s all I know.

At 21, in the early 90s, Tunnel of Love spoke the plain truth to my soul when I needed it. It helped me to put aside childish things, as Saint Paul wrote, and to put on the yoke, or the cross, of a young man. As a middle-aged husband and father of four, at 41, Bruce Springsteen’s brilliant and courageous album still helps me appreciate all that I have been given. I love the record for both of these things, for the plentiful return on the investment of time I’ve put in.

What kind of experience will this record be in twenty more years - or on its 50th anniversary? I hope I’m around to find out the answer, because I know Tunnel of Love will be.