Friday, October 18, 2013

Two for the Road

DT and I wrote a series of posts for the great One Week // One Band. They're all archived over there, along with an incredible number of other fantastic pieces. Here's the one I wrote about "Two for the Road."


"Two for the Road" is one of Bruce Springsteen’s shortest songs—of his officially released material, only "Held Up without a Gun," "The Big Payback" and "Johnny Bye-Bye" are shorter. (And it’d beat at least "Payback," if it didn’t have such an unusually long fadeout.) Perhaps that’s because this Tunnel of Love-era b-side is one of his relatively rare completely straightforward love songs.

Or at least so it seems. But is it?

The song opens with a sweet updating of the Carl Perkins classic, “Blue Suede Shoes,” but rather than a cautionary declaration of independence, Springsteen’s is just the opposite, a lovely invitation to his new love to join him in that most sacred of Springsteenian places: the open road.
It’s one for the money and one for the show
I got one kiss for you honey so come on let’s go
I didn’t see it coming but girl now I know
It takes one for the running but two for the road
The second verse is even sweeter, with lyrics that would almost seem to verge on greeting card territory but, thanks to the deftness of his writing, don’t actually.
One thousand dreams whispered in the dark
But a dream’s just a dream in one empty heart
It takes more than one to rev it up and go
So let’s get it running, we’re two for the road 
Two one-way tickets and a diamond ring
Hell it don’t matter what the rain might bring
When this world treats you hard and cold
I’ll stand beside you, we’re two for the road
Slight mixed metaphor aside—if they’re headed for the road, how can he can stand beside her or anyone or anything?—it’s a lovely bridge.

The final verse, too, has some slightly confused writing, with him promising to be with her in spirit when he can’t be in person… but then saying he’ll also be there in person, which doesn’t quite track. And taking into account what a considered writer Springsteen tends to be, it seems possible that the lyrical confusion is not entirely accidental. (Either that, or he decided early on it was destined to be no more than a b-side and thus not worthy of too much further revision.)
When you’re alone my love’ll shine the light
Through the dark and starless night
I’ll hold you close and never let you go
C’mon now girl ‘cause we’re two for the road
Well it’s two to get ready, babe, c’mon let’s go
Me and you, girl, we’re two for the road
Although the harmony vocal of its doubled vocal line seems to feature an early-Elvis style of reverb, and its opening paraphrases Carl Perkins, in many ways it’s Springsteen’s most Buddy Holly-like song, melodically, calling to mind songs such as “Words of Love” and “Well All Right” and, especially in what sounds almost like a celeste in the background, “Everyday.” And yet, as with so many of the songs from the Tunnel of Love era, “Two for the Road” reveals a darkness hidden in its ostensibly sweet message and by its beautiful melody and arrangement.

It’s almost always tricky to look at an artist’s work through the lens of biography, but withTunnel of Love it’s nearly unavoidable, given that upon its release Springsteen was one of the most famous people—not just in rock or entertainment, but in the entire world—married to a (then) famous young model-actress wife. His marriage had been front-page news, so when he released an entire album which dealt with the trials and tribulations of love from a mature, adult point of view, it was darn near impossible not to notice that few of the songs seemed to present long-term relationships in even an ambiguously positive light. (As DT has pointed out, the simple “Thanks Juli” in the liner notes seems especially harsh in retrospect, although I suspect that’s not even remotely what the artist intended.)

So. Is this sweet song a case of Springsteen whistling past the graveyard? Or was it written in the first blush of their whirlwind romance, and only later turned out to be a dream that became a lie because it didn’t come true? Springsteen had been writing more and more about love for the past few years, but most of the songs had a twist, such as “Hungry Heart,” wherein the singer simply walks away from a relationship he claimed he’d known from the start was doomed, even as he admits no one like to be alone, or “Working on the Highway,” where love seems to be nothing but trouble (to put it mildly—and that’s without even considering its original title of “Child Bride”…although I guess I just kinda did), or “The River,” with love’s tragic inability to survive the harsh economic realities of trying to provide for a young family in the midst of a crippling recession.

At first, “Two for the Road” seems to have little in common with any of those (although it does have a slight similarity, thematically, to “Cover Me,” where love is nothing more than the last desperate hope for refuge from an ugly world). This quiet b-side appears to take one of his most common themes, albeit one he’d been getting away from, that of running, moving, going going going. Here they’re going together, which is a sweet updating—as well as, perhaps, a callback to running away with Rosie—and which would seem to make all the difference. Until you look at the lines more closely and realize the lyrics rely on variations of “darkness” and “blindness” a disconcerting number of times, given how short the tune is. And through the singer’s insistence on getting gone, you can almost see this longtime loner, blindsided by this unexpected new relationship and the discombobulating power of his emotions, nervously tapping his foot, anxious to keep moving, unable to settle down and just let it all be. And in the context of the album, you have to wonder: is he lying to himself? Is he trying to convince himself as much as woo her? Does he even believe what he’s singing?

I tend to think he doesn’t. I also don’t care. Because while I find those questions fascinating, for the two minutes the song lasts, intellect and introspection and analysis are all out of the window. All that matters is one of Springsteen’s prettiest melodies and most tender recordings and as long as it plays, I believe it’s true love and that he’ll never ever let her go and she’ll never want him to.


The original post can be found here, along with the other amazing posts that week. And while you're there, check out their other weeks, featuring so many great pieces on so many great artists.

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